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Understanding Screenwriting #70: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

If you followed some of the Links of the Day about The Illusionist, you may be familiar with the controversy over it.

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Understanding Screenwriting #70: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, The Company Men, Mystery Street, Le Amiche, La Dolce Vita, The Write Environment, Downton Abbey, Fairly Legal but first…

Fan Mail: First, I want to thank “Biglil,” who wrote in on US#68 to correct some factual errors in Pirate Radio. In today’s world I’m all for getting one’s facts straight, since there is so little of it going around.

Second, David Ehrenstein got the impression in my comments on The Dilemma in US#69 that I somehow had a beef with The Kids Are All Right. I don’t, as my comments in US#54 make clear. My point was that The Dilemma did not handle the mixture of comedy and drama as well as Kids and other films.

Third, in today’s bullets can’t kill it category, “Samm” insisted in a comment on US#69 they (and I am not sure what “they’” he was talking about) are all Hero’s Journey films. Sigh.

The Illusionist (2010. Screenplay by Sylvain Chomet, adapted from a screenplay by Jacques Tati. 80 minutes.)

Fools rush in: If you followed some of the Links of the Day about this film, you may be familiar with the controversy over it. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that he was reluctant to talk about the film, and he provided a link to Roger Ebert’s site, which provided more detail. The gist of it is that Tati’s grandson, Richard Tatischeff Scheil McDonald, is objecting to the film of The Illusionist because of the way Tati treated McDonald’s mother and grandmother. Tati and the grandmother were not married, and Tati left her and McDonald’s mother in Paris during the Occupation in World War II. McDonald seems to think that we judge artists by their morals. Thank goodness we don’t, or we would have to forego a lot of great art. It is very naïve to assume that great artists must be highly moral. Some of them are, but many are not. Richard Wagner was not, and neither was Picasso. Film directors are notoriously not nice people. As terrible as they could be as people, I would not want to do without the films of Hitchcock, Lang, Huston and Ford. Dorris Bowden Johnson, Rosasharon in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), once said, “John Ford was a terrible human being. But he was a great director.”

Still, Tati’s abandoning his mistress and their baby to the Occupation certainly should make us queasy, and I can understand Rosebaum’s reluctance to deal with the film. I, on the other hand, am always willing to jump into a nice murky mess like that. Part of what complicates the issue of this film is that Tati’s screenplay was written in the ‘50s as a kind of letter to the child he left behind. He was obviously working out his presumably guilty feelings about his actions. According to the material McDonald provided Ebert, which one of Ebert’s readers wisely pointed out had not been fact-checked, Tati’s original screenplay deals with an illusionist traveling in Czechoslovakia. He meets a girl in her early teens, about the age of Helga, Tati’s daughter. She believes his magic is real, and a semi-father-daughter relationship develops. A young man exposes the illusionist’s tricks to the girl, and the illusionist and the girl part ways. Tati sent the script to Helga, and he may well have meant it only as a communication to her. He never made the film, and it is interesting that he never intended to star in it himself. It might have been too painful for him to do as an actor, or he may have intended it to be more dramatic than his comic films, or comic in a different style than his. His choice of a leading man was Pierre Étaix, just starting his film career, although with a background as a gag writer and nightclub performer.

Chomet is best known for his lively 2003 animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville. He got permission from the part of the Tati estate that controls the rights (not McDonald’s branch, obviously) to develop Tati’s script as an animated film. Well, Tati was known for his near wordless slapstick comedies, so that would seem to make sense. The basic story of The Illusionist, however, does not lend itself to that sort of film. The story, in both Tati and Chomet’s version, is more drama than comedy. I have no idea how much dialogue was in Tati’s script, but there is very little in Chomet’s, and it makes the film very confusing. We want to hear what these people say to each other. In Chomet’s version, the illusionist is French, but he is touring Scotland and lands in Edinburgh, so there is a logic in not having him and the girl being able to communicate verbally. Chomet unfortunately has not provided the visual characterization that would make up for that. He has modeled the illusionist on Tati: tall, wide in the middle, deadpan face and with a loping stride. Tati got a lot out of that as a performer, but Chomet does not with his animated version. Keep in mind that Tati did not intend to play the part himself. He may have recognized that his style as an actor was not going to work. Tati as a director worked more with long shots than closeups (with Tati’s body you want to see all of it), but this is a story that demands closeups. Chomet’s girl is bland, and we get none of the character animation with her that we got in Triplets of Belleville. There are one or two scenes (the illusionist working in a garage, and then later as a department store window model) that suggest classical Tati, but they are not central to the story, and Chomet’s animation is not up to Tati’s movement. Late in the picture, the characters are in a theater and we get a clip from Tati’s 1958 Mon Oncle. Chomet does himself no favors there.

The best thing about the film is the least Tati-ian thing about it. My wife, who spent time in Edinburgh in her youth, came out of the theater humming the backgrounds. Both the Scottish Highlands and the cityscapes are beautifully drawn. On the other hand, I have never seen as many buses in one film as we get here. My wife assures me that Edinburgh was like that in the ‘50s.

No Strings Attached (2011. Screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether, story by Mike Samonek and Elizabeth Meriwether. 108 minutes.)

It’s not Nora or Nancy: This is a so-so rom-com. The story may not seem that fresh to you. Boy and girl meet at summer camp, then again in college and yet again when they are young professionals. One is now a doctor doing a residency, the other a television production assistant hoping to become a writer. Because of their busy schedules, they agree to have sex with “no strings attached,” i.e., “fuck buddy”/“friends with benefits” sex. It’s so common in movies we have all these terms for it. And we know what is going to happen. In spite of their insistence they won’t, one of them falls in love with the other and complications ensue. Needless to say, they get together in the end. So why should we watch?

The doctor is the woman. And the production assistant is the guy. Well, that might be interesting for about a minute and a half. But the doctor is not what you would expect from a “woman screenwriter.” If this were a Nora Ephron script, Emma would be a neurotic ditz who loves food and whom we are encouraged to find “cute.” Emma is not neurotic and she is not a ditz. She eats fast food, when she can be reminded to eat. She is cute (Natalie Portman, given a lot more to do than she did in Black Swan), but not “cute.” Nor is this a Nancy Myers script. Emma does not live in a big house with a kitchen the size of James Cameron’s ego. Emma is a very modern professional woman, focused on her work. She lives in an apartment with three other residents, two of them women, the third a gay man. As happens when women live together, their menstrual cycles end up in synch, with even the gay guy having sympathetic pains. Which leads to the best joke in the film: Adam creates a “period mix tape” for Emma, with such songs as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The two other women residents are not ditzes either, but just as professional as Emma. The closest we have to a woman ditz in the script is Lucy, Adam’s supervisor, and she is too smart and hardworking to be a ditz. She is something of a flake, however, and Lake Bell, who plays her is getting back at Nancy Myers (see my comments on It’s Complicated in US#39), by showing that she has real comics chops. When it looks like Adam may get together with her, we are rather torn. Emma is appealing in her own tough way, but Lucy has her charms.

One of the truisms of the screenwriting business is that men often have trouble writing women characters and women have trouble writing male characters. Meriwether’s Adam is a little too perfect. He is handsome (Ashton Kutcher, beginning to grow up), not neurotic at all, and just devoted to Emma. He never puts a foot wrong, which gets a little annoying. Would a real guy make a period mix tape? It’s a funny idea, but still. He also has some buddies he hangs out with but they are standard-issue buds. The most interesting male character is Alvin, Adam’s father, a former TV star. He is something of a lech and spends most of the film with Adam’s previous girlfriend, a British tart named Vanessa. This upsets Adam, which I think is supposed to show his dark side, but it’s more logical than neurotic.

In addition to the fact we see where the story is going, it doesn’t get there in a particularly fresh way. In the summer we are scheduled to get Friends With Benefits and we will see if the writers of that one (Will Gluck, Keith Merryman, and David A. Newman) handle similar material in a better way. That one will have Mila Kunis as Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake as Ashton Kutcher.

From Prada to Nada (2011. Screenplay by Fina Torres & Luis Alfaro and Craig Frenandez, “From” the novel Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. 107 minutes.)

Menos Clueless: As you may remember from US#32 and #33, I am a fan of Austen’s novel and films made from it, particularly the 1995 version that Emma Thompson wrote. So I couldn’t resist when this Latino version was sneaked into theaters. After all, if Amy Heckerling could transpose Emma into the Beverly Hills high school world of Clueless (1995), why not Sense in East Los Angeles? Unfortunately, as Spanish readers already learned from the snarky sub-head, this one is less than Clueless.

The setup is that Garbriel Dominguez Sr., an apparently well-to-do resident of Beverly Hills, dies, leaving two daughters, Nora and Mary. (Their mother died years ago, so no Latina Mrs. Dashwood.) He also left them with no money, since he had huge debts. There is also a son he had by another woman before he married their mother, and the son and his bitchy white wife Olivia (the equivalent of Fanny Dashwood) take over the house in an unclear bit of plotting. They intend to remodel and sell it to pay the debts. Nora is the Elinor of the story, Mary the Marianne, although she is closest to Cher in Clueless in her devotion to shopping. So instead of a nice cottage out in the country, the girls go off to live with their aunt in Latino East L.A. In Clueless, Heckerling found the closed society of a snobby upper class high school a perfect fit for the limitations of Austen’s world. The Latino culture the girls move into is much more free and lively. The writers could have solved the problem by making the aunt, Aurelia, a more conservative and restricting person, but she is just generally nice and helpful. Great in real life but less so in drama.

Nora wants to be a lawyer and has blinders on about that, which matches reasonably well at the beginning with Elinor. Her Edward Ferrars is Edward Ferris, Olivia’s brother. He hires her as a legal assistant at his law firm, but they admit their love in the middle of the film, and she ends up leaving the law firm and setting up a legal counseling service in the barrio. Wait a minute, she’s not a lawyer yet. Isn’t this practicing law without a license? And as a law student shouldn’t she know this, especially if she is that smart? Edward then gets engaged to a friend of Olivia’s, but writers here do not get him out of it in the interesting way Austen does. He just shows up at the end of the film and tells Nora he’s not engaged. In a tribute to Thompson, he does indeed say “My heart is and always will be yours.” You may remember the line is not in Austen. It’s cute here, rather than heart-stopping the way it is in the 1995 film.

Mary meanwhile has fallen in love with her “Willoughby,” a college teaching assistant, while not paying attention to the writers’ most inventive variation from Austen. Their “Colonel Brandon” is a younger guy whom Mary first takes to be a gangbanger. He fixes car mirrors without telling her, and then he turns out to be a budding artist who teaches painting to kids. A much better match for Mary than Colonel Brandon would have been.

One of the writers of the screenplay, Luis Alfaro, is much better known as a playwright. His version of Sophocles’s Electra, the 2005 play Electricidad, shows a much more vivid view of East L.A. than we get here. In addition to the aunt being all-purpose good, the other Latino characters are not as well defined as they need to be. In Electricidad, Alfaro uses several residents as a Greek chorus, but the friends of the aunt here just hang around. I have no idea if Alfaro’s work on the screenplay was softened by others, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. The 2002 film Real Women Have Curves has better drawn characters and a sharper view of life in East L.A. It deals with life in a garment-sewing sweatshop as more than just a quick joke that this film does.

Still, From Prada to Nada is not worthless. There are a few good jokes, and Camilla Belle is charming as Nora, given the limitations of the writing. Alexa Vega, whom you may remember as Carmen in the Spy Kids movies, is now all grown up and has some good comic chops. Like Kate Winslet, Marianne in the 1995 version, Vega steals a bunch of scenes from her elders. One flaw in the acting is April Bowlby as Olivia. It is a thankless part, and the writing makes her a one-note bitch (as opposed to Thompson making Fanny a two-note bitch). Bowlby was great as Kandi on Two and a Half Men, but outright bitchery does not seem to be within her range.

The Company Men (2010. Written by John Wells. 104 minutes.)

Not airborne: This film premiered at Sundance a year ago and only just got into theaters in late 2010. The reason for the delay is obvious: the distributors were trying to avoid Up in the Air (2009; see US#37). And with good reason. The films have a similar subject (people being fired in corporate downsizing), and Up in the Air handles it much better. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, working off Walter Kirn’s novel, found a unique way to deal with the subject: follow the guy who is hired to go around firing people. We hadn’t seen that character before. Nor had we seen the young woman business grad who accompanies him. Both of those characters, and the woman he has the romance with, are fully developed characters with all kinds of interesting edges. So we focus on them, but we also get short bits of (real-life) interviews with some of the people being fired. Those bits are used as a counterpoint to the story, and the story a counterpoint to them so they do not become monotonous and depressing.

Wells takes a more literal approach. We follow three executives, each of whom is fired from the same company over the course of the film. The first is hot-shot sales guy Bobby Walker. He is the one who cannot believe he was fired, even after it happens. He is in denial for a long time. The second is Phil Woodard, who gets depressed and kills himself. The third is Gene McClary, who eventually realizes he can become a consultant and sets up his own firm. Wells has not made any of these characters as distinctive and individual as Reitman and Turner made theirs. Once you get a sense of what each one is like, they behave true to form. One small exception is Gene, who turns out to be having an affair with Sally Wilcox, the legal affairs person who is handling the firings. But she is not particularly well drawn either. We are not surprised when she shows up in Gene’s new office and tells him she thinks she is going to be fired as well. The wives of the men are also standard issue.

By focusing on the men who were fired, the film becomes very repetitive. Any new job Bobby tries to get does not work out, until he joins Gene at the end. We are supposed to get a sense that Bobby has opened up a bit as a result of this experience, but we get that in a very conventional touch-football scene with him and people he’s met who are trying to find work as well. I kept waiting for something fresh, and it never came.

The company that Gene founds at the end is supposed to be a consulting company, but it appears to be developing into a shipbuilding company. The company they were fired from was downsizing their shipbuilding division, so what makes Gene and the others think they can make a go of it? Especially in these times. And what bank is going to finance them? Part of our current economic problem is that banks and financial institutions are hoarding money rather than investing it. What Wells sees as a happy ending strikes me as a real pie-in-the-sky idea.

Mystery Street (1950. Screenplay by Sidney Boehm and Richard Brooks, from a story by Leonard Spigelgass. 94 minutes.)

No Grissom, no Horatio, no Bonasera: A pregnant bar girl gets herself killed and several months later her skeleton is found on a beach by a birdwatcher. What do the cops do? Well, they call in the CSI gang. Except this is 1950 and there are no CSI units, no DNA searches, no multi-colored equipment (we are in black and white after all), so who are you going to call? Well, if the beach is out on Cape Cod, why not try a Harvard professor of legal medicine who has begun to apply some science to criminal investigations? So the cops box up, no literally, they put all the bones in a cardboard box, and take them off to Dr. McAdoo. Even though it’s only 1950, he can tell them the skeleton belongs to a woman of a certain age and height, and that she probably was a ballet dancer once.

Leonard Spigelgass, who wrote the story for this, had been around Hollywood since the introduction of sound. Sidney Boehm was a terrific writer of films noir, as we saw in US#30 when we talked about his script for The Undercover Man the year before this one. He went on to write The Big Heat (1953) and Violent Saturday (1955) among others. Richard Brooks was just about to turn to directing, including such films as In Cold Blood (1967). So you know you are in good hands here. The introduction, where we meet the bar girl (Jan Stirling, in a warmup for her Lorraine “Kneeling bags my nylons” Mimosa the following year) and follow her to her death, seems a little slow to us now. That’s only because we are used to the discovery of the body in the pre-credit scenes on CSI. Boehm and Brooks are carefully setting up a lot of plot details, especially ones that will make it seem as though Henry Shanway is the murderer. They are also giving us the girl’s landlady, Mrs. Smerrling (the great Elsa Lanchester), who will complicate matters. And since this is one of those pseudo-message B-pictures that studio head of production Dore Schary was doing at MGM, the lead detective is a Portuguese-American who has to deal with a smidgen of racism.

Yes, you can look at it as a forerunner of CSI, but it is also a terrific film. And if that does not seal the deal for you, this is the film that John Sturges’s direction on The Capture (1950; see US#61) got him as a tryout at MGM. And if that is still not enough for you, the cinematographer was the greatest of all the film noir cameramen, John Alton, at the height of his powers.

Le Amiche (1955. Screenplay by Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Michaelangelo Antonioni and the collaboration of Alba De Cespedes, “freely inspired” by the story “Tre Donne Sole” in the book La Bella Estate by Cesare Pavese. Original running time 104 minutes, US cut 95 minutes, DVD cut 100 minutes.)

Italians, parte una: This early directorial effort by Antonioni showed up on DVD last year, and one reviewer described it somewhat facetiously as the neorealist version of Sex and the City. It is done near the end of the neorealist period (we do get several street scenes in Turin), and it is about a group of women and their romantic problems. There is of course more to do it than that. What it is not, however, is much of a forerunner to the later, great Antonioni films. It is very much what was called in those days a “woman’s picture” and it certainly does not have the light touch of all of the Sex and the City variations.

The film starts a lot faster than any other Antonioni movie you ever saw. Clelia, who has come from Rome to her hometown of Turin to open a branch of a fashionable store, is in her hotel room getting ready to go to work. The maid comes in and says the room next door is locked to the outside. The maid goes through the connecting door and discovers Rosetta has overdosed on pills. Clelia meets Rosetta’s friends, including Momina, a rich woman who has many affairs; Nene, a ceramic artist in love with Lorenzo, a painter; Mariella, a flirt; and Rosetta herself, who survives the suicide attempt. Rosetta is in love with Lorenzo, who says he will leave Nene but really won’t. As in later Antonioni films, the men tend to be rather enervated, especially in comparison to the women. The film takes these women and their problems seriously.

What sets it apart from other women’s pictures of the time is Clelia. She is focused on her job, although she does develop an attraction to Carlo, the assistant to the architect remodeling the store. The other women point out that Carlo is rather lower class. When she goes for a walk with Carlo through the less picturesque sections of Turin, we discover she was born in the area and has worked her way up. She decides to go back to Rome rather than stay with Carlo in Turin, and her reason is surprising, especially for a 1955 film. She tells him that “Working is my way of being a woman.” This may be why, even though they have cast the queen of lurid neorealist films of the time, Eleonora Rossi Drago, as Clelia, she is not allowed to be sexy in the part. Yes, the film is forward looking enough to give us a woman who lives through her work, but not forward enough to imagine, as No Strings Attached at least manages to do, that a working woman might be willing to have a little on the side.

La Dolce Vita (1960. Story and Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, and Tullio Pinelli, script collaboration by Brunello Rondi. 174 minutes.)

Italians, parte due: La Dolce Vita was a sensation in its day. It was loved and hated by the Italian critics and audiences, and it was one of the top-grossing Italian films of its era. It was equally argued about by critics in other countries, including America, where it became one of the top-grossing Italian films until then. It was written about then and since as much as any other legendary film, and both its title and the name Fellini gave to a photographer, Paparazzo, have become part of the cultural language.

Looking at it today from the standpoint of screenwriting, two elements stand out. The first is that for an episodic film, it has a structural unity that most episodic films do not have. This came from the way the script developed (according to Hollis Alpert’s biography Fellini: A Life). The first inklings of what became La Dolce Vita came from Fellini’s idea of making a film about his days as a young journalist in Rome. By 1958 he was an acclaimed filmmaker, noted primarily for La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957), two neorealist classics. He had developed a script earlier about his early days in Rome, but he realized Rome had changed by the late ‘50s with the arrival of Hollywood filmmakers making such films as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). With them came what were just then being called “the jet set.” So Fellini and his writers decided that the journalist should be in his mid-‘30s and covering “the sweet life” of the celebrity society. Marcello is the one through-character who appears from beginning to end. We not only watch what he watches, but we see him change. At first he is just a journalist, but then we find out he has ambitions to write serious books. He is encouraged in this by Steiner, an intellectual, who is the first person to ask him about the book he is supposed to be writing. Marcello attends an intellectual salon at Steiner’s apartment, a scene that always struck me as a little contrived, like a non-intellectual’s idea of what intellectuals sit around doing. After the salon Marcello goes off to the beach to work on his book. At least in the English subtitles we never learn what kind of book it is, although some sources say it is a novel. Steiner has seemed a happy man, with a wife and two children, but he suggests to Marcello that he is not content. In the next to the last major sequence Marcello learns that Steiner has killed himself and his children, and Marcello must help the police tell his wife. When she comes home via bus, Paparazzo and the other photographers swarm all over her. In the final episode, we learn that Marcello has given up not only the book, but his job as a journalist. He is now writing publicity about the kind of people he has previously reported on, and he is just as decadent as they are. Marcello’s arc, to use the Hollywood term for it, gives the film a unity it might not seem to have upon first viewing, helped enormously by Marcello Mastroianni’s great performance.

The second screenwriting element that stands out is that, unlike most episodic films, all the episodes are interesting. Sometimes that comes from the visuals, as in the famous opening scene of a statue of Jesus being carried by a helicopter past ancient Roman walls and over the modern city. Sometimes that comes from the satirical elements, as in the sequence with the visiting movie star, Sylvia, played by Anita Ekberg. That sequence, by the way, seems the most modern of all the sequences, with Paparazzo and the others of his ilk behaving no differently than they do today. Other sequences focus on characters, as in the sweet, sad sequence of Marcello and his father, who has come to town on business. There are also poetic moments in many of the sequences, as in the party at the house of a group of society people. The society folk live up to the comment of someone going into the house that the parties there are like funerals. The final orgy is rather tame by our standards (trust me, it was not in its day), but you still will not be able to look at feathers and fur wraps the same way after you see the film.

The Write Environment (2008 – 2011, Created by Jeffrey Berman. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Public Television, take one: Early this January, KCET, a Los Angeles public television station started running this series of interviews with screenwriters. Berman is particularly interested in writers of comics (he later did a similar series on comic book writers), and so he focuses on writers of comic book-type films and TV shows. In the first episode he interviews Joss Whedon, spending most of the time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Dollhouse (2009-2010). In the second, the interviewee is Tim Kring, and Berman spends much more time on Heroes (2006-2010) than he did on Kring’s more adult show, Crossing Jordan (2001-2007). The questions are fairly standard issue, and Berman does not dig that deeply. For example, he blithely accepts Whedon’s long-disputed claim that he wrote most of Speed (1994). Now you would think that a public television station might come up with something a little more serious, especially a station in Los Angeles (their studios are in East Hollywood).

For all of its forty years of existence, KCET has never made much of a connection with Hollywood. Partly it is they cannot afford to pay Hollywood prices (neither can indie film producers), partly it is that the bureaucracy in public television is worse than Hollywood’s, and partly it was simply that the leadership did not do it. I noticed when I watched the first two episodes of this show that even though it was being broadcast in 2011, it seemed to have been made several years before. Whedon, for example, talks about Dollhouse as though it was not yet on the air. A check of the IMDb shows that the series was produced in 2008. So why its KCET running it now?

In late 2010, KCET decided to split from the Public Broadcasting System. There was an ongoing dispute about fees, in which both the mandarins at PBS and Al Jerome, the head of KCET, behaved like idiots. They never came to an agreement, and as of January 1st, KCET became an independent public television station, losing access to the cream of the PBS shows. They have replaced them with old (Prime Suspect reruns) or second-rate (The Write Environment) material and botched setting up a new news unit. The station’s ratings have dropped by about half.

Downton Abbey (2011. Episodes one and two written by Julian Fellowes, episode three written by Julian Fellowes and Shelagh Stevenson, episode four written by Julian Fellowes and Tina Pepler. Each episode 90 minutes.)

Public Television, take two: More than one local Los Angeles television critic noted that KCET’s timing in leaving the Public Broadcasting System was abysmal. KCET went indie on January 1st, and on January 9th, PBS’s Masterpiece Classic started the four-episode run of Downton Abbey, a huge hit in England. In the Southern California area, the PBS shows were picked up by KOCE in Orange County, and they got off to a rousing start.

How good is Downton Abbey? I intended to take notes and do a full write-up of the series, but I got so hooked so quickly I never had time to pick up a pen. So I apologize if this item is not up to my usual standard. The show is created by Julian Fellowes, an actor and writer best known for his screenplay for Gosford Park (2001). According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, producer Gareth Neame asked Fellowes if he wanted to return to the world of Gosford Park, but Fellowes decided on an earlier period. The show begins in 1912 and ends in 1914. Fellowes was interested in a time close enough to our own where there were recognizable elements (telephones, electricity, votes for women), but that was also a time of change (telephones, electricity, votes for women).

Episode one begins with word that the Titanic has sunk. Look at how Fellowes uses that to take us into the life of a very grand English country house. Robert, the Earl of Grantham, the head of the family, is upset that two relatives have died on the ship. One of them was supposed to marry his eldest daughter Mary and keep the estate in family hands, a plotline that extends to the end of the four episodes. But note that Robert also has a moment of sympathy for those below decks who perished. I was about to reach for my pen when we began to get all the other characters introduced, and we hear reactions from those both upstairs and downstairs. Characters that we assume are certain types turn out to have all kinds of interesting backgrounds and secrets. Fortunately Fellowes does not have to deal with Altman as a director here, so we do not get the standard-issue Altman undercutting of the characters. Fellowes gives all the characters their dignity, even in moments when they might be expected to lose it.

The majority of the four episodes are taken up with trying to find a husband for Mary. The obvious choice is a very distant relative, Matthew Crawley, but he is a bit of a modern fellow and really has no desire to take over the running of Downton Abbey. He and Mary sometimes seem on the verge of getting together and then equally on the verge of not getting together. There are two other sisters, Sybil, who is interested in politics, and Edith, who seems willing to take any of the men Mary or Sybil’s castoff men. The downstairs characters are just as richly drawn, and we get involved in the maid Anna’s interest in the new valet, Mr. Bates, who served with the Earl in the Boer War. By the fourth episode she uses a trip to London to find out, a) he had confessed to stealing the regimental silver in the army, and b) he did it to protect his wife, who committed the theft. There is a Mrs. Bates?

And about then, during a garden party in the summer of 1914, the Earl gets a message that war has started. Fade out. But, but, what about Mrs. Bates? What about a husband for Mary? What about Maggie Smith, playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham; will Fellowes and the writers ever be able to write a line that Dame Maggie cannot get a laugh with?

The best news I had all month was the simple white on black title after the fade out: “A second series of Downton Abbey is now in production.”

Fairly Legal (2011. “Pilot” written by Michael Sardo. 60 minutes.)

Get your finger out of your mouth, baby: I almost did not watch this new show. It sounded at least a little fresh: Kate Reed has given up being a lawyer and become a mediator. We haven’t had one of those before. But on the day it premiered I was working on a column most of the afternoon. It will not surprise you to learn that I have a window open on the IMDb when I am writing this column. Every time I went back to it, at the top was an ad for the show, with a shot of its star, Sarah Shahi, looking seductive with a finger in her mouth. Well, crap, who needs another seductive lawyer?

Fortunately I overcame my aversion to infantilizing smart women and watched the show. Shahi did not put her finger in her mouth once in the episode, and the character Sardo has created for her is smart, charming (but not seductive), and sensitive (to others; that’s what makes her a great mediator). On her way to work from her late father’s boat, where she lives, she stops in at a coffee shop just as it is being robbed. She mediates the robbery, with the robbery getting $17.50 in beer and beef jerky and the storeowner not losing his money or his life. And you believe it, a credit to both Sardo and Shahi.

Kate gets assigned cases from the courts, but she is also dealing with her stepmom, who is not all that much older than Kate and is a smarter lawyer herself, a little colder (but not too much) than Kate. They are obviously going to have to negotiate running the firm set up by Kate’s dad, who has just passed away. In the second episode, “Priceless,” also written by Sardo, the will of the dad is read and the estate is divided four ways: Kate, stepmom Lauren, Kate’s brother Steve, and…David Smith. Who is David Smith? Neither of the three know. I’m staying tuned.

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: The Rhythm Section Is Gonna Get You with Self-Seriousness

The film’s occasional gestures toward pseudo-feminist empowerment only compound the hollowness of its protagonist.

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The Rhythm Section
Photo: Paramount Pictures

The premise of Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section is oriented more toward comedy than suspense. Its protagonist, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), is a civilian who’s dragged into a network of spies and turncoats, tasked with tracking down an anonymous terrorist despite her manifest lack of training and innate pluck in anything to do with intelligence or wetwork. The potential for great parody is certainly high as she bumbles across the globe making a thorough mess of things. But the film, adapted by Mark Burnell from his own novel, plays the material with fatal severity, starting with the fact that Stephanie is drawn to the case because the terrorist in question orchestrated a plane bombing that claimed the lives of her entire family, condemning her to a life of drug addiction and prostitution.

Morano, directing her third feature, brings her experience as a cinematographer with a considerable knack for spotlighting the bleakness and grittiness of people’s lives to bear on early scenes of Stephanie at rock bottom. Close-ups of the woman’s face emphasize her jaundiced complexion and the purple blemishes that mark her skin like craters on the moon. These harsh, desaturated images convey the psychological toll of Stephanie’s loss, but they also feel like the latest iterations of the hackneyed cliché of actresses being uglified for the sake of prestige, a ruination meant to suggest the horror of seeing an attractive woman lose her beauty. Similarly, Stephanie’s moments of drug-induced escape are shot in that woozy, soft-focus style that’s been the pat standard for depicting drug trips for decades on screen.

The woman is saved from this downward spiral by Keith (Raza Jaffrey), a reporter who’s uncovered evidence that the plane crash that killed her family was indeed a terrorist bombing, despite official reports to the contrary. Why a reporter who put multiple locks on his apartment door out of paranoia would go out of his way to involve the relative of some of the victims in his investigation into a potential conspiracy, particularly a woman whose drug addictions and trauma make her a wild card, is nothing short of baffling. Sure enough, filling such a loose cannon with sudden dreams of revenge only manages to get the man killed within hours, leaving Stephanie to try to pick up the pieces of his investigation by reaching out to his anonymous source, ultimately revealed to be ex-MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Jude Law).

The initial scenes centered around Boyd as he hides out near a Scottish loch suggest that The Rhythm Section might just become something of a dark comedy. Inexplicably, Boyd decides to weaponize Stephanie’s desire for vengeance, leading to a two-for-the-price-of-one montage in which he both cures her of her addictions through exercise and trains her in the basics of combat. Thus every moment of breakdown and perseverance is made doubly important, and Boyd’s harassing taunts to a woman he just met are played as tough-love encouragement. All of this is ridiculous, and for a moment it seems intentionally so when Boyd tests his new protégée’s skills and immediately humiliates her because no one can realistically become an unstoppable killer after only a few weeks’ worth of intense jogging and target practice.

It’s then that Boyd puts Stephanie “into the field” to track down the terrorist responsible for the bombing, sending her on a globetrotting venture to interrogate and kill rogue intelligence agents, bomb-makers, and other nefarious types. Along the way, her attempts at clandestine action and roleplay and committing assassinations are executed so disastrously that she makes Inspector Clouseau look like George Smiley. At one point, Morano shoots a chase in a single take from the passenger seat of a car that Stephanie steals in Tangier and races through narrow streets, plowing through so many vegetable carts and trash bins that, were it not for the film’s mirthlessness, the destruction could pass as a parody of movie car chases.

So much of the film feels retrograde, right down to the obligatory Islamophobia, though it’s some kind of progress that the unknown Muslim terrorist is described by one of his connections (Sterling K. Brown) as only being driven by greed, committing atrocities “for profit, not the prophet.” The Rhythm Section, with its clumsy heroine, unintriguing mystery, and absurd plotting, shouldn’t be the self-serious bore that it is. Its occasional gestures toward pseudo-feminist empowerment only compound what a hollow protagonist Stephanie is, forcing a chaotic, unskilled character into a thematic role as ill-fitting as her new occupation.

Cast: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Max Casella, Daniel Mays, Geoff Bell Director: Reed Morano Screenwriter: Mark Burnell Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: Paramount Pictures min Rating: 110 Year: 2020

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

The attractional dimensions of Roger Deakins’s work will have no problem finding favor with today’s Oscar voters.

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

Given how late 1917 entered the Oscar conversation, it’s only natural that now is the time, less than two weeks before the big night, that more than just Film Twitter is shifting from talking about how 1917 is “like a video game” to whether or not that association is a pejorative. We have our opinions, but as this is a prediction article above all else and, well, it’s almost lunch and I want to get some time in with Outer Wilds, let’s keep this simple. Roger Deakins’s mastery of light and shadow is certainly evident throughout 1917, but the acclaim for his work here is largely centered around the technical artistry of the film, for the way it summons a raw immediacy. And that artistry is part of a trend that’s been consistently awarded in this category for the last decade and can be traced to Emmanuel Lubezki’s work with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, especially on the former’s Children of Men and the latter’s Birdman. Which is to say that the attractional dimensions of Deakins’s work will have no problem finding favor with a wide swath of Oscar voters.

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: The Irishman

Should Win: The Lighthouse

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Review: New York, New York Movingly Wrestles with the Legacy of the Musical

New York, New York, like most Martin Scorsese films, is about the trials and glories of making art.

3.5

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New York, New York
Photo: Park Circus

With 1977’s New York, New York, director Martin Scorsese took the formulas of classic 1940s and ‘50s American movie musicals and infused them with his private obsessions. The film is a fascinating hybrid of vintage and modern aesthetics. Its sets are deliberately artificial, with streets wide enough to serve as readymade stages and cityscapes that are painterly and geometrically perfect. The crowd shots are clearly choreographed, and they’re captured in swooping dolly and tracking shots that are so virtuosic as to be subjects in themselves. Opening on V-J Day, Scorsese immediately mounts an epic blow-out set piece, as Americans celebrate the figurative end of World War II, as the camera takes us from the streets into a vast ballroom overseen by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. For a few minutes, it seems as if Scorsese is going to offer a more or less “straight” cover of the MGM and Warner Bros. musicals that he adores, giving the audience a nostalgic bath.

One element is at odds with these theatrics: the character of Jimmy Doyle, who’s played by Robert De Niro in his alienating ‘70s-era weirdo mode. It’s often said that New York, New York is an attempt on Scorsese’s part to bridge fantastic sets and songs with a realistic acting style, but there’s nothing conventionally realistic about most of De Niro’s performances for Scorsese, especially in their collaborations from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Darting into Scorsese’s intoxicating compositions, Jimmy moves with fervent speed, like Johnny Boy and Travis Bickle before him. Jimmy also has a one-track mind, and his aggressive insatiability for attention, underscored by a loud blue NYC Hawaiian shirt, stokes our unease. A dreamy epic has apparently been rested on the shoulders of a lout, which turns out to only be partially true.

The heroes of so many American musicals—as played by the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and so on—had aggressive streaks. Those films were often built around elaborate sexual manipulations, but their characters were charmers, testaments to America’s grifting spirit. De Niro doesn’t usually do charm. At this point in his career, the actor was occupied with aggression and masochism above all other human qualities; even in his greatest performances of this era, he essentially acted against himself. (An exception is his weirdly touching rapport with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.) As Jimmy initially drives the plot of New York, New York, one can’t entirely tell if the protagonist’s brashness is meant to be endearing, and this leaves a hole in the film’s first half, as we don’t enjoy the central meet cute as we do in even routine musicals. When Jimmy tries to pick up Francine Evans (Liza Minelli), a tension emerges: He’s a creep and she knows it, but he gradually wears her down.

Scorsese is often discussed as a visual maestro, but he’s always loved verbal acrobatics too, especially arias of repetitive, literate absurdism that suggest profane variations of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine. The early portions of New York, New York are often devoted to Jimmy and Francine’s bickering, which is mildly amusing until it grows hostile. This is one ‘70s influence on the film, as the emotional violence of the relationship isn’t euphemistic. There’s a relatively lighthearted moment where Jimmy, a jazz pianist, is failing to impress a nightclub manager (Dick Miller). The manager wants something lighter, where Jimmy plays aggressively as an extension of his eager-to-prove-himself personality. Francine steps in and begins to sing with him, softening Jimmy’s playing in the process, which becomes a lovely metaphor for her effect on him and for what she must see in him, in the tradition of many women inexplicably drawn to abusive, self-absorbed men: She has a hero complex.

Watching the first half of New York, New York, it’s easy to understand the film’s reputation as a strange disappointment. It’s perverse to build a glitzy musical on a dysfunctional relationship, and Scorsese’s direction lacks the sprightliness of the movies he’s emulating. He’s as obsessive as De Niro, and he’s striving for a masterpiece, stretching scenes out, trying to unearth shards of emotional truth, all against the glorious old-school backdrops. (A couple of snow vistas are straight of Swing Time and Meet Me in St. Louis.) The disjunction between tone and style engages the intellect rather than the heart, especially as Jimmy and Francine’s relationship is driven to the breaking point by her pregnancy and his drinking and drugging and infidelity.

As Jimmy’s career falters while Francine’s skyrockets, New York, New York achieves an astonishing clarity. What Scorsese is truly striving for is a remake of A Star Is Born, the greatest version of which featured Minelli’s mother, Judy Garland. At first, Minnelli is a poignantly vulnerable foil for De Niro’s thrashing about, but she gradually takes over the narrative, and the film splinters into various cinematic realities. Francine’s ascension as a movie star is dramatized via one long and brilliant sequence, the inter-movie “Happy Endings” number in which she plays a character who mirrors her own rags-to-riches story and own heartbreak over a man who can’t handle it. The sequence fuses multiple songs, multiple dance styles, offering many movies-within-movies to suggest nesting legacies of bullied women who transcended their caddish yet pitiful men. It’s even more powerful for the tonal noodling of the film’s first half, as we needed to feel Francine/Liza’s repression in order to revel in her rebirth.

An auto-critical element inevitably slips into New York, New York, imbuing it with primordial power. The film is less about Jimmy and Francine than Scorsese’s need to work with Minelli and wrestle with the legacies of her parents. (Vincente Minelli, her father, directed Garland in various musicals, including Meet Me in St. Louis.) Scorsese needs to know if he can give Minelli a vehicle worthy of all of them, and this anxiety, this need to prove oneself, is mirrored by Jimmy’s fear of being less of an artist than Francine, which is particularly embodied by an extraordinary moment in which Jimmy leaves Francine and their boy forever in a hospital.

In the “Happy Endings” sequence, Scorsese takes A Star Is Born and crosses it with the free-associational dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain, fashioning a hall of mirrors that reflects female agency and male inadequacy. Scorsese’s films have always had a deep awe and terror of women, and here Scorsese transcends that fear to give Minelli the film she’s earned and the pedestal she has been too often denied. Belting out “New York, New York,” Francine/Liza capture the glories of singing in your own voice, of being allowed to be heard and in believing in what you’re saying, and discovering that your most unlikely fantasies of your talent might be true. But Jimmy co-wrote the song, and so it’s the one child that he and Francine had that he could acknowledge. The song is their merging, their relationship boiled down to its collaborative best. This unwieldy, ultimately quite moving musical epic is essentially about the creation of one song, and the pain that was required to forge it. In other words, New York, New York, like most Scorsese films, is about the trials and glories of making art.

Cast: Liza Minelli, Robert De Niro, Lionel Stander, Barry Primus, Mary Kay Place, Georgie Auld, Dick Miller, Clarence Clemons Director: Martin Scorsese Screenwriter: Earl Mac Rauch, Mardik Martin Distributor: Park Circus Running Time: 163 min Rating: PG Year: 1977 Buy: Video

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to score nominations, though the former’s omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the year’s best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by what’s absent than what’s present.

Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel’s contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installment’s “We Belong Together.” Cynthia Erivo’s all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldn’t be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academy’s drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen II’s “Let It Go II.”

However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disney’s top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketman’s peppy closing number “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.

Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

Could Win: “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II

Should Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

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Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole

Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.

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Kantemir Balagov
Photo: Kino Lorber

The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.

Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.

When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.

In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?

Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.

Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?

I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.

You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?

They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.

Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?

I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.

Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?

I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.

It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?

The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.

Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?

That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.

It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.

Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.

Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?

No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.

The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?

Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.

The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?

Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.

It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.

Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.

What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.

I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.

How so?

People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.

You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?

As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.

In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?

It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.

Don’t put that pressure on me!

I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.

I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.

That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.

So variation is what you hope for?

Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.

Translation by Sasha Korbut

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Review: José Vividly, If Long-Windededly, Regards Two Lovers in Limbo

Li Cheng gets much closer to capturing his characters’ predicaments when he trusts the images alone.

2.5

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José
Photo: Outsider Pictures

With José, Chinese-born filmmaker Li Cheng reminds us that, in certain cultures, apps like Grindr aren’t mere shortcuts to instant gratification, among many, but the only possible way for gay men to experience the pleasures of sex and affection, however briefly. And brief is exactly what these experiences are in the film, as the parallel life that the internet allows José (Enrique Salanic) to lead isn’t sustainable from any angle.

Indeed, everything conspires against longevity in the Guatemala City of Cheng’s film. From the owner of the sex motel that José frequents with his lover, Luis (Manolo Herrera), knocking on their door to remind them that their hour is up, to his religious mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) calling him mid-sex to come home, as well as the economically dire straits of the area, which pull men away from their partners in search of a more promising elsewhere.

This may be the strongest coincidence between José and the women who surround him: his co-worker, Monica (Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez); his grandmother (Alba Irene Lemus); and his mother. Though these women presumably didn’t need to engage in clandestine love affairs, they all seem destined to the same aftermath of abandonment. But the taboo around gayness cuts short potentially healing inter-generational exchanges around the fact that to love men today is to mourn their desertion tomorrow.

At one point in this small, beautifully shot film, José asks his grandma what happened to his grandfather, and she tells him that one day he just left and never came back. This will be José’s story, too, as the young man refuses to leave his mother behind to run away with Luis. But there’s no language, or space, to talk about love here, gay or otherwise. José listens and grieves alone, as laconic with the women in his life as he is with Luis and his other lovers.

José is at times marred by stiff acting, particularly in scenes that capture José and Luis’s quarrelling, and repetitive dialogue, as when José’s mother incessantly tells him that she could never live without him. Cheng gets much closer to capturing his characters’ predicaments when he trusts his images alone, as he does in a sequence that sees José and Luis riding together on a motorcycle, feeding each other cigarettes while en route to a secluded field where they can make love without being reminded of the temporary nature of all precious things. In fact, the bike eventually breaks down and they run out of phone credit to be able to call anyone to help them. A refreshingly long take of the bridge where the lovers stand allows us to savor their being stranded together, rooting, certainly in vain, for the limbo to last.

Cast: Enrique Salanic, Ana Cecilia Mota, Manolo Herrera, Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez, Esteban Lopez Ramirez, Cesar Lorenzo Yojcom Candido, Alba Irene Lemus, Carlos Humberto Fuentes Maldonado Director: Li Cheng Screenwriter: Li Cheng, George F. Roberson Distributor: Outsider Pictures Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.

Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)

But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Should Win: Ad Astra

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.

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Joaquin Phoenix
Photo: Warner Bros.

We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.

Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.

Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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