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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

3

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

3

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril

In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

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Midway
Photo: Summit Entertainment

“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.

Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.

Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.

The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.

Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.

Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition

Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.

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Klaus
Photo: Netflix

From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.

The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.

No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.

The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.

Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.

There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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