Of Gods and Men (2010. Scenario by Etienne Comar, adaptation and dialogue by Xavier Beauvois. 122 minutes.)
A great train movie: Religion is a very difficult subject to make a film about. Movies are a very concrete medium. We photograph things and record sounds. Religion is very internal: what we believe and what we feel. How do you show that? With Hollywood it usually involves people looking up into the light with beatific smiles on their faces (see below for a notorious example), which hardly does the job.
Comar and Beauvois (the latter directed) have found a good way to do it. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Algeria in the mid-‘90s. A group of French monks in a monastery in Algeria are threatened by anti-government rebels. The monks must decide whether to leave or stay. So we are going to watch the pressure on the monks and see what they finally do. The opening scenes alternate between the monks at prayer and the Algerian village they are part of. In the first few scenes with the monks, we do not see their faces, a smart move on Comar and Beauvois’s part, since we will eventually spend a lot of time with their faces and we don’t want them to wear out their welcome. The monastery scenes are quiet, and the village scenes are full of life and color. As we see the monks dealing with the village (giving medical treatment, attending Muslim ceremonies, etc), we learn how intertwined the monks and the villagers are.
The rebels arrive and want to take the medical monk to treat one of their own, but the monks insist they bring the patient there. The rebels are not happy, but you can see they respect the monks’ courage in standing up to them. Then the monks begin to deal with the issue of whether they should leave or stay. Each one has his own reasons, but the way the writers handle it, it is not just a series of checklists. And the monks we thought we knew turn out to have sides we never guessed. We get their faces and their characters. Then the federal government asks the monks to leave. Well, it makes sense. The government is not sure they can protect them. But the villagers want them to stay. What do you do? What is your calling? Is it better served here and possibly dying, or going to continue your work elsewhere? But your work is here, with these people. So for now they stay. The government sends in some troops nominally to protect the monks, but the military is just as dubious about them as the rebels. After all, the monks give medical treatment to everybody, including the rebels. The writers are very subtly revealing the attitudes of all their characters, not just the monks.
The monks decide to take a final vote (there has been at least one before). They all decide to stay, a couple of bottles of the good wine are opened (they are French after all) and Luc, the medical monk, puts on, well, what music would you put on in that situation? Luc picks Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We watch their beatific faces, looking at each other and not up into the light, and, thank God, Natalie Portman does not dance through. What, you thought I was too classy to make a Black Swan reference? Guess again.
In real life the monks just disappeared, probably killed by the rebels but possibly by the army. Even though this is a fictionalized version, we also do not find out exactly what happened to these versions of the characters. But the fadeout comes after they have been taken away from the monastery by the rebels. If you are going to show that, and at the length they do, then they should show at least the filmmakers’ version of what happened.
When I wrote in US#64 about Unstoppable, I said it was a great train movie, but not necessarily a great movie. Of Gods and Men is a great religious movie, but I am not sure it is a great movie. As much as I love the closeups of the monks, the script doesn’t get into them as deeply as it could. And the ending, as noted above, is rather problematic. Still, the film is better than most in the field.
Rango (2011. Written by John Logan, story by John Logan, Gore Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit. 107 minutes.)
Quality time with a nine-year-old: There was no way I was going to see Rango. I had seen the trailer several times and it just looked UGLY. The characters are not only reptiles, but reptilian in every sense of the word. Who wants to watch ugly, warty things for 107 minutes?
Then the reviews came out and they were very good and made a point of how the film paid homage to westerns like High Noon (1952). Well, you know I love westerns, but how many scaly things can you watch? Then my daughter called and offered some quality time with her and her family, including my nine-year-old grandson seeing…Rango. The fates were conspiring against me. But my grandson and I got off to a good start when we started elbowing each other in the ribs at the beginning of the trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. He got in the first nudge from the first shot; it took me until the second shot. Do I have to tell you what summer movie he and I are most anticipating? Although I will leave it to his parents to explain Penélope Cruz’s “pointing things at me” line to him.
The opening is very smart. We see Rango, a chameleon (although he is never identified as such in the film, but only referred to as a lizard), pretending to be many different characters. He is playing off the other elements in his dry tank, as we come to realize. And we find out he wants to be an actor. So before we have time to get all icky about his ugliness, we are being brought into his character in the kind of detail that the trailer cannot provide. And the fact he wants to be an actor sets this up as a very self-reflexive film, but in a much more subtle way than is often the case movies today.
Rango flies out of his tank, which is in the car his owners are driving. He is in the desert. So yes, we get him coming through a mirage like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Obvious joke. But then everybody keeps asking him “Who are you?” just as people did in Lawrence of Arabia. So the references are not only visual, but carried through in the script. Yes, the music is very Ennio Morricone-Sergio Leone, but there are four balladeers out of Cat Ballou (1965), with recurring lyrics about the upcoming death of the hero, something one might find in a Sam Peckinpah musical. The lyrics about death get a great payoff at the end. When Rango gets to the small western town, we get a whole flock of “redneck peckerwoods,” to use Peckinpah’s favorite term for them. And the town has no water, but Beans, a crusty girl who could be Mattie Ross’s BFF, finds water flowing out of a pipe. In the desert. So it does not surprise you that the town boss sounds an awful lot like Noah Cross. And there are not only references to Leone, but several shots that almost duplicate ones in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). So when Rango is thrown out of town and finds, with the help of an armadillo that looks like Don Quixote (yes, it’s that kind of a movie), the Spirit of the West, the Spirit is standing by a movie studio golf cart with several awards in it. And talking in Clint Eastwood’s voice. According to the credits, the voice is Timothy Olyphant, but it is dead-on Eastwood. Everything connects.
But the film is not just a western lover’s dream. Because those elements are used to tell the story, the film works even if you don’t get the references. My grandson and I were often laughing at different things throughout the movie, but we both enjoyed it enormously. The director and one of the writers is Gore Verbinski, and he uses animation to do gags, get angles and camera movements he could not do with all the live action talent on the Pirates movies. Maybe he was born for animation.
As for my grandson and me, we can’t wait for Tides. No, Verbinski is not directing it, but the script is by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who did the first three, so the youngster and I know we will be in good hands.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010. Written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 114 minutes.)
A Thai Plan 9 From Outer Space?: Unlike with Rango, I was really looking forward to this one. It first came up on my radar when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. The title is amusing, and the story sounded like it had potential: a dying man is visited by his late wife and son, the latter currently in monkey form. Uncle Boonmee recalls his past lives a water buffalo and a catfish, among others. His wife has come to guide him through the dying process. As the film worked its way around the world, the reviews were always positive. It finally showed up here in LA in early March, heralded by a great review from Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. So I went to see it. A few weeks later a letter showed up in the Times from a woman saying she and her friend had gone to see it based on the Turan review and it was a measure of the depth of their friendship that the friend was still speaking to her. She added, “For years I thought Plan 9 From Outer Space correctly deserved the sobriquet of worst film ever, but compared with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Plan 9 looks downright Oscar-worthy.”
Well. I don’t think it is that bad, but it was certainly a disappointment for me. Some of that may have come from having read almost a full year of rave reviews which any film would have trouble living up to. Mostly I think it is that while Weerasethakul had a great idea, he has not developed it very well. The film starts off with a series of shots of a water buffalo. They go on and on. I think the shots are supposed to put us in a contemplative mood, but after a while you need a little more help. Is the water buffalo one of his past lives? How did he feel about being a water buffalo? Was it fun? Then we get the setup for the story. Boonmee’s sister-in-law Jen (the sister of his dead wife) and nephew show up at his farm to help out. We get a lot of practical detail about the injections he needs, etc. And then they all sit down to dinner. And the ghost of the ex-wife sits down alongside them. I like the way they all accept that this is the sort of thing that happens in this world. But then nothing happens with the wife. She comes to him after being dead for several years and has nothing much to say to him? I am not asking for the Thai equivalent of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but Weerasethakul is missing a lot of opportunities here. Even more so when the son shows up briefly in his monkey reincarnation. Weerasethakul misses opportunities there as well. There are a couple of lines about a worker on the farm being from Laos, but not much is done with that, either. One of the most widely discussed scenes is where a catfish performs oral sex on a princess. Now you know the picture is not working on all cylinders when I am beginning to doze off in a scene where a catfish is going down on a princess. Presumably the catfish is Boonmee, but we get no indication of that. If he is, how did he feel about that? Maybe he was the princess? Or the gorgeous waterfall. Maybe it is just the screenwriting instructor in me, but I kept wanting Weerasethakul to go beyond just putting the idea up on the screen.
The ghost of the wife leads Boonmee to a cave that is obviously—too obviously—death. We get a bit of Boonmee’s funeral, and then the sister-in-law and nephew sitting around watching television. About the time I was about to doze off again, the spirits of those two leave their bodies and go out to a fast-food place. The end.
Joe Daugherty, a thirtysomething writer I interviewed for my book on television writing, said that among the people on the writing staff of that show, he was in charge of Plot and Plot-like Substances. OK, I can get along without a conventional plot. See my comments on Fellini and Resnais in the item I did on Inception in US#52 if you don’t believe me. But a few Plot-like Substances can be a help sometimes.
The Crusades (1935. Written by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young, and Dudley Nichols. The IMDb lists three other writers who contributed to the treatment but are uncredited; Robert Birchard in his definite book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood does not mention any of them. 125 minutes.)
Speaking of religion: We have talked about DeMille and his house style of screenwriting before, in US#30 about Union Pacific (1939) and US#62 about The Plainsman (1936). Here the pontificating dialogue C.B. seems to have insisted upon takes over the movie, and DeMille makes it worse by having everybody play it very florid, in the 19th-century stage tradition. Which is too bad, because there are some interesting elements in the script. But first of all, kick any notions of there being any historical accuracy in this film out of your pretty little head.
The film sort of deals with the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart of England. Yes, he did marry Barengaria of Navarre, but for political reasons, not to get supplies for his army, as in the film. Yes, he did conquer Acre, and yes, he did not get to see Jerusalem after he made a treaty with Saladin. And that’s about it. What is interesting about the script, and not entirely inaccurate, is that Richard was much more a warrior than a king. In the film he goes on the Crusade to avoid marrying Alice, the sister of the King of France, which has a tiny basis in fact, but he goes more for the adventure than for any religious reasons. Richard here is a very buff fellow, and if he were better played, he could be a compelling character. Unfortunately DeMille cast Henry Wilcoxon, a very stolid actor. He had been Marc Anthony in DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934), which had been a success. The Crusades ended up losing money, and Wilcoxon never played a starring role in a major film during the rest of his long career.
Richard’s marriage to Barengaria in real life was purely political, but the writers here have made her a devout Christian whom Richard grows to love and who leads him to a conversion. That’s a potentially interesting story, but it gets lost in the verbal bombast. Loretta Young is Barengaria, and she spends a lot of time looking up into the light. For all the script problems, DeMille, as usual, fills the screen with, well, everything. Every shot is full of all kinds of detail. Sometimes it is action, sometimes it is a tableau out of late 19th-century sentimental religious art, and sometimes it is just Travis Banton’s costumes for Young and DeMille’s daughter Katherine, who plays Alice, badly.
What is surprising to us watching the film today is that Saladin, Richard’s Muslim enemy, is a cultured, intelligent man, and Ian Keith, who plays him, manages to avoid the excesses of the other actors. DeMille was proud of the fact that Saladin was shown in a positive light. That view of Saladin shows up in other films about the Crusades, most recently in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. DeMille said his film was successful in the Middle East, but Birchard’s look at the accounts shows it was banned in several counties in the area and did not make much money in the countries it did play in. I saw the film at a screening as the UCLA Archive Festival of Preservation. One of the staff members introducing the film said that DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, who was unable to attend, had told him that DeMille had told her this story. When DeMille was trying to get permission to shoot some of his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments in Egypt, he came across a bureaucrat who had seen The Crusades and had been impressed with the characterization of Saladin as a Muslim. The bureaucrat gave DeMille permission to shoot in his country.
Imitation of Life (1959. Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, and, uncredited, Sy Gomberg, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. 125 minutes.)
Anything for a friend: Sam Staggs is a friend of mine and a first-rate film historian. He specializes on books about the making of individual films, such as All About ’All About Eve’, Closeup on ’Sunset Boulevard’ and When Blanche Met Brando. His research is remarkable. Only Sam would track down the woman who was the model for Eve in the short story that became the film. His 2009 book Born To Be Hurt is about the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. I saw the film when it first came out and I must admit it did not overwhelm me. Sam’s book is good, although he gets more into meeting with the surviving cast members and the events they attend than I am sure he needs to. Having read the book, I figured I would give the film a chance the next time I had the opportunity. It popped up on TCM a few weeks ago. I struggled through it.
The 1934 version of the film is a more realistic version of the Fannie Hurst novel, with the white woman working with the black woman’s recipe to become a success in the food business while their two daughters grow up to be trouble of varying kinds. The 1959 version was produced by Ross Hunter, who never met a bit of excess he did not like. So the story was changed. Now the white woman, Lora, is a struggling actress, and the black woman, Annie, is her maid. So we get a lot of details about the Broadway theater scene, nearly all of them wrong. When Lora tries out for a playwright, David, he tells her she didn’t find the comedy in the scene. She suggests he cut the scene. That’s gall, not cheek. And he cuts it. And gives her a bigger part than the one she was trying out for. But wait a minute. He writes comedy, and she couldn’t…find the comedy in the previous scene. So he goes on writing plays, comedies no less, for her, one a year (who writes that fast?) and in spite of her being comically challenged, they are all hits. Yeah, right.
Meanwhile, Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane, keeps insisting she is white. Well, she is played by a white actress, so she may have a point. But Annie seems totally clueless about her daughter’s feelings, although we are supposed to take her as a saint for her devotion to, well, everybody. Just once she ought to slap her daughter, and some of the others, upside the head. Lora’s daughter, Susie, is a spoiled twit (although Sandra Dee’s chirping hides it) who falls in love with Steve, her mother’s boyfriend and surrogate father to her. Fortunately, that does not end as badly as it might. The final scene between Annie (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is a real tearjerker, as is the movie as a whole, if you get into it, I suppose. As for me, the wretched excesses of the script, matched by the wretched excesses of the Ross Hunter production (try to keep your jaw from dropping during Annie’s funeral) were simply too much.
Yes, I know that we are supposed to see director Douglas Sirk’s take on the material as satire on American commercialism, but I have never quite bought that view of Sirk. Imitation of Life is funny because it is emotionally excessive, not because it’s satire.
Some Late Winter/Early Spring Television 2011: I’ve been rather slow the last several columns at dealing with a lot of television shows I normally write about, so here is a potpourri from the last couple of months, with some comments in general on certain shows and some on specific episodes.
When last we left White Collar, I was aghast that they appeared to have killed off Mozzie, but I was only half-aghast since I figured they were just fooling with us. I was right, and Mozzie lives! The best episode of the recent season was “Forging Bonds,” written by Jeff Eastin & Alexandra McNally. It is the kind of flashback episode you can really only do well in the second or third season, since a lot of the fun comes from watching the characters we know fall into place. Eight years ago Neal meets Mozzie when they are both street hustlers, and Mozzie realizes Neal’s talent for forgery. With bonds that Neal forges, they try to run a con on Vincent Adler, whom we have come to know in the present. Neal meets Kate, one of the loves of his life, who works for Adler. In one of their scams, Kate and Neal pretend to be cops arresting Mozzie, and as they take him away, Kate tells him she hates the wig he has been wearing. She says she thinks he looks better without it. Well, if a beautiful woman like Kate tells you that…so now we understand why Mozzie has been bald as long as we have known him. The plotting introduces the music box that Neal has been chasing since the series began. As Adler escapes, Peter arrests Neal, their first meeting. Very satisfying.
When Harry’s Law premiered, Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon was less enthused about it than I was, and I think he may have been right. It is preachy, with those long David E. Kelley political speeches. Kelley seems to have fallen in love with the rich lawyer Tommy Jefferson, and we get more of him than we really need. But we already had Denny Crane, and we don’t need another one. In my comments in US#69, I said that Jenna, the receptionist, was not well-defined as a character, and that has only gotten worse. In some episodes she seems reasonably bright, in others dumb as a box of rocks. And I am not sure they are giving their star Kathy Bates enough to do. She seems to be working on about four cylinders instead of eight. Still, four cylinders of Bates is worth looking in on.
Fairly Legal, on the other hand, is moving along well, and Kate has not put her finger in her mouth once in the rest of the episodes. The “David Smith” storyline (he was in her father’s will and nobody knew who he was) has not been as interesting as Kate’s mediation cases. That’s really not a bad sign, since it suggests the franchise (her cases) have a lot of potential.
Justified is having a great second season, and not just because Timothy Olyphant seems more at ease in the role of Raylan than he did in the first season. The writers are also willing to do something very few series do: let a good scene go on more than a minute or two. In the season opener “The Moonshine War,” written by Graham Yost, there is a scene near the beginning between the 14-year-old Loretta and Jimmy Earl Dean. He’s got a thing for her, and a record as a child molester, but she’s three times as smart as he is and talks him into leaving. The length of the scene makes it more suspenseful than a shorter version would, and it also introduces us to Loretta, who will pop up in the rest of the season. This episode also introduces us to the wonderful Bennett clan, lead by Mags Bennett. The sons are halfwits who always screw up, but Mags, the matriarch, knows how to keep them in line. In a great scene in this episode, she comes to Loretta’s father Walter to apologize for her sons beating up Walter for growing pot on her land. Isn’t that nice of her? Meanwhile she has poisoned the cup of moonshine she’s given him and casually watches him die. In the next episode “The Life Inside,” written by Benjamin Cavell, she takes in Loretta, telling her she sent Loretta’s father on a trip and apologizing for not protecting her from the pervert, “Like I promised.” As the scene progresses, it is clear to us, but not to the smart Loretta, that Mags is trying to find out how much Loretta knows about, well, everything.
Another aspect of this second season I like is that they have got Raylan back with his ex-wife Winona, even though she is still married to Gary. Winona is a much better match for Raylan than Ava, the Crowder woman who has now taken up with Boyd. The writers get a lot out of how well Raylan and Winona know each other. Winona is also smart…oops, maybe not. In “Blaze of Glory,” written by Cavell, Winona is putting some files away in the evidence room. She is at an unused group of lockers and finds a pile of money in one of them. A whole pile of money. But it’s old money and she doesn’t know where it comes from. So without telling anybody, she takes one of the hundred dollar bills with her to the bank to find out if it is forged. OK, that’s maybe not so stupid, but she ends up in the middle of a bank robbery and the bill is taken by the robbers. Who are quickly caught by the F.B.I.. She tells Raylan, and he checks the money taken into evidence. He finds three bills that might be hers. End of episode. In the next one, “Save My Love,” written by Yost, Winona tells Raylan that none of the three bills are the right one. The F.B.I. has already scanned it. And, what did I tell you about Winona? She actually took all the money from the locker. Now they have to try to get it back there. Yost creates some terrific suspense as everything that could go wrong with that plan happens. Meanwhile the F.B.I. is checking the evidence and finds the money is not there. Yikes. Except they assume it just got lost, as happens with evidence. And Raylan eventually gets Winona to put the money back in another older locker, in case anybody else comes looking. Winona’s a little more high maintenance for Raylan than I thought, but like Mags Bennett, when she is onscreen, stuff happens. You can’t ask more from characters than that. Well, no, you can, but still.
The Good Wife is also having a good mid-season. My favorite episode so far is “Net Worth,” written by Robert King and Michelle King. Alicia gets involved in a case representing Patrick Edelstein, who is suing a movie studio for making a film about him and the social network website he created. Yes, he is just as arrogant as young Mr. Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) and the deposition scenes are familiar to anyone who has seen the movie. A more interesting scene is when they depose the screenwriter. Now you would think the screenwriter would be portrayed in a sympathetic way, as screenwriters usually are in other screenwriters’ scripts. Guess again. This guy claims he made it all up, which is obviously not the case, and makes a case for his First Amendment rights, but is an asshole doing it. That’s what I like about The Good Wife: its honesty and realism.
And guess who showed up his ownself on 30 Rock? The real Aaron Sorkin, in an episode written by John Siegel & Dylan Morgan called “Plan B.” Because Tracy has gone off to Africa (although we find out at the end of the episode he’s been hiding in New York) the network is putting TGS on “forced hiatus,” which everybody on the show knows means it has been canceled. So everybody start looking for new jobs. For Liz that involves writing work. One job opening is on a reality show, and in the waiting room she meets Sorkin, who is also applying for the job. So naturally they get up and walk and talk, going around the hallway and ending up where they started. Well, haven’t you always assumed that’s how Sorkin talks?
More than one critic has mention how 30 Rock is very much in the tradition of His Girl Friday (1940) in the speed of its dialogue. I recently watched Friday in my History of Motion Pictures class at LACC, so it was on my mind while watching this episode of 30 Rock. What struck me is that in some ways 30 Rock goes beyond what Friday does. Friday is just plain fast, but Rock doesn’t just have fast delivery of the dialogue. Unlike Friday, the dialogue is filled with non-sequiturs. Friday is linear, but you never quite know where Rock is going. Rock is just as quick to throw in surreal visual as well as verbal elements. Think of 30 Rock as the grandchild of His Girl Friday, moving at computer speed, complete with oddball links, rather than typewriter speed.
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.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness
The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.2.5
Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.
Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.
If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.
Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd
The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.3.5
In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.
The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.
As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.
To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.
Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption
This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.1
It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.
The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.
The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.
The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.
There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.
Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes
It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.3
With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.
The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.
Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.
Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.
Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.
Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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