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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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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Film

Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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