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.
Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.3
There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.
Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.
The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.
In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.
Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.
Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.
Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020
Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.3
The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.
The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.
The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.
The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.
Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.
Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.
Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life
The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.2.5
The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.
Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.
The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.
The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.
This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.
Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special
Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.
Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.
Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.
Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.
The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.
Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Pieces of a Woman Is a Patchy but Well-Acted Portrait of Unravelling Lives
When the film’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances.2.5
Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman swiftly and neatly—perhaps too neatly—establishes its core characters and their relationships to one another. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction worker, is the gruff but loving husband. His wife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), is the expectant mother who’s eager to start her maternity leave. And her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is your stereotypical mother-in-law, buying the couple a new minivan just to spite Sean, who pointedly grumbles at one point that he can afford to support his family. These are familiar tensions that the audience is primed to expect will come to a head as husband and wife blissfully await the next stage in their lives.
Prior to the arrival of Martha and Sean’s midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), as golden light reflects off of the white walls of their home, Martha’s water breaks and Sean calms her with affirmations and silly jokes. This will be understood as the calm before the storm of Martha’s labor, which is captured in a single unbroken take. At first, the shot resolutely focuses on the characters’ faces, registering how Martha’s breathing quickens as her contractions grow more pronounced, and how Sean’s façade of stoicism drops whenever his wife takes her eyes off of him, allowing himself to fully feel the panic of a man about to become a father.
But soon, as the increasing chatter between characters starts to produce a current of tension, the protracted steps of the home birth compound the anxiety of the scene. By the time Eva prepares for the final pushing stages and reveals that the baby’s heart rate isn’t meeting normal levels, the tone of the sequence becomes more fraught. And just as things finally seem to build to a happy conclusion, the sound of a ragged breath causes Eva’s face to freeze, and a fade forward in time to a dour autumnal cityscape hints at the newborn’s fate.
It’s at this point that Pieces of a Woman’s narrative splits itself in two. On one side, we follow Martha and Sean as they struggle to cope with their loss, their relationship barely hanging together by a few threads. The focus remains mostly on Martha, who Kirby plays as trapped between poles of numb detachment and rage. As both Martha and Sean turn to others for physical comfort and escape, it’s Kirby who captures the full range of pain’s dissociative properties, stumbling around Boston in a fugue state, searching for some kind of meaning.
The other half of the narrative concerns Eva being brought up on charges of negligence. As a coroner informs Martha and Sean, the baby showed no signs of defects, and that few cases of infant mortality have satisfactory explanations. But friends make comments in which they hope that Eva faces “consequences,” while Elizabeth is determined to put the woman in prison. That the same long take that made Martha’s birthing process feel so immersive also showed how quickly Eva sprang into action to alert a hospital removes any ambiguity about her professional conduct. As such, her legal case becomes nothing more than a way for the bereaved to lay the blame at someone’s feet for a tragic but natural fact of life.
The trial makes sense as a manifestation of that aspect of the trauma process, particularly in a climactic scene where Martha finally weighs in on a legal action that everyone has taken on her behalf. But the time given over to the question of the case’s outcome too stiffly weds a film that’s at its best when living with characters’ emotional torpor to a conventional plot.
When Pieces of a Woman’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances. Kirby walks a tightrope without collapsing into histrionics, and she conveys Martha’s increasing outbursts less as a show of a loss of control than of slowly regaining it. Elsewhere, LaBeouf soulfully charts the struggle of a man desperately trying to tamp down his sorrow over the death of his child in a last-ditch effort to hold onto the one person left in his life. Even when Sean is scheming behind Martha’s back with her mother or having an affair out of loneliness, LaBeouf stresses the man’s vulnerability and desire to pull his marriage out of the ditch in the face of inevitability. And in a monologue late in the film, in which Elizabeth forcefully explains what life experiences hardened her, Burstyn impressively pushes her character past cookie-cutter status. It’s a show-stopping moment that communicates far more than anything in the last-act coverage of Eva’s trial, which simplistically highlights breakthroughs that are more tacitly conveyed elsewhere.
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn Director: Kornél Mundruczó Screenwriter: Kata Wéber Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
New York Film Festival 2020
There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival.
Film festivals, like the rest of us, are still adapting to the unique challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, with major ones drastically scaling back their lineups or devising a hybrid physical-virtual screening schedules. The 58th New York Film Festival will kick off on September 17 with simultaneous screenings of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock at two drive-in theaters in Brooklyn and Queens (the festival will also be using another drive-in in the Bronx for further screenings). Lovers Rock is the first episode of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe miniseries, set among London’s West Indian community; the “film,” along with two others in the anthology (Mangrove and Red, White And Blue) will also be available to ticket-holders for designated four-hour windows online. After the cancellation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s been encouraging to see so many festivals coping with the impacts of the pandemic, even if it seems somewhat antithetical for a film festival like this one to be effectively dispersed across the globe rather than concentrated in a single communal event.
The festival’s socially minded main slate features a wealth of new works from master documentarians like Fredrick Wiseman (City Hall), Jia Zhang-ke (Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue), and Gianfranco Rossi (Notturno). And particularly notable among the works of nonfiction in this year’s slate is Garrett Bradley’s Time, a stirring look at 21 years in the life of a family that’s been irrevocably altered by the prison-industrial complex. On the fiction side, the lineup is no less auteur-friendly, with the festival presenting the latest works by Christian Petzold (Undine), Tsai Ming-Liang (Days), Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran), Cristi Puiu (Malmkrog), and more. And this year’s much-anticipated centerpiece selection is Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, Nomadland, about a woman (played by Frances MacDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession and travels the country in a camper in the wake of her husband’s death.
This mix of socio-politically engaged documentaries and auteurist cinema also marks the festival’s Spotlight section. There, you’ll find new films by Pedro Almodóvar (the short drama The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton), Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks), and the prolific-in-death Orson Welles (Hopper/Welles), as well as David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, about police violence in France, and Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus’s All In: The Fight for Democracy, which is concerned with the history and current activism against voter suppression and is based around interviews with American politician Stacey Abrams.
Elsewhere, 59 films with a more experimental bent, interweaving fiction and nonfiction, will screen as part of the Currents program. Of particular note is the latest from Nicolás Pereda (Fauna) and another dispatch from beyond the grave by Raúl Ruiz (The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, co-directed by his widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento). And among the notable titles slotted in the Revivals section, which “connects cinema’s rich past to its dynamic present through an eclectic assortment of new restorations,” are Béla Tarr’s Damnation, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.
Right now, even the films most engaged with reality can feel out of date if they happen to have been shot more than eight months ago; seeing everyday people on screen shaking hands or standing in lines can have an uncanny effect. But then, watching art flicks at a drive-in might serve as a constant reminder to festivalgoers how much stranger the world has gotten than last year’s already-unnerving status quo. There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival. It’s like temporal streams have been crossed, the mid-20th-century society of the auto hybridized with the 21st-century society of the mobile phone. The erstwhile downsides of these formats—the isolation of the home theater or hermetically sealed family car—turn out to be their primary advantages in our current context. Pat Brown
For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. Capsule reviews of films in the main slate appear below; check back as more titles are added, with links to full reviews.
Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)
Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this opening’s blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force. David Robb
The Calming (Song Fang)
The meticulousness and control of Song Fang’s feature-length directorial debut, Memories Look at Me, gave the film a specific conceptual focus. The Chinese actress and filmmaker’s follow-up feature, The Calming, places a similar emphasis on technique, but its scrupulously shot and staged compositions tend to suck the life out of every frame. The narrative is simple, and again loosely autobiographical: Song surrogate Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker who we learn early on has recently been through a breakup, drifts between Japan, China, and Hong Kong—locations with stated sentimental value to Song, who drew on her memories of visiting them during the film festival run of Memories Look at Me. That sense of personal meaning is meant to be conveyed through a film’s worth of immaculate long takes of Lin inhabiting different spaces, from bustling cityscapes to minimally furnished apartments, to lush, sprawling natural environments. But as a result of Song’s seeming unwillingness to give us much understanding of this character and her limited formalist vocabulary, The Calming is left unable to connect angst to anything significantly deeper. Sam C. Mac
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
Frederick Wiseman never steps in the same river twice, though the methods of this prolific, preeminent documentarian are, with rare exception, unchanging. So it is with City Hall, Wiseman’s formidable and incisive exploration of local government in Boston, Massachusetts. Non-diegetic score and identifying on-screen titles are eschewed throughout, while the film’s duration is well past the feature-length norm—in this case, four-and-a-half engrossing hours. The camerawork, courtesy of Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey, is mostly fly-on-the-wall, swish-panning between or settling for extended periods on a given scene’s subjects. Mundanities that many other artists would turn away from are manna to Wiseman. He gets as much poetic and provocative mileage out of a budget meeting that projects the fiscal year to come as he does a glass skyscraper reflecting a magic-hour sunset. The film’s provocations can seem savage at a glance, but they emerge from an observational tranquility that is uniquely Wiseman’s own, and which leave room for individual interpretation. What each of us sees is what each of us gets. But how do we arrive at our respective ideological terminus? City Hall isn’t an incitement, so much as an invitation to serenely reflect on and think through systems of power that are, like the people who labor within them, constantly evolving—for better and for worse. Keith Uhlich
Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
Centered on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy), Days finds Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang reflecting once again on people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux vivants, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold, or, considering the film’s meticulous attention to such elements as water and fire, you could say that they burn slowly. Indeed, the younger man (Houngheuangsy) stokes the embers of a fire so he can methodically make his lunch, washing vegetables and fish in buckets inside his bathroom and concocting a makeshift stove by placing a pot on top of the other one containing the embers. The older man (Lee), in turn, is seen taking a bath, stretching his sore body in the woods, and staring out a window for what feels like an entire afternoon, as he listens to the sound of water. Were Lee facing the lens, the sequence would belong to the same documentary universe of Wang Xiaoshuai or Sergei Loznitsa—of evidence through dogged visual persistence. Diego Semerene
Gunda (Viktor Kossakovsky)
On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead. The newborn piglets in the film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human. Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. And by the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths. Keith Watson
Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)
Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Carson Lund
Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
One of three episodes from his upcoming miniseries, Small Axe, that will world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is nothing if not a mood piece. For McQueen, who’s of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, the series is his most personal project to date, weaving together various stories within London’s West Indian community in the 1980s. Set largely over one night at a house party and gently tracing the growing attraction between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and the mysterious Franklyn (Micheal Ward), Lovers Rock lovingly captures the sense of community that’s fostered within the house right out the gate, as the musicians set up the sound system and the jolly cooks in the kitchen start banging out curry goat and ackee and saltfish. The film’s centerpiece, set to Janet Kay’s lovers rock hit “Silly Games,” plays out across a sea of polyester, beautiful Black bodies rapturously entwined. The social world that McQueen envisions is lived-in, tactile, and especially wondrous across scenes that fixate on the temperature of a song (from Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Revolutionaries “Kunta Kinte”) turning the dial up on people’s libidos. Luckily that’s the better part of Lovers Rock’s 70-minute runtime, because whenever it follows Martha out of the house and puts her in the crosshairs of a potential threat or generally catches her in a moment of confusion about some incident that feels every bit as alien to us, it’s difficult to not see the film’s episodic roots. Ed Gonzalez
Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)
Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Ed Gonzalez
Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)
Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air. That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Ben Flanagan
MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)
Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it. Chris Barsanti
Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)
Inside the La MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a newly arrived prisoner (Bakary Koné) becomes a “Roman,” a storyteller tasked with spinning yarns as entertainment, with the threat of being hung on an iron hook if he fails to hold everyone’s attention. This unlucky Scheherazade-like character thus finds himself at the center of an explosion of activity as the other prisoners prepare for this ritualistic evening. The most striking aspect of Night of the Kings is the way in which the prisoners begin to act out Roman’s story, voicing characters and even engaging in interpretive song and dance as if possessed by the spirit to act. The camera regularly shifts away from Roman to move in lockstep with the prisoners’ contortions and twirling movements, resulting in a poetry of motion that illuminates his improvised tale better than the actual depictions of it. Despite its bleak context, the film is a celebration of oral traditions as a means of giving purpose to even the most hopeless of lives. That a film so frequently harrowing can so often feel joyous without every trivializing the state of its characters’ imprisonment is a testament to the way that writer-director Philippe Lacôte resolutely finds the meaning embedded within ritual, and how the activities of the inmates, however strange, constitute routines every bit as normalizing as the daily tasks of those living their lives outside the walls of the prison. Jake Cole
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a distinctly sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes. Using a minimal and improvised-feeling script that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of the film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon. Barsanti
Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)
The common understanding of documentaries is that they’re intended to inform in particular ways: candid footage often complemented by explanatory text and graphics, testimony of witnesses and experts who frame and flesh out the events in question, contemplative pans across archival evidence, and, in the age of reality TV, extended interviews with the subjects themselves in close-up, providing a kind of running interior monologue. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentaries, though they take on topics of great socio-political import, eschew virtually all of these conventions and thus demand a different kind of engagement—one rooted in empathy for the experiences of his essentially anonymous human subjects. His refusal to firmly place the segments of life that he captures within an explicit broader framework might be seen as an effort to keep his images resolutely in the present. The unpredictable power outages and food shortages in major cities, the unsettling presence of foreign armies, the mental and physical suffering of children whose families and neighbors have been slaughtered by ISIS—the dreadful beauty of Notturno’s experiential approach to cinema emphasizes that these aren’t impersonal events on a timeline, but the current life as lived by millions in the Near East. Brown
The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)
Despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Scenes from a Marriage to A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Philippe Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity. Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc (Logann Antuofermo), he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride. Semerene
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke)
Divided into 18 titled chapters, Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a quietly reflective, intermittently rambling rumination on an explosively momentous period in history. In the film, a 2019 literary festival in Jia’s home province of Shanxi is the springboard for three writers’ takes on how China has been transformed since the 1940s. Although the style and manner of the writers vary widely, they each describe a time of radical change, particularly how small villages like Jia’s were rocked by the tumult of the Communist Party takeover in 1949, then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and then the turbo-charged urbanization of the new millennium. Taking a quieter and less barbed approach to addressing the state of modern China than fans of his work are likely used to from such politically pointed dramas as A Touch of Sin, Jia refers to the documentary as a “symphony.” As such, it features discrete movements and some repeated themes, like the beautiful interludes in which farm workers recite short snippets from the books being discussed. What it doesn’t have, however, is much of a crescendo. Barsanti
Time (Garrett Bradley)
In 1997, Robert Richardson was convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole. Time doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. That’s because director Garrett Bradley has the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time. Brown
The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw)
Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of their subjects—a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region—and their resistance to nosy profiteers, The Truffle Hunters seems driven by a desire to enshrine the men in a timeless tableaux. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between the film’s different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic. The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forests and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself. This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. Lund
Undine (Christian Petzold)
Throughout his increasingly formidable oeuvre, Christian Petzold has nested stories of doomed love in surveys of his home nation’s reaction to economic or historical upheavals. Though at once lighter and stranger than any of his earlier work, Undine makes the melodramatic trappings of the director’s previous films its explicit subject, questioning the fixed nature of human behavior in a world whose borders are constantly shifting. It’s ironic and puzzling, then, that Undine’s eponymous character (Paula Beer) is both human and a water sprite. As this typically compact but deceptively rich film moves along, flashes of dislocation proliferate, undermining its seemingly contemporary setting and leaving us to wonder whether love and logic are compatible. As Petzold ushers his lovers toward doom, the film almost seems to rewind, revisiting most of its settings and turning sites of passion into mausoleums of aching and regret. “Form follows function,” Undine says at one point, and with minor alterations in framing and presentation Petzold fundamentally shifts our sense of these locations. Apparently the first in a trilogy of modern stories based on fables, Undine is a striking change of pace that sacrifices none of the director’s intellect or ambition. Christopher Gray
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is defined by absences: by who isn’t in the frame and by what isn’t said throughout conversations that appear to be determinedly trivial. Returning to Seoul after years away, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) reconnects with a trio of female friends, and they talk of the food they eat and indulge in local gossip, repeating observations with a fervor that feels obsessive and mindless, as if these women have gotten too calcified in their own lives to utter anything but mantras. Yet Hong and his actors communicate the disappointment and sadness that’s being suppressed by well-practiced politeness, offering anecdotes that abound in pointed loose ends. Throughout, you may recall that audacious sequence in Grass in which a woman repeatedly went up and down a flight of stairs, as Hong fashions a similar yet subtler portrait of stasis with his latest. Many Hong films examine romantic pressures from the POV of a surrogate for the director himself, while The Woman Who Ran suggests Hong’s fantasy of how women discuss him when he’s not around. Chuck Bowen
Review: The Nest Is a Morality Tale Caught Between Black Comedy and Horror
Sean Durkin’s sweated-over filmmaking tediously lifts a familiar tale of domestic dysfunction to the level of myth.2
Like real estate, cinema is all about location, location, location. Sean Durkin has picked the right one with The Nest, while his characters have most certainly picked the wrong one. Often feeling as though it were reverse-engineered around a deluxe location hookup in Durkin’s native England, The Nest wrings tension out of the cavernous hallways and stygian shadows of the countryside manor where white-collar stooge Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) has brought his family on the promise of a financial windfall. Nearly every exactingly framed establishing shot in the film creeps toward the action at a snail’s pace, implying the presence of some malevolent force at work in the floorboards and walls themselves. But while the film adopts the semantics of a horror film, it’s really just a gussied-up domestic melodrama, its skewering of the father-knows-best ethos calling to mind midcentury classics like Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life or Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill.
The Nest is set in Ronald Reagan’s ‘80s, a period whose individualist economic philosophies have polluted Rory’s brain to such a degree that the quaint slow-growth attitudes of his old-money colleagues in London start to look preferable by comparison. Having fallen hook, line, and sinker for the illusion of upward mobility after a stint in the American suburbs (where the film begins), the English-born Rory’s business ambitions lead him back to the exurbs of London, where he hopes that he can corner the market on globalizing prospects in the home country. His wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), a horse trainer who so gamely sees through her husband’s bullshit that it’s a bit hard to believe she keeps going along with it, hates the move at face value, and her immediate and increasing distaste of the ghoulish, Gothic-like property is telegraphed by the accelerating rate of her portentous chain smoking.
As in his acclaimed debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin favors an aesthetic of frigid calculation reminiscent of the work of frequent collaborator Antonio Campos: a color palette evoking soil and pine overseen by German cinematographer Mátyás Erdély; close-ups used more for graphic punctuation than vicarious engagement; and hard-edged compositions that make pointed use of blurred negative space and vanishing points. The narrative is unfurled as a volley between Rory’s exploits among the London financial elite and the unraveling order back at the homestead, with razor-sharp edits timed for maximum unease to bridge the two spheres. His disaffected teenage daughter, Samantha (Oona Roche), starts amassing enough cigarette butts to rival her mother when she realizes that she’s being shunned by Rory in favor of her docile younger brother, Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), who’s been enrolled in a fancy private school in a show of Daddy’s favoritism. Meanwhile, the neglected Allison escapes the pressure of her husband’s mounting debts by caring for her beloved horse—an outlet that’s cruelly vacated when the animal inexplicably drops dead.
Durkin’s sweated-over filmmaking tediously lifts a familiar tale of domestic dysfunction to the level of myth. More compelling are the diversions to London high-rises and white-tablecloth soirees, where Durkin, who grew up outside the city in the era depicted in the film, offers a caustic take on the fusty value system of the upper classes—which Rory first conforms to and later rebels against. The scenes between Law and Michael Culkin, playing Rory’s old stuck-in-his-ways boss, Arthur, alight with the sense of two actors energized by their combative material, with Law leaning into his knack for bratty selfishness as his character tries to strong-arm his steely superior into a deal that’s evidently not in his interest. Rory does a similarly groveling act when he entertains his associates at dinner parties, which gives Allison a chance to balk at her husband’s Janus-faced insincerity. Such scenes point toward a culture-clash black comedy that The Nest never fully embraces, as it’s too busy flirting with intimations of paranormal activity, from creepy silences to doors mysteriously opening.
Of course, these gestures toward otherworldliness aren’t an accident, but rather a considered metaphor, as the only thing haunting this family is their own internal strife. The figurative demons are exorcised in a histrionic third act that intercuts between three different breaking points: Samantha’s takeover of the house for a rowdy high school bash, Allison’s escape into London side streets to liquor up and dance away her frustration, and Rory’s dark night of the soul, a humiliating evening of failed transactions that finds him trudging down a dirt road at dawn in a tracking shot that quotes Sátántangó. Durkin remains a filmmaker of clear skill and promise, but The Nest too often strains for effect, saddling the actors, especially Law, with groaner dialogue that underlines the story’s subtext. “I had a shitty childhood and I deserve this and I deserve a lot more,” hisses Rory when confronted by Allison on his delusions, reinforcing the already self-evident theme of this dreary morality tale: that worshiping wealth is an illness. Odds are good that the freaks who don’t already know that will not see this film.
Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Culkin, Adeel Akhtar Director: Sean Durkin Screenwriter: Sean Durkin Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: I Care a Lot, Before Losing the Thread, Is a Barbed Satire of Capitalism
Throughout, J Blakeson crafts sharp, curt dialogue that makes a fashion statement out of contempt.2.5
J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot initially cuts to the heart of one of many American sicknesses. A legal guardian, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), tells us at the start of the film that notions of playing fair were invented by the rich to sucker the poor, and anyone who’s paying attention understands that in our country only viciousness is rewarded. This claim serves as a screenwriter’s baldly articulated thesis while reflecting Marla’s self-rationalization as well as the simple truth. We quickly learn that Marla has concocted a scam so inventive and heartless it might even make our commander in chief blush with envy.
Working with a doctor, Amos (Alicia Witt), the head of an assisted living home, Sam Rice (Damian Young), and a clueless judge, Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Marla conspires to have aging people falsely declared mentally incompetent so that she may become their legal guardian, imprison them in the home, and gradually liquefy their belongings, from which she takes a large cut. Blakeson’s script initially mines our fears of exploitation, giddily indicting a national health care system that serves as a huge, faceless, unsympathetic profit center that intersects with other profit centers such as the judiciary and incarceration systems. Marla clearly feels that her elderly targets are going to be fucked over anyway, so why not grab a piece for herself, prying it away from an infrastructural monolith?
Blakeson crafts sharp, curt dialogue that makes a fashion statement out of contempt, and it’s particularly nightmarish to see chic, slick Marla ransack the home like some yuppie conqueror or vampire. Marla represents the zero-sum mentality of capitalism, but she’s also meant to suggest fear of castration. She emasculates the unkempt (read: beta) son of one of her charges early on, and continues to confront and outwit men on various rungs of the social ladder (one of whom is played with indelible sleaze by Chris Messina), until finally meeting one who matches or exceeds her ruthlessness: a mysterious gangster named Roman (Peter Dinklage).
Roman’s entrance into the film represents a disappointment and a coup. As Marla and Roman go to war over the fate of Marla’s recent victim, Jennifer Preston (Dianne Wiest), I Care a Lot drifts toward escalating and increasingly conventional acts of thriller-movie cruelty. However, Blakeson springs a good sick joke with Roman, as this sex-trafficking, murdering outlaw scans as a more sympathetic antihero than Marla. Roman, in his attachment to Jennifer, who’s been mercilessly tormented by Marla, occasionally displays recognizable emotions, while Marla remains mercenary until I Care a Lot goes soft in the last act.
Marla nevertheless grows tedious, as filmmakers have become too comfortable utilizing Pike as an embodiment of suppressed female wrath. The scenes meant to indicate that Marla is capable of vulnerability, opposite her equally ruthless associate and lover, Fran (Eiza González), are perfunctory, while Roman’s rage and desperation deepen his stature, allowing him to arise as a monster with a degree of pathos. Perhaps Dinklage is more capable of surprising us than Pike, investing mundane commands (like “make it look organic”) with weirdly poignant comic menace. Marla doesn’t even flinch when she’s on the verge of being tortured to death, and she eventually becomes an action hero by the dictates of the plot—a white-collar crook who can turn ridiculously on a dime into a blue-collar bad ass.
Quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2, it appears that Blakeson means for us to champion Marla as a feminist icon for a while, though he deflates this potential moral idiocy with an ironic ending. Blakeson does lose track of the health-care hook, though, to the point that Jennifer, who’s played cunningly by Wiest, is essentially forgotten. Of course, the notion of an elderly person locked away, invisible, while younger people eat one another alive for her spoils is certainly resonant in its own right.
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Macon Blair, Alicia Witt, Damian Young, Nicholas Logan, Liz Eng, Celeste Oliva, Georgia Lyman, Moira Driscoll, Chris Messina Director: J Blakeson Screenwriter: J Blakeson Running Time: 118 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: MLK/FBI Is a Compelling Look at J. Edgar Hoover’s Anti-King Crusade
The film refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving King’s personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality.3
Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were.
With Garrow, a handful of other historians, and a couple of King colleagues (Andrew Young and Clarence B. Jones) providing voiceover, Pollard unspools a stream of grainy archival footage to illustrate J. Edgar Hoover’s years-long anti-King crusade. Long obsessed with the idea that a “Black messiah” who could stir America’s Black population into political action was a central hazard to the nation, Hoover not unsurprisingly saw this threat manifested in King’s stirring moral authority. The discovery that one of King’s closest advisors, Stanley Levison, was a longtime fixture in Hoover’s other bugaboo, the Communist Party, just fed the F.B.I. director’s paranoia. Hoover then aimed the agency’s COINTELPRO project at King and his civil rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, to do what it did best: infiltrate, disrupt, and dig up dirt. Much of the dirt they uncovered concerned King’s extramarital affairs.
Much of this is familiar territory, though Pollard lays it out with dramatic panache—footage from cornball films like The FBI Story provides comedic evidence of the titular agency’s carefully nurtured image—that doesn’t sacrifice nuance. The film paints a harrowing portrait of Hoover’s monomaniacal fixation on destroying King: tailing him, tapping his phones, and bugging his rooms (King refused for a while to believe this, insisting that the F.B.I. had better things to do and actual criminals to catch). Garrow pushes back on the popular conception that the F.B.I. was a rogue agency under Hoover, arguing that as idiosyncratic as the director was, his determination to cut down anything that threatened white male capitalist Christian hegemony was strictly in line with the American power structure at the time.
When the discussion of F.B.I. tactics turns to one of its most scurrilously strange plans—the 1964 mailing of tapes with graphic audio of King’s affairs to his wife, Coretta Scott King, along with a letter advising King to kill himself—former F.B.I. director James Comey appears briefly to describe it as “the darkest period of the Bureau’s history.” His point isn’t hard to argue with, given that Hoover’s frustration with King appeared to stem mostly from personal animus and prurience. The tape tactic was apparently used after a whisper campaign passing rumors about King’s infidelities to church leaders and the media caused nary a ripple of interest.
MLK/FBI addresses another widely ignored charge against King. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Given the horrific nature of the charges and Garrow’s status—he won the Pulitzer for his 1986 biography on King—the muted reaction was somewhat surprising. It’s possible that this had something to do with the critiques some historians leveled at Garrow for hanging his entire case on a few handwritten notes on an F.B.I. transcript from the agency’s bug in the hotel room. But the disinterest of most media organizations and the general public in the story can more likely be chalked up to a preference for leaving certain icons mostly as they are.
Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it.
Director: Sam Pollard Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: As Pulp Fiction, The Secrets We Keep Never Goes into Overdrive
The film is ultimately too tidy to embrace anything truly startling or unexpected, either stylistically or narratively.2.5
Set in an archetypal American suburb in the 1950s, Yuval Adler’s The Secrets We Keep centers the wartime trauma of a Romanian woman, Maja (Noomi Rapace), who’s convinced that a recent transplant to the neighborhood, Thomas (Joel Kinnaman), is the Nazi who raped her and helped execute her family during the war. Playing out primarily as a modest three-hander, with Maja’s husband, Lewis (Chris Messina), essentially functioning as the arbitrator between his wife and Thomas, the film is initially fixated on probing the thorny nature of a woman’s memory, so tinged with remorse and anger.
The film is at its most taut during its opening act, when Maja’s initial assumption about Thomas leads her to assault and kidnap the man, leaving him tied up in her basement to be interrogated and, potentially, murdered. Here, Maja’s emotional instability gives way to an encroaching doubt, which is only further intensified by Lewis. Although he knew his wife suffered from nightmares about the war, he was unaware of the details about her horrific experiences, and thus hesitates to believe that Thomas is the man that she thinks he is. Adler and Ryan Covington’s script glistens with delicate ambiguities during these early stretches, not only bringing into question the moral rectitude of Maja’s vigilante tactics, but also the logical, though perhaps disloyal, steps taken by Lewis to mitigate the damage caused by his wife’s recklessness, as well as the potential innocence of the bewildered Thomas.
When the film homes in on the rising tensions between Maja and Lewis as they struggle to determine the endgame to their self-made quagmire, it remains a penetrating examination of a marriage that’s suddenly thrust into the irresolvable anguish of the past. As the helpless husband—stuck between fully supporting his wife’s bloodlust and ensuring himself that Thomas, a seemingly mild-mannered Swiss man, is the monster she says he is—Messina brings a crucial mix of empathy and pragmatism to his role, helping to ground an otherwise outlandish scenario. And Thomas’s pushback against Maja’s gung-ho yearning for retribution complicates what could otherwise have been a straightforward revenge tale, both in terms of the effects that her decision has on their entire family, including their son (Jackson Vincent), and the trust issues that arise when Lewis learns the secrets of her traumatic past.
But as The Secrets We Keep opens itself up to peer at the world outside of Maja and Lewis’s home, it not only begins to really stretch the plausibility of its scenario, it also focuses more unwaveringly on the mystery of whether or not Thomas is actually a Nazi in hiding. The meddling of a next-door neighbor (Jeff Pope) and a police officer (David Maldonado) offers little more than cheap suspense as to whether or not Maja and Lewis will be found out. And the late-in-the-game arrival of Thomas’s wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), exists for no other reason than to highlight her fast rapport with Maja, as well as, in a distasteful attempt to make us further question Thomas’s guilt, to reveal that she, too, is Jewish.
These supporting characters are so thinly sketched that they come to feel like expats from some stereotypical drama about ‘50s suburbia. And while the film uses them as a means to suggest that Maja and Lewis’s illegal acts, and the dirty little secret hidden away in their basement, are representative of the dark underbelly of post-war America, it’s an impression that doesn’t transcend triteness. Adler flirts with pulp, particularly during Maja’s more violent interrogation sessions with Thomas, but the film is ultimately too tidy to embrace anything truly startling or unexpected, either stylistically or narratively. And as The Secrets We Keep settles into the predictable trajectory of a more traditional mystery, Maja’s once intense rage and indignation is stifled as all clouds of uncertainty are conveniently cleared away.
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo Director: Yuval Adler Screenwriter: Yuval Adler, Ryan Covington Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020