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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: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

2

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.

2.5

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Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

2.5

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47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

1.5

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Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Film

Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival

At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.

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Aquarela
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.

The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.

From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.

Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.

Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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