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Understanding Screenwriting #73: Certified Copy, Win Win, Potiche, & More

A shaggy dog story. Really. Really?

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Certified Copy
Photo: IFC Films

Coming Up in This Column: Certified Copy, Win Win, Potiche, The Lincoln Lawyer, White Savage, Key Largo, The Starter Screenplay (book), The Escort (play)

Fan Mail: As I suspected, my comments on Uncle Boonmee pissed off some people. Both the ever-vigilant David Ehrenstein and “JF” felt I was not appreciating the complexity of the film. The problem I had was that it was not complex enough. I was ready, willing and able to deal with those elements. As I made clear in my opening comments, I was greatly looking forward to seeing the film precisely because of the elements critics have liked. What bothered me is that “Joe,” as Apichatpong Weerasethakul likes to be called in the West, had not done enough of that sort of thing. As for David’s comments on many people finding Imitation of Life (1959) emotionally overwhelming, I know that they do, and for a great variety of reasons. The script problems I pointed out make it difficult for the film to work that way for me.

JF makes a very compelling point when he says that while I deal with mainstream film and television well, I don’t deal with the arthouse cinema with the same skill. That has been rattling around in my head since I read it. He may well have a point. Admittedly, American narrative film is my native language. On the other hand, I have been going beyond that since I was a kid. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Being a college town, it had an arthouse theater, the Von Lee. That’s where I was first exposed to Italian neorealist films, French films, and the first two films of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. I went east to college (Yale, if you don’t remember) in 1959, just in time to catch the French New Wave, as well as Felllini, Antonioni, and that crowd. I was immediately taken with Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), one of the first films to break down the traditional narrative style. When I first saw Fellini’s 8 ½ in 1963, it became one of my favorite films, which it remains to this day. It is hardly in the American narrative tradition. So if I major in American narrative film, I also have a strong minor in arthouse cinema.

There are I think two issues here. One is the degree of interest I have in films of other cultures. David was suggesting in his comments that I was not getting the Thai cultural elements of Uncle Boonmee. That may be true, but one of the reasons I like films from other countries is that they educate us about the culture of those countries. If you will go down the list of films I have dealt with in this column over the last three years, you will find a lot of foreign films that I have liked, and liked specifically because of those cultural elements. Look at my comments on, just to name a few, Departures (US#29), The Secret in Their Eyes (US#46) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US#47).

The second issue is one of what might perhaps be called tone. I have always thought that if I had a motto to go on a family crest, it would be “Serious, but not Solemn.” I love movies and I take them seriously, but I try my damnedest to avoid the kind of pontificating that a lot of people get into. Just to take another whack at the East Coast Intellectual Establishment, I suspect that solemnity in dealing with foreign films comes from that disdain the Establishment had for years toward Hollywood. The reviews of Hollywood films could be frivolous because the films were frivolous, but one had to take foreign films seriously because they were Art. Well, now we know that Hollywood films can be serious as well, but we have not yet come to recognize that sometimes the foreign emperors have very little clothes, if any at all. I tend to take the same tone for both American and foreign films, and I can see why that bothers devotees of the arthouse circuit.

“Samm” raised the old question of me just reviewing films and not promoting “understanding” of screenwriting. As I have mentioned before, I am not a great believer in grand theories of screenwriting. You can get those anywhere. What I try to do in this column is help you understand screenwriting by looking at how it works—or doesn’t—in actual practice. It is only one of many ways one can “understand” screenwriting, but I think it is a valuable one. Samm then added that “from the screenwriting perspective, all these movies are more or less the same,” which sounds suspiciously like the fellow a few months ago who kept insisting that all movies are the Hero’s Journey. From the screenwriting perspective, movies are not all alike, and if you really want to understand screenwriting, you will be looking for the ways they are different, rather than the same.

Having said all of that, on to this column’s haul of goodies, in which you will find many of the issues I just discussed coming to play.

Certified Copy (2010. Written by Abbas Kiarostami. 106 minutes.)

Certified Copy

A shaggy dog story. Really. Really?: We think we know right where we are when the movie starts. We are in a copy of Before Sunset (2004). We are in a European country, an English-speaking author is about to talk about his book, a beautiful woman comes in to hear him, and eventually they go off together to walk about the countryside. Except we quickly realize it’s not Before Sunset. It’s not a sequel. We don’t know whether the woman knows the man, as we do in Sunset. She seems to be paying more attention to the teenage boy she brought with her, and she eventually leaves before the man stops talking. And he’s not filling us in on what happened in the first movie, because there is no first movie here. Instead he is talking about the subject of his book, how copies of art works can be just as moving and provide as great an experience as the original. Well, how well did you like Before Sunset, which was, after all, a sequel?

Before she leaves, “Elle,” which is how she is identified in the credits, gives her number to the moderator, and James, the author, shows up at her shop. She sells art, some of it real, some of it copies, which explains her interest in his book. And just like the writers of Before Sunset, Kiarostami is smart not to have them just sit around and chat. She takes him around Tuscany and they talk about art, people, etc. So far, so Before Sunset. One of the reasons I liked Before Sunset better than Before Sunrise (1995) is that Jesse and Celine are ten years older in the sequel and have more experience in life. Elle and James are well into their forties at least, definitely adults who talk like adults.

They stop at a small restaurant and while James steps out to take a cellphone call, the owner talks to Elle. The owner assumes Elle and James are married. Elle, who has had her ditzy moments (Juliette Binoche, running on all twelve cylinders), plays along. James (William Shimell, an opera singer in his first straight acting role, and holding his own against Binoche, no small feat) plays along too, when he finds out. So we have a copy of a relationship. But the deeper we get into the film, the more we suspect that maybe they are married, or were once, or at least met in Vienna, no, sorry, that last was Jesse and Celine. Or was it in Marienbad? Gosh, they argue like a real married couple. They seem like they have known each other, but then they seem like they haven’t.

Obviously the ending is going to be us finding out whether they are/were a real couple. But we don’t. See what I mean about it being a shaggy dog story?

Oh, speaking of screenwriting, the man of the couple they meet in a piazza in the best scene in the film is played by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. He wrote screenplays for, among others, Luis Buñuel. No wonder he seems right at home here.

Win Win (2011. Screenplay by Tom McCarthy, story by Tom McCarthy & Joe Tiboni. 106 minutes.)

Win Win

“Shit” as a structural element: In the mid-‘90s I once suggested to the editor of Creative Screenwriting that someone should do an article on the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and discuss how the word “fuck” is used as the organizing principle of the scene. Nobody rose to that bait, but you could do the same thing with the use of “shit” in the opening scene of Win Win. Look at the characters who say it and in what circumstances. McCarthy, whose previous credits as a writer-director include The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007), very nicely lays out the main characters. Mike is a lawyer who is not making a lot of money these days (who is?), Jackie is his acerbic but loving wife, and he has a couple of kids, one of whom gets to start the “shit” parade. They are all fresh characters we haven’t seen before. Mike deals with a few clients and a boiler in the basement of his office that is about to die. One of his clients is Leo, a nice old guy falling into dementia. We know Mike is a nice guy when he agrees to act as guardian for Leon. But we also know he is doing it for the $1500 the state pays him to do it. So Mike slips Leon into a very nice retirement home, using Leo’s money and pocking the $1500. Leo has a daughter, but nobody can find her. Who will ever know?

Guess who shows up on Mike’s doorstep? Nope, not the daughter, but Kyle, Leo’s grandson. He’s got no place else to stay, so Jackie insists he stay with them. Mike also is an amateur coach for the high school wrestling team. Guess who used to be a wrestler back in Ohio? Who nearly won the state championship. Mike enrolls him in the high school, puts him on the team. Happy ending all around. Not so fast. The shit hasn’t stopped flying yet.

Guess who shows up on Mike’s doorstep? Right this time: Leo’s daughter Cindy, fresh off her last stint in rehab. She would be happy to take over Leo’s guardianship because she would love to have his money, even just the $1500 guardianship fee. She seems to care for her dad, but she is a druggie after all. And she really gets pissed when she learns that Leo had not included her in his will. She brings along a lawyer, Eleanor, and the lawyer discovers that Mike is taking the guardianship fee illegally. I thought Mike was really in deep stuff here, especially since Eleanor is played by Margo Martindale, the spectacularly evil Mags Bennett on Justified. But she has no poison moonshine for Mike. He proposes a deal that would let Cindy take Leo back to Ohio but with only the guardianship fee and without Kyle. Cindy says no dice.

Cindy shows up for the regional wrestling match. Obviously there is going to be a tearful reunion between Kyle and Cindy, the end, fade out. Guess again. Kyle is so distracted by Cindy, he loses the match big time. So a final showdown between them all is set up in court. Except Cindy tells Mike in the hallway she’ll take his original deal offer, which we have almost forgotten by now. The deal scene seemed like just a step towards the big showdown, and we don’t get it. It’s like Star Wars ending without the Death Star blowing up. Don’t promise the audience what you are not going to deliver.

I think that McCarthy probably liked his main characters a little too much and didn’t want too much bad shit to happen to them, but he should have taken his cue from Billy Wilder. Wilder was a master of “what’s the worst that can happen to these characters?” Two straight guys dress up as women to join an all-girls band. What’s the worst that can happen? One guy falls in love with a girl in the band, the other guy has a rich old geezer fall in love with him. Here McCarthy lets everybody off the hook, which leads to a sappy coda that feels like it was imposed by Louis B. Mayer on a really bad day. Mike and Jackie and the kids are all happy. Kyle is staying with them and is buddies with one of the guys from the wrestling team. Mike still has his law firm, but does have to make a little extra as a bartender at night. Oh, the suffering humanity of it.

My recommendation is you see the movie for the great scenes with the great actors (Paul Giamatti as Mike, Amy Reynolds as Jackie, Melanie Lynskey in a wonderfully edgy turn as Cindy, Martindale, and Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale as two of Mike’s friends), then leave when Cindy accepts the deal. Don’t blame me if you stay and the final sequence puts you in a diabetic coma.

Potiche (2010. Screenplay adaptation by François Ozon from a play by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Grédy. 103 minutes.)

Potiche

Pop quiz: Who are Barillet & Grédy?: Well, if you were paying close attention in the item on Just Go With It in US#71, you would remember they are the French guys who wrote the play that that film was based on. Loosely based on at best. This film is based on a play they wrote in 1980, and Ozon, working with Barillet, has kept it very much in the period in which the play was set. Barillet plays a small part in the film; between this and Carrière in Certified Copy maybe putting screenwriters in small parts is a new trend in French cinema: making up for all the years of the auteur theory by showcasing screenwriters. Well, a boy can dream, can’t he?

It is 1977 and Suzanne Pujol, another of B&G’s women of a certain age, is the potiche or “trophy wife” of Robert Pujol. Remember how I mentioned in the item on Just Go With It that Jennifer Aniston is in her forties and looks like she’s in her twenties? Well, the French don’t fool around with children like that. Suzanne is at least in her fifties and looks it. Or rather she looks like Catherine Deneuve, who is actually 67 and looks like, well, Catherine Deneuve. Robert runs the umbrella factor that Suzanne’s father established. He’s a right-wing stuffed shirt, played by the French master of stuffed shirts, Fabrice Luchini. After establishing that Suzanne, in her beautiful sweatsuit, communes with nature, the film takes off with Robert having a heart attack just as the workers go on strike. My gosh, are the B&G, the masters of boulevard farce, turning political? Yes they are, and bringing the same comedic craft to the issue of women’s liberation. Suzanne takes over the factory, runs it better than Robert does, and re-connects with an old-left wing politician, Maurice Babin, she once had a fling with. He helps her run the plant and takes her to the Badaboom Club where her husband used to sneak off to see the hookers. Which naturally leads us to Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu (well, who else would you get for Babin?) doing a great disco number. Which fits beautifully into the story. The level of craft of the writing and acting by a first team of French actors is impeccable.

Needless to say, Robert is upset when he realizes what has happened, and with the help of his right wing daughter, kicks Suzanne out of the company. Suzanne seriously considers divorcing Robert. End of story. Not alas, the end of the movie. We are about 80 minutes into the film and it drags on another 23 minutes. Everything that was fast and funny sags. The jokes about male chauvinism become obvious as Suzanne runs for political office, which pits her more against Babin than with him, which does not make sense in story terms. The scenes here are not sharply drawn, as if everybody gave up and said let’s let Deneuve save it all with her charm. It does not work, and when she wins the election, the big musical number, unlike the earlier disco scene, seems tacked on. I can’t help but wondering if the original play stopped at the stage equivalent of the 80-minute mark.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011. Screenplay by John Roman, based on the novel by Michael Connelly. 118 minutes.)

The Lincoln Lawyer

I Confess done right: My wife is a big fan of Michael Connelly’s crime novels, and liked the novel of this film. Connelly is trying out a new character, a hustling lawyer named Mick Haller who does business out of his car. Yes, we have seen a lot of hustling lawyers, especially in David E. Kelley’s shows, but Mick is fun to watch. In the opening scenes we get a quick succession of cases which we assume are just exposition to tell us about Mick, but all of them come back to play in the main storyline. Mick is called upon to defend a rich young man, Louis Roulet, who is accused of beating up a woman. Roulet swears he is innocent, but the evidence piles up against him. Then the plot twists begin an hour into the film and Mick is faced with a problem: he knows Roulet is guilty. How does he know? Because Roulet tells him. And Mick has a legal obligation to his client not to tell anyone. Even worse, there is growing evidence that Roulet also committed a similar crime that one of Mick’s other clients was convicted of.

I liked the film, although I am not sure it is a great legal thriller. But the day after I saw it, I realized Connelly and Romano have done something I have been waiting 50 years for somebody to do: remake I Confess (1953) and do it right. I Confess has always been my exhibit A of the idea of remaking a flop instead of a hit and getting it right. The plot is that a man confesses he has murdered someone to a Catholic priest. The priest of course is bound by the rules of the confessional and cannot tell. Even when he later becomes the chief suspect. It’s a great idea for a film, but I would guess the 1902 play it is based on (Nos Deux Consciences by Paul Bourde, writing as “Paul Anthelme”) as well as the screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald (and other uncredited writers) have the same problem: the priest does not do anything. He sits around looking longsuffering, like the Christian martyr he is supposed to be. That may be religiously right, but it is dramatically dull. Mick Haller does stuff. He (and Connelly and Romano) are very inventive as to how Mick skirts the legal niceties and makes it all work out in the end. I’ll let you see for yourself how they do that.

White Savage (1943. Screenplay by Richard Brooks, story by Peter Milne. 75 minutes.)

White Savage

Richard Brooks?!!: Yes, the writer-director of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), and In Cold Blood (1967) had to start somewhere. He had worked as a journalist and done radio dramas when he got into screenwriting in the early ‘40s. White Savage was his first job, although it was released after a couple of other movies he worked on. Brooks told Pat McGilligan in Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s that he worked on it for eight days. I can believe it.

Universal had been making movies in black and white and decided to try color, so the idea was to be as flashy as possible. The story is about Kaloe, a shark hunter who wants to get permission from Princess Tahia of Temple Island to fish in the island waters. They fall in love, of course, and deal with Miller, the crooked businessman on the main island. Miller wants to steal the gold inlays from the Princess’s swimming pool. Needless to say, the sea God Taroaro (I can’t vouch for the spelling of his name) sends an earthquake to kill Miller. All of this in eye-popping color, I mean seriously EYE-POPPING TECHNICOLOR. Universal put together a cast of most of the “exotic” actors in Hollywood. Kaloe is Jon Hall, of the 1937 version of The Hurricane. The daughter of a Tahitian woman, Hall jumped back and forth between white and ethnic parts. It’s hard to tell what he is supposed to be here. The Princess is Maria Montez, the daughter of a Spanish diplomat born in the Dominican Republic. Her brother is Turhan Bey, an Austrian who played almost everything but an Austrian in his film career. Kaloe’s friend is Robert Flaherty’s Indian discovery Sabu. And Mr. Wong is played by the white actor Sidney Toler, but here in the same makeup and accent he used as Charlie Chan.

Are you beginning to get an idea of how frivolous this movie is? So is there anything in the script that would give us a hint as to where Richard Brooks was headed? Surprisingly, yes. The opening sequence has a fisherman run through the port village on the Universal backlot to talk to Miller. The fisherman wants to make a deal for the gold. Miller listens, then kills him. Miller already knows about the gold and is just waiting for the right time to take it. He also has hopes to take the Princess as well. Later on there is a very Brooksian poker game between Miller, the brother and Kaloe. Miller has his cook prepare a double-decker sandwich with several spare aces on the second deck. Does Kaloe realize it? Maybe. At the end of the game, just before Miller is going to slip the aces into his hand, Kaloe stabs his knife into the sandwich, divides it in half, and takes a half before leaving. A cohort of Miller’s then says to him, “There was something poison in the sandwich, Sam.” That’s the Brooks we know and love. The rest of the film is beyond camp, and in the middle of World War II its escapism made it a huge hit. Brooks wrote another Montez film, Cobra Woman (1944), but by then he was fed up with the all the geographical, cultural and logical inaccuracies. Temple Island is somewhere in the Pacific (the map in the opening credits is one of the most ridiculous things in the movie), and it has lions on it. Brooks gave up and joined the Marines to fight in the Pacific.

Key Largo (1948. Screenplay by Richard Brooks and John Huston, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson. 100 minutes.)

Key Largo

Now that’s better: Brooks came back to Hollywood after the war and got back into screenwriting. He and Huston met and worked together on this script. Brooks did most of the writing, with Huston pushing him to dig deeper into the characters. The script is nominally based on a 1939 play by Anderson that only ran 104 performances. Anderson, who had an interest in grand historical subjects (see the item on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex [1939] in US#19), tried to write this modern play in blank verse. None of that survives in the film. In the play, the main character is a deserter from the Spanish Civil War, who protects a family of a true war hero in the Florida Keys. Huston hated the story (and Anderson), so he and Brooks went off to the Keys. Huston went out fishing every day while Brooks wrote. The main character, now called Frank McCloud, is a World War II veteran, and he was at the battle of San Pietro, which was the subject for Huston’s great war documentary. He also seems to be suffering a little bit emotionally, which may come from Huston’s other documentary about the treatment of soldiers with combat fatigue, Let There be Light (1946). The characters are all tougher than I suspect they were in Anderson’s original play, and this being a Huston movie, we watch them sweat, both literally and figuratively. Sam Miller in White Savage is played by Thomas Gomez. He is the most Brooksian character in that film, and Gomez shows up here as one of the gangster’s henchman. He is much more in his element in this film than in the earlier one, as is Brooks. Huston not only let Brooks take top billing on the script, but insisted he stick around during production so he could learn how movies actually get made. Huston was preparing Brooks to be a director, which he became two years later with Crisis.

The reason I happened to see these two Brooks films is that the UCLA Film Archives is running a retrospective of Brooks’s films in April and May. I take it as a good sign that they are not only showing the ones he directed, but the ones he “just” wrote. The film series is also being done in connection with a new book about Brooks. It is called Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks, and the author is Douglass K. Daniel. I won’t have time to read it until this summer, but I will let you know more about it when I do.

The Starter Screenplay (2010. Book by Adam Levenberg. 236 pages.)

The Starter ScreenplayThe voice of experience: This entertaining and informative little book, currently published by Capable Media, came to my attention last fall and I have been meaning to mention it in a column. Levenberg worked for years as an executive in the development system in Hollywood, and his book is a compilation of the wisdom, if you want to call it that, which he built up reading bad screenplay after bad screenplay. There is absolutely nothing theoretical about this book. It is very, very practical. That is, if you want to write screenplays Hollywood readers will tell their bosses they ought to look at. Readers are, after all, the system’s first line of defense you have to break through. I am still amazed that young male writers still write the character of the Girl as a stripper or hooker or both, not realizing that at least half if not more of the readers in Hollywood are women. If all you want to do is write low-budget art films, you still might want to look at this and see why even more art-house indies than Hollywood films fail.

Levenberg’s idea of a Starter Screenplay is a simple script that will call attention to the writer by giving what he calls “moments of value”: something flashy, like Bruce Willis throwing a dead body out the window in Die Hard (1989). But he also warns about what not to write. His list of no-nos include: no biopics, no musicals, no Hollywood satires, no struggling writers or actors as heroes, and the list goes on. He says to limit yourself to one hero. I am not sure I agree with him when he says your hero should be an extrovert, but he makes a reasonable case. I would put it a different way: your hero had better do something, not just sit around sucking his thumb, or being a martyr like the priest in I Confess. See Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer for one example of how to do it.

You can email Levenberg at [email protected] for more information and to buy a copy if you feel so inclined. If you buy a copy, he’ll autograph it for you.

The Escort (2011. Stage Play by Jane Anderson. 150 minutes.)

The Escort

Sex on stage: When I write about a stage play in this column, it is usually because there is a specific film connection. See my comments on 9 to 5 in US#8 and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in US#47. This play, premiering at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, has no direct connection with film. The indirect connection is the playwright, Jane Anderson. Like many playwrights these days, she goes back and forth between theater and television. That’s not as precedent-setting as you might think. During the ‘30s through the ‘60s, the attitude in the East Coast Intellectual Establishment was that whenever a writer of plays or novels or short stories went west to work in the fleshpots of Hollywood, he or she was lost to civilization, i.e., the New York theater, forever. What is becoming more apparent as the careers of classic screenwriters are written about is that this was never truly the case. One of the best recent (2001) screenwriter biographies is The Real Nick and Nora by David L. Goodrich. He is the nephew of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and the book shows how Goodrich and Hackett moved very easily between New York and Hollywood. They wrote The Thin Man movies, the 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life (which they hated, by the way), and then returned to New York to write the stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Jane Anderson’s stage credits include The Quality of Life, The Baby Dance and Looking for Normal. She adapted the latter in the HBO film Normal, which she also directed. My favorite of her scripts is HBO’s The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom. So she thinks in both theater and film terms, and she decided to do The Escort as a stage play. You can see why. The play follows the relationship between Rhona, a middle-aged gynocologist, and Charlotte, a very high-end call girl. Rhona is intrigued by Charlotte’s life, and even lets Charlotte set her up with Matthew, a male escort friend of hers. That does not go as well as it might. Rhona also has an ex-husband, a urologist she sends Charlotte to, and a teenage son who is not only doing his homework on his computer. What makes it work as a stage play is that we are constantly getting the attitudes of these characters and how they change. Anderson is not afraid of long dialogue scenes, longer than you might want to let run on film. What she nails beautifully is how everybody’s attitudes about sex, including Charlotte’s, are constantly changing. As a result, our attitudes about the characters keep changing as well, especially in the longer scenes, such as Charlotte and Rhona at lunch in a museum, or Rhona and Matthew.

A couple of nights before we saw The Escort my wife and I saw God of Carnage, which is now playing in Los Angeles with its great original cast (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden). The play is more a theater piece than a play, but wonderfully funny, especially with that cast. We did not laugh as much at The Escort, but I think it is a better play. It gets deeper into character and attitudes than Carnage does, and provides equally great roles of the four actors: Polly Draper as Rhona (although she was a bit too soft-spoken the night we saw her), James Eckhouse as her ex, Gabriel Sunday as both her son and the escort, and especially Maggie Siff (Rachel Menken on Mad Men) as Charlotte.

I would guess the play will eventually get to New York and I recommend it. Would it ever be a movie, even for HBO? I thought not as I was watching it. One of the great theatrical touches is that there is no actual nudity (Charlotte has a great opening monologue explaining why) but nude body stockings. That would look silly on film. But on film you could frame the shots so you would not need to do that. The longer scenes might work as well.
Another thing. Writers are not the only ones who move easily between theater, television, and film. Look at that list of actors in both The Escort and God of Carnage. My guess is you can reel off more of their TV credits than their film or theater credits.

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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Film

Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially driven by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

3

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) and to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her, rather than Harriet, whose match with Martin she comes to accept, as it suits both Harriet’s social standing and the girl’s feelings. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her ever-cantankerous father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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