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Understanding Screenwriting #74: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #74: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, Devil’s Doorway, Hangman’s Knot, Mildred Pierce (2011), Cinema Verite, but first…

Fan Mail: I am so sad that the discussion of my incompetence to deal with Uncle Boonmee and its ilk did not continue. But you may be able to take another shot at it on my comments on Meek’s Cutoff below.

On the other hand, I am so happy that I get a chance to correct David Ehrenstein, a rare occasion. He mentioned I did not include the most famous line of dialogue in White Savage, “How are you today, Tamara?” The reason I did not is because it’s not in the film. It showed up in a review of the film, and everybody has always assumed it was in the film. That character’s name is Tahia, not Tamara. “How are you today, Tahia?” is pretty silly, but just not as silly as the frequently quoted line.

The Princess of Montpensier (2010. Screenplay by Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau and Bertrand Tavernier, based on a story by Madame de La Fayette. 139 minutes.)

The Son of Intolerance: There are just not a lot of movies that deal with the civil war in 16th-century France between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. You can see why: you’d piss off the Catholics or the Protestants in the audience or both. There is the 1994 French film Queen Margot, about Marguerite de Valois, but most cinephiles know about the period from the French story in Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance. What, you forgot there was a French story in Intolerance? Not surprising, since it is not nearly as compelling as the Babylon story and the Modern story. It also suffered the most in the cutting of the film, probably because Griffith realized it just did not stand up to the other two.

The Princess of Montpensier does a lot of things better than Griffith, partly because the filmmakers (Tavernier is also the director) have more time. But they also seem more interested in bringing the time period alive. The film begins in the middle of a battle, and we see the Comte de Chabannes in the thick of it. But he kills a pregnant woman and decides to quit. Just as well, because he has at various times fought for both sides, and both have banished him. So a protégé of his, Philip of Montpensier, takes him in. We get a wonderful scene of Philip’s father hustling Marie’s father out of her marrying the younger brother of Henri du Guise and marrying Philip. Marie would be glad to be rid of the brother, because it’s Henri she’s in love with. But women are traded like chattel in those days. Philip is sort of clueless about Marie and women in general, undoubtedly not helped by a wedding night in which there are witnesses to the, uhm, consummation of the marriage. OK, the witnesses stand outside the fourposter with the curtains closed, but still. And the whole scene is treated like the everyday occurrence that it was.

Philip goes off to war, and leaves Chabannes to teach Marie so she won’t be such a ninnie when he takes her to the royal court in Paris. But Philip is really the ninnie here. In these scenes with Chabannes, Marie at least seems to have some kind of intelligence. The two seem to get along well, and we learn what she has to learn, as well as such others things as gathering herb for medical reasons. And Chabannes, an older man, admits to Marie that he loves her. Then never mentions it again. Marie doesn’t press the point, since she still has the hots for Henri. These scenes have not only a nice feel for the period (look at Marie trying to dismantle a dead boar), but also the French landscape. We know that Tavernier is a big fan of American westerns, and there is more horseback riding in this film than any 20 other French films you could name.

About an hour and twenty minutes into the film, Marie goes to court with Philip and the script begins to fall apart. We have been waiting for her to get there to strut her stuff, but very little of what Chabannes has taught her shows up. There has been much talk of her meeting the queen, and she does. But the scene does not live up to the buildup, and is not a patch on the scenes with Josephine Crowell and Virna Lisa as Queen Catherine in Intolerance and Queen Margot, respectively. We are not only inside a lot after all those previous gorgeous views of the countryside, but we begin to lose the period detail. The story threatens to become French bedroom farce, complete with people hiding in closets and slamming doors. Henri is at court, and Marie takes up with him, and there is the Duc d’Anjou, who has fallen for Marie as well. Marie, who seemed to have some intelligence in the first half of the film, has taken leave of her senses in the second half. Yes, she’s in love, and love fries the brain, but still. We get what I take to be the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, but Griffith made it clearer and more connected to his story. Lots of people die in both films.

Source Code (2011. Written by Ben Ripley. 93 minutes.)

Source Code

A sci-fi movie Stempel likes? Alert the media: So there’s this guy who suddenly wakes up on a train. Christina Warren, the woman sitting across from him, is obviously his friend, but he doesn’t recognize the name she calls him. He’s trying to figure out what’s going on and—BOOM—an explosion wrecks the train, killing all on board. But in that opening scene, Ripley has raised a lot of questions, always a good way to start a film (if you are going to answer them), but more importantly, he has given the two actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan, characters to play and stuff to do. Even in a sci-fi movie, never underestimate the importance of interesting characters.

Then Colter Stevens, as the guy thinks of himself, is in what looks to be a damaged cockpit of some kind. More questions. A TV screen shows us Colleen Goodwin, who appears to be Stevens’s guide? Handler? We don’t know. She gives him some information on his mission: there is a bomb on the train and he is “going back in” to try to find out who planted it. How can that be? Another question. It’s forty minutes into the picture before we get a techno-babble explanation of what the “source code” is and how Stevens can keep returning to the train before the bomb. And the crucial line in the explanation is not techno-babble at all. Dr. Rutledge, the head of the project, compares it to the slight glow of a light bulb after it’s been turned off. That reminds me of the dialogue John Sayles was hired to write for Apollo 13 (1995) to make the scientific language clear to audiences, e.g. “That’s not enough electricity to run a vacuum cleaner.” Writers of sci-fi always assume they have to give us a lot of techno-babble. They don’t. How is time travel possible? Easy. In Back to the Future (1985) it was the Flux Capacitor. Here it’s the Source Code. That’s all we need to know.

So Stevens ends up “going back in” several times, trying to figure out who set the bomb on the train, since the bomber has sent a message that he has also placed a nuclear bomb that will destroy Chicago. These scenes ought to be repetitive, but they are not, because both Stevens and we know more each time, including who is not the bomber. So each 8 minute sequence has its own dynamic. One of the problems I always had with the similar Groundhog Day (1993) was the repetition. Ripley obviously figured out how to avoid that problem. About an hour into the film, Stevens figures out who the bomber is and lets the controllers know. So now we’re going to have a big chase and shootout, right? Nope. We get the bomber’s arrest, but only in a long shot from the TV coverage. I have no idea how they got that past the “creative executives,” but Ripley and the gang were right to do it. If you have a big action scene now, anything else will seem anti-climactic. Because Ripley has involved us with the characters (both Gyllenhaal and Monaghan are given a lot of different stuff to do in each “insertion”—you can see why Gyllenhaal attached himself to the script very early in the process), we want to know what happens to them. Stevens is officially dead, but he convinces Goodwin to send him back, which shouldn’t work, either in the rules of the Source Code or for the audience. But the audience wants to know what happens to these characters. And Stevens discovers something about the Source Code that Rutledge and Goodwin don’t know…

Oh, for would-be actors: study Vera Farmiga’s performance as Goodwin until your head hurts. Almost her entire role consists of sitting at a console looking directly into the camera, talking and reacting. And you can’t take your eyes off her.

And for would-be directors: Look how smart the director Duncan Jones was not to tart up Farmiga’s role or performance. Less is more.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010. Written by Jonathan Raymond. 100 minutes by my count, 104 minutes on the IMDb.)

Meek's Cutoff

Cutoff indeed: Let’s see. This is a western, and you know I love westerns. This is about women in the old west and as you may have guessed, I love women. And in theory I should have been primed for this film. A few weeks before I saw it, I ran the 1960 NBC program The Real West in my LACC History of Documentary class. Gary Cooper is the narrator and he reads from diaries and journals of women during their journeys west. Then two days before I saw Meek’s Cutoff, I ran the 1961 National Film Board of Canada’s documentary Days of Whisky Gap. It has interviews with people who were around in the Canadian equivalent of the wild west, which naturally was not all that wild in Canada. The final interview in the film is with 90-year-old Sarah Card, and she talks about her trip by wagon train from Utah to western Canada. She is warm and funny and observant.

You can guess where this is going. Meek’s Cutoff begins with a shot of a covered wagon crossing a river, pulled by oxen. The shot goes on and on. Oh, crap, is this the feminist western equivalent of Uncle Boonmee? Thank goodness no, but the picture is slow, which makes sense because journeying by covered wagon was slow. We are with three wagons, being led by Stephen Meek, a guide with more hair than Bigfoot. The group has apparently decided to take Meek’s advice and go to Oregon a slightly different way. The travelers begin to grumble that he may have misled them. Then they discover/capture an Indian, who may or may not be able to find some water for them. Meanwhile, we get a lot of detail about the daily life on a wagon train, even a small one. What we do not get is a lot of characterization. The three women do their daily chores, but we don’t get as much about their characters as we got from The Real West and Sarah Card. And we get even less about the men. The men do argue, usually almost out of our and the women’s hearing. There is disagreement about what to do with the Indian, and one of the wives, Emily, actually speaks up for him. This surprises everyone, including possibly Emily herself. That’s pretty much it for her character. Meek is given more characterization, but he is the cliched desert coot. He is played by Bruce Greenwood, who is often wonderful in other roles, but he does not have the wildness the part requires. Imagine Jeff Bridges in his Rooster Cogburn mode and you can see what’s missing. When the director, Kelly Reichardt, does bother to give us one of her rare clear, well-lighted closeups of Greenwood, there is no madness is in his eyes.

So we do not have much of a plot, more like what I have referred to as a Plot-Like Substance. Will the Indian lead them to water before they kill him? They eventually go over a hill and into a shallow valley, where they find a tree. The settlers point out that where this is a tree, there has to be water, but nobody can see any water. The Indian walks off. Credits roll. And I heard a sound from the audience I can’t recall ever having heard before. They laughed, and they seemed to be laughing at themselves for having been taken in for 100 minutes by a movie that is not even going to bother finish telling the story it started out to tell.

Devil’s Doorway (1950. Written by Guy Trosper. 84 minutes.)

Devil's DoorwayDore Schary’s west: You may remember from US#22 that Dore Schary, who was the head of production at MGM in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, loved his message pictures. This is one of them. Lance Poole, an Indian who won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, returns home after the Civil War. All he wants to do is work his ranch in a beautiful valley in Wyoming (the film was actually shot in Colorado, near Aspen and Grand Junction). But lawyers and land sharks are promoting opening up those lands for white settlers, because, gasp, Indians are not allowed to own land. Poole tries to work with a, gasp, woman lawyer, but the evil white male lawyer, Verne Coolan, stirs up the white would-be settlers and Poole is eventually killed. I am not making the plot description any more heavy-handed than the movie is. Guy Trosper’s scripts, such as Pride of St. Louis (1952) or Darby’s Rangers (1958) were usually not this heavy-handed, which makes me think it’s Schary’s influence.

The same year this film came out Broken Arrow was released. It was written by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz and his friend and front Michael Blankfort had the onscreen credit. The film is also pro-Indian, as scout Tom Jeffords comes to know Cochise and appreciate the Indian way of life. Broken Arrow is a much better film, a bigger commercial hit and launched the pro-Indian films of the ‘50s. It was also in Technicolor and gorgeous to look at. Devil’s Doorway was shot (beautifully, by John Alton) in black and white. Now why, if they were sending the production all the way to Colorado, would they shoot it in black-and-white? Because in those days, it was assumed by filmmakers and critics alike that if you were making a “serious,” i.e., message, picture, it had to be in black-and-white. Black-and-white was considered more “realistic.” I am not joking. Color was for lightweight films, like musicals, comedies, and “non-serious” westerns, an attitude that existed well into the ‘60s. Obviously Fox did not think of Broken Arrow as a message picture, and it is all the better for its lack of pretension.

Hangman’s Knot (1952. Written by Roy Huggins. 81 minutes.)

Hangman's Knot

Not exactly a Ranown film: In US#17 and #18, I spent some time writing about the classic Ranown westerns of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. They were produced by Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott and starred Scott. They were written by either Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang, and directed by Budd Boetticher. They are rather minimalist, with rarely a wasted word or a shot, and the plots are very tightly wound.

This is a much earlier film, but you can see what’s coming. Scott stars, it is shot in the Alabama Hills where several of the Ranown films were made, and Lee Marvin is on hand as a not very nice person. Scott is a Confederate officer whose unit robs a wagonload of Union gold in the west, only to discover the war ended three weeks before. All sorts of folks are after them and a group of deputies get them trapped in a stagecoach stop. The deputies are not really deputies, but just out for the gold. The plot element of a gang holed up at a stagecoach stop may well have been borrowed from Dudley Nichols’ screenplay for Rawhide the year before. Nichols’s bad guys are bad, but Scott and his crew are a little more ambiguous, as well as prone to fighting among themselves.

The plotting is more complex than the minimalist Ranown films, with Huggins throwing in more twists and turns than Kennedy and Lang. The humor is also different. In the Ranown films, the humor is sardonic and dry and mostly given to the Scott characters. In Hangman’s Knot, the humor is slyer and given to a variety of characters. Both the trickiness of the plotting and the humor would serve Huggins better in his later career. After a few years writing B pictures (Hangman’s Knot is the only feature he directed), he moved into early studio filmed television, writing for the most of the series that Warner Brothers did in the early ‘50s. Like a lot of TV writers of the period he had a very quick mind, which combined with his ability to come up with plot twists led him to write a voluminous amount of material. When he got into producing, he often wrote the stories for his shows and passed them off to the writers. Early in his TV career he got tired of doing the same old westerns. He had been thinking of a slyer look at westerns and after seeing a young actor in one of the shows he wrote, he created a series for him. The actor was James Garner, the show was Maverick and it made the careers of both men. You can see the beginnings of both the Ranown westerns and Maverick in Hangman’s Knot.

Mildred Pierce (2011. Screenplay by Todd Haynes and Jon Raymond, based on the novel by James M. Cain. 330 minutes.)

Mildred Pierce

I wish I liked it better: I have never been all that much of a fan of the 1945 film version of the Cain novel, since producer Jerry Wald’s turning it into a film noir made it a lot more melodramatic than it needed to be. The idea of a longer version that can deal in a less flamboyant way with the story Cain told was appealing, especially since it had Kate Winslet as Mildred. I would much rather watch Winslet than Joan Crawford any day.

I had a hard time getting into the first hour. If the 1945 film moves too fast, this version moves too slow, especially in the first episode. We get a lot of detail about Mildred and her life, and as you know I really get on scripts that do not give us enough detail. See my comments above on Meek’s Cutoff (by the way, the Jonathan Raymond who wrote that is the Jon Raymond who co-wrote this; he can be a good writer and someday he will get the balance right). But here the story bogs down as we get scene after scene of Mildred trying to find a job in the middle of the Depression after she kicks her husband out. The scenes do show a lot about Mildred’s character, but almost too much. Winslet runs with what they give her, giving us all the detail the script has, but I am not sure we need to see so much here, since I for one am ready to get into the story.

Things pick up in the second episode. Mildred takes a job as a waitress, after saying she wouldn’t. She also starts bringing in the pies we have seen her baking since episode one, and begins to develop a side business in them. Then she gets the idea of having a restaurant. We see she is not just moping around the way she was in the first episode. She has some ambition, both for herself and her daughters. She also lets herself be seduced by a rich playboy, Monty Beregon. It turns out our Mildred has a sensual side we had not seen before (there is a nice scene in the first episode where she agrees to have sex with Wally, a former colleague of her ex-husband; it is not a pleasurable experience for her). Unfortunately while she is out canoodling with Monty, her youngest daughter Ray falls sick and eventually dies.

In the third episode Mildred opens her restaurant and it’s a hit. She is now having to deal with the little monster of her surviving daughter, Veda. Veda has always been a handful and by now Mildred undoubtedly feels guilty over the death of Ray. Mildred is determined that Veda will have the best and Veda certainly feels entitled that she should. One of the problems I have always had with Mildred in her many forms is why the hell doesn’t she just slap some sense into Veda? I know, I know, a mother’s love, but in the 1945 film Crawford could have taken out Ann Blyth in a New York minute. Here, because of the running time Veda gets more and more insufferable as the film continues. Here is a case where longer is not necessarily better. In this episode, Mildred and Monty break up and Mildred is determined to get a piano for Veda, who may or may not have musical talent.

In the fourth episode, Veda’s misbehavior gets more repetitive. She tries to blackmail the family of a film director by claiming she is pregnant with their son’s baby. She uses the money to leave Mildred, which is good riddance I would say, but she also begins to develop a singing career. At the beginning of episode five, Mildred is still in there pitching, telling a conductor who has worked with Veda that she will pay for Veda’s singing lessons, but the conductor says that she is “a grand talent, but a terrible girl.” We all know that, why can’t Mildred accept it? Mildred has been using money from her restaurant business to try to buy Veda’s love by sponsoring a concert. The concert is a success and Veda and Mildred seem reconciled. Veda feels she has what she’s entitled to, while Mildred feels her sacrifices have not been in vain. Some sacrifices, too. The restaurants have been taken away from her by Wally, her partner, and Ida, a waitress she brought into her business. They suggest Mildred go talk to Veda to see if she will kick in money. Like that will happen. And what does Mildred find? Veda in bed with Monty. Mildred strangles Veda, but not alas enough to kill her.

Then, after having dragged the script out as a long as they have, the writers try to wrap everything up too quickly. Mildred and her ex, Bert are together again, and she and Ida are buddies again. How and when did all those things happen? Veda shows up, but only to tell them she is going to New York. Monty is already there. Mildred finally yells at Veda to never come back, and Mildred and Bert agree to try to forget Veda. Good luck on that.

Having pointed out the problems in the script, let me say there are also some very good things in it. This version captures the whole issue of class in America much better than the 1945 version, and we see it worked out in Mildred and Veda’s attitudes toward, well, everything. The script also provides the opportunity for a lot of great actors to do some very good work. I particularly like Guy Pearce as Monty. Zachary Scott in the 1945 film was slimy from the word go; here Pearce gives us Monty’s charm as well. James LeGros is much more well-rounded at Wally than Jack Carson was. Morgan Turner is great as the young Veda, but Evan Rachel Wood lets down the side as the adult Veda. She is a little arch and one-note. When she is found in bed with Monty, her only reaction is a sullen stare. More could be done with that.

All in all, I think the solution is to do a version of Mildred Pierce that runs somewhere between the 111 minutes of the 1945 version and the 330 minutes of this one.

Cinema Verite (2011. Written by David Seltzer. 91 minutes.)

Cinema Verite

The title’s not necessarily as wrong as you think: In my History of Documentary Film class I make the distinction between Direct Cinema (the technique of using the lightweight cameras and sound equipment developed in the early ‘60s) and Cinema Verite (using the equipment to follow people around as they do what they do). It helps the students understand the difference and more importantly makes for great final exam questions. Now I will grant you that most people use the term Cinema Verite as a catch-all description for any documentary shot using hand-held cameras and sound equipment (and those even less in the know use it as a term for documentary in general). Cinema Verite is set in the early ‘70s when those distinctions were not as well established, so I suppose you can justify the title. But still…

The film is about the making of the now-legendary 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family. It is a semi-fictionalized account, the most notable howler being the suggestion that Craig Gilbert, the producer who came up with the idea for the series, and Pat Loud, the wife of the family, had a fling. Both Gilbert and Loud have denied it several times, and I am willing to take their word for it. This film does deal with the always interesting question of the relationship between fiction and reality, as well as the relationship between reality and documentary film. It starts with clips from the original series with the actual family, shifting to shots recreated with the actors for this film. We get the first meeting of Gilbert and Pat Loud, which obviously was not part of the original series, and then Pat talking it over with her husband, Bill. He turns out to like the idea, a surprise to Pat. One question that comes up in my class is how do documentary filmmakers convince people to appear in their films. Well, it’s easy. Like Bill here, people assume they will be more appealing and charming on-camera than they are in real life. And they are often quite happy when they see the results, until the critics and public weigh in on them. An American Family was a classic case of that.

Since Seltzer is focusing on Gilbert and Pat, we spend more time with them and see more of their character than we get of the other members of the family. Seltzer has given nice scenes, no matter what you think of their “truth,” to James Gandolfini as Gilbert and Diane Lane as Pat. Bill is sort of written as a one-note character, and Tim Robbins does not take him much beyond that. Near the end, there is a clip from the real Bill on the Dick Cavett show and he is a much more interesting personality than he is in this film. We have often talked in this column about how characters in documentary film are much more interesting than those in fiction films. The Direct Cinema/Cinema Verite approaches give us a much more intimate view of characters than traditional documentaries did. That was especially true of An American Family. Part of that was the filmmakers (Alan Raymond shot the series, and Susan Raymond did the sound). The Raymonds were less willing than Gilbert to invade the privacy of the Louds, but Gilbert pushed them into it. This may seem silly and outdated to you, but in the early days of CV/DC, filmmakers were actually concerned about issues like that. See my appreciation of Richard Leacock for the House for one of the earliest examples of that concern.

The series also got into the characters more deeply because it was twelve hours long, so we had side trips with other members of the family. The one we get most in Cinema Verite is the gay son, Lance Loud. Lance Loud was the first gay character on American television that viewers of the time spent more than a minute-and-a-half with. Seltzer also ends the script after the Raymonds shoot the scene where Pat asks Bill to move out. Unless you have seen the series, you may not know that it went on for several more hour-long episodes. The aftermath was in many ways the most fascinating part of the series, because there had really been nothing like it before. Unfortunately, because of time limitations, Seltzer can’t get into that. We only get a quick montage at the end of the reactions of the critics, cultural commentators, et al, about the show. There could be a whole 91 minute movie about the uproar the series caused. That’s the solution HBO, cut an hour or two out of Mildred Pierce and give it to Cinema Verite.

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

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.

2.5

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Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

2.5

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47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

1.5

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Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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