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Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, Helen of Troy, but first…

Fan Mail: My comment in US#74 that Lance Loud was “the first gay character on American television that viewers of the time spent more than a minute-and-a-half with” upset David Ehrenstein. He thought I was using “character” as in “what a weird person” rather than as a person in a work of art. This led to a three-way debate between David, Matt Maul and me. You can read the comments at the bottom of that column. In his last comment, David suggested several films I could show in my course. As far as I can tell, most of those films are fiction films, and I was talking in my comments about my History of Documentary Film course.

However, the issue of showing films in my courses is now moot. As of this month I have retired after forty years of teaching film history and screenwriting courses at Los Angeles City College, so I will not be scheduling any more course screenings. It has been a terrific forty years, teaching at what is as far as I know the only community college film program whose former students have 12 Academy Award nominations (with five wins), 27 Emmy nominations (with at least three wins, but we are not done counting yet), and at least 2 Grammy nominations (we are not done counting all those either). And since the campus is located a block and a half away from the former site of the only film studio built for a woman director (Lois Webber in the ‘20s), it should not be surprising that we are the only film school, college or university, anywhere I know that had two films given wide releases in one year, each directed by a different woman alumnae.

Just because I am retiring from teaching, however, does not mean I am giving up this column. I intend to keep doing it as long as they will let me, since I don’t want my brain to atrophy. Although David Ehrenstein may sometimes think it already has atrophied.

Now, onto this load of films, and even though I am not yet dealing with The Tree of Life, I assure you I will eventually. I believe that is a legal requirement for writing for the House.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011. Screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. 137 minutes.)

Johnny Depp is an ungrateful miscreant: When Elliott & Rossio pitched the idea to Disney in the early ‘90s of doing a film based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, they were told Disney was not making movies based on their rides. But Disney eventually rethought it and hired Jay Wolpert to come up with a story. Wolpert made a crucial decision: that the movie should be fun. There had not been a great pirate movie since The Crimson Pirate in 1952. There had been several B-movie pirate movies, but the big-budget ones, such as Swashbuckler (1976) and Pirates (1986) were ponderous. The producers of those seemed to have forgotten that the pirate movies of yore were written by Hollywood wits like Ben Hecht (The Black Swan [1942]) and Herman J. Mankiewicz (The Spanish Main [1945]). Wolpert was replaced by Stuart Beattie, who worked out the story and named the characters after birds (Swann, Sparrow, etc). Then Disney approached Elliott & Rossio, who by then had been nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay for Shrek (2001). The boys went in and made the same pitch they had made ten years before: it will be a Gothic swashbuckler. When Disney hesitated, the boys said, “Hey, the ride starts with a talking skull.” The deal was on. When they were writing Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), neither they nor anybody at Disney had any notion of doing a sequel. So when Disney later wanted two sequels, to be shot at the same time, Elliott & Rossio had to decide: 1) do we make them totally separate adventures, like the Bond movies?, or 2) do we pretend we had a trilogy in mind all along? They went the latter route and came up with the best written film trilogy ever.

What? What? The reviews for #2 and especially #3 were terrible. But if you pay attention to the scripts, which most critics tend not to do, you will find that Elliott & Rossio have indeed told a coherent story, even though it is not the one you think it is. Yes, especially in the third film, people are constantly changing sides, but that’s because they’re PIRATES, folks. Yes, Elliott & Rossio had to make up a set of cards for themselves for the sea battle in the Vortex to remind themselves who was on what ship when. And at one point Johnny Depp told the director, Gore Verbinski, about a detail in the script, “I don’t really know what this means,” to which Verbinski replied, “Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.” Now, the common way to read that exchange is that the script was a mess. The other way is that Verbinski, who had worked with Elliott & Rossio, knew that the writers knew what they were doing and trusted them and their script. At one point in #3, a navy officer says of Captain Jack Sparrow, “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?” The correct answer for Sparrow and the writers is…both.

In Captain Jack Sparrow, Elliott & Rossio and the writers before them had created a great screen character, one that cemented Johnny Depp as a Movie Star. And Depp’s response? In the May 13, 2011 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Depp spends most of the article about the making of On Stranger Tides complaining about how confusing the script for #3 was. (The quote above is from that article.) A nice way to treat the boys who, in #1 gave Depp some exposition, which Depp hates to do, but added the word “miscreant” to the speech. Depp then thought it was a fair trade. Depp, by the way, never mentions Elliott & Rossio by name in the article, and they are mentioned only in passing in an article in the Los Angeles Times about the making of #4 (“On lower ’Tides,’” May 19th in the print edition, but a search of the Times website shows no trace of it). When the first three Pirates films opened, there were interviews with Elliott & Rossio in Creative Screenwriting, but neither the current issue of CS nor the current issue of Script has interviews with them. Trouble in the Magic Kingdom, do you think?

The Times article, as well the stuff not about Johnny Depp in the Entertainment Weekly piece, make a point that Disney had told Elliott & Rossio that they had to cut back on the special effects to reduce the budget. So in Stranger Tides we get no sea battle in the Vortex, no Kraken devouring ships, and no Davy Jones with his CGI tentacles. And we do not get a hugely complicated story (although if this turns out to be the first of a new trilogy, they may be laying in stuff that will pay off later, like the broken compass in #1). This, unlike the first three, is not an over-the-top movie. The storyline is fairly straightforward: assorted groups of pirates and navies try to find the legendary Fountain of Youth. The novel that “suggested” the film is about the search for the Fountain by Blackbeard and his zombie cohorts, and we follow a young puppeteer, John Chandagnac, who gets shanghaied by Blackbeard. It appears that what Elliott & Rossio brought over from the book were just Blackbeard, the zombies (although they are not used very effectively), and the Fountain.

The review in Variety (May 16-22 in the weekly edition) notes early on that this film has dropped “two key protagonists without explanation,” which means the reviewer paid no attention at all to the first three films. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s story was over at the end of the first trilogy. Here’s the thing many people do not realize about the first three films: they are not Jack Sparrow’s movie. He is not the main character in those stories. He is a supporting character. Yes, yes, I know, Johnny Depp, big star, name above the title, nominated for an Oscar for the first one for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But Brando won the same Oscar for The Godfather in what is a supporting role in Michael’s movie. Many critics complained that in #3, we don’t see Captain Jack for the first half hour of the film. No, we don’t. It’s not his movie, and Elliott & Rossio, trying to keep their name-above-the-title actor onscreen as much as they can, write in all kinds of surreal scenes for him that are not really needed in the story they are telling. See what I meant earlier about them not telling the story you think they are?

So now, with Will and Elizabeth gone, they move Captain Jack into the lead role, and it is not that great a fit. Owen Gleiberman, in his review in the May 27th Entertainment Weekly, begins to see the problem: “Jack, more than ever, is now front and center, the focal point of every scene, and the result is that he’s become less of a jester and more of a colorless expository hero. He ticks off the story for us, point by point, instead of standing to the side lobbing little verbal bombs at it. Depp’s delivery is still amusingly sozzled, but the performance has lost any trace of surprise or merry deranged zing. The more Jack says, the less funny he is.”

While Elliott & Rossio have had to cut down on the special effects, they have alas also cut down on the gallery of interesting supporting characters they came up with for the first three. Yes, Disney probably did not want to pay for those actors to return, but their “replacements” are just plain dull. There is no equivalent of Pintel and Ragetti, whose philosophical discussions were fun diversions. There is no equivalent of Murtogg and Mullroy, the British soldiers who keep popping up in the trilogy. The “young lover” leads are not a patch on Will and Elizabeth, and the actors playing them have none of the charisma of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. There is also a problem with taking Blackbeard over from Powers’ novel. He is essentially Barbossa. And Barbossa is back in this one, so we have two bad pirates it is hard to tell apart. Elliott & Rossio have made the “real” Barbossa a privateer for the king, but they don’t do a lot with that.

The one great addition to the cast is Angelica, a female pirate from the get-go. She doesn’t have to grow into it in the way Elizabeth did in the trilogy. It helps that they have Penélope Cruz at her most radiant and feisty in the part, although she’s sometimes caught without as much to do as they might have given her. The boys have also done better this time by Keith Richards as Jack’s dad. In #3 he showed up at the meeting of the pirate kings where Richards, not an actor, was blown off the screen by the other actors. Here he has a very short scene with Depp that gives him a great line and then he’s gone, a much better use of his limited talents.

Even within the budget limitations, the boys have given us some nice scenes. There is a chase through London that is fun, as well as a great swordfight with Captain Jack and a person who turns out to be Angelica. It is in the storage room of an inn, and like the first duel in #1 in the blacksmith shop between Captain Jack and Will, it very effectively uses the set and props. We do eventually get Ponce de Leon in his bed, a reference to a “scene” in the ride, and there is a nice special effect of one of the major characters dying. Less is more in that case. Well, dying for now, but there is very little feeling in this film of Elliott & Rossio’s idea that the first trilogy was a Gothic swashbuckler, so the character may actually be dead.

The script is also funnier than you will probably think it is as you watch it. Line after line went by with me thinking, “That was funny.” But the director of this one, Rob Marshall, apparently never got the memo from Jay Wolpert that these movies are supposed to be fun. Marshall can direct the action, but he is one of the most humor-impaired directors working in movies today. Chicago (2002) does not have nearly the laughs its predecessor Roxie Hart (1942) does, and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is not exactly a barrel of yucks.

The last fifteen minutes of the film are the best, with a nice final scene for the two young lovers, and a funny scene with Captain Jack leaving Angelica on a desert island, even though she claims to be pregnant by him. And then the old freewheeling plotting that Elliott & Rossi are so great at finally kicks in. Gibbs has rescued something, or somethings, from Blackbeard’s ship. We saw them before, but just assumed they were part of a scene with Blackbeard. Not a chance. And as usual with the Pirates films, stay through the credits for the final post-credit scene. If you did with #3, you finally got the answer to the question of whose movie the trilogy was. Here we get yet another detail that we thought was a nice one-off that answers the question an earlier scene in these last minutes have raised. It suggests there will be a next one. Free Elliott & Rossio! And maybe bring back Gore Verbinski.

Midnight in Paris (2011. Written by Woody Allen. 94 minutes.)

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is also an ungrateful miscreant: This is one of Allen’s most charming films in recent years. With one small exception, which we will talk about later, there is none of the misanthropy that mars many of his later films. See my comments on Whatever Works (2009) in US#61 for an example.

The setup is simple: Gil and his fiancee Inez have piggybacked a vacation in Paris with her rich parents. Gil loves Paris and thinks about moving there, but Inez is expecting him to stay put in Malibu. Gil is out walking one night and as the church bells ring midnight, a cab from the ‘20s pulls up and its occupants invite Gil to go to a party with them. He assumes it is a costume party until he gets there and realizes he is back in Paris. In the 1920s. And the couple he meets at the party really are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and that really is Cole Porter playing the piano and singing. He keeps coming back to the same spot each midnight and meets more and more famous people from the ‘20s, some he gets to know well, some briefly. You never know whom he is going to run into, which becomes a great running gag.

Gil is a screenwriter working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop, so if you had not guessed by the time you learn that, the movie is about nostalgia. Gil is nostalgic for the Paris he once visited and for Paris in the ‘20s. Adriana, a ‘20s artists’ muse and mistress he meets, is nostalgic for turn-of-the-century Paris, a great twist in the plot that carries out the theme of nostalgia. You can easily imagine Gil played by a young Woody Allen, but he is played by Owen Wilson, who is the perfect choice. Unlike John Cusack is Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (1998), he does not fall into an imitation of Allen. His California surfer-dude quality works surprisingly well delivering Allen’s lines and gives the character a charm that’s missing in the leads in a lot of Allen’s movies.

The other cast members are impeccable, especially those portraying the famous ones. If you only know Corey Stoll as the bald-headed cop in Law & Order: LA, you will probably not recognize him as Hemingway, but he brilliantly delivers Allen’s faux-Hemingway language. Adrien de Van as Luis Buñuel has a priceless reaction to Gil trying to suggest what obviously will become well, you figure it out. But the best combination of actor, character and the writing comes from Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí. Allen has written a scene in which Dalí becomes fascinated with the word “rhinoceros.” I have no idea how often the word was in the original script, but Brody does incredible things with it every time he pronounces it, and it gets funnier each time. A perfect example of my mantra that when writing a screenplay you are writing for performance.

Ah, yes, the one small exception. As much I loved this film (more than any Allen picture in years), I kept getting put off by his snotty attitude toward California and Hollywood screenwriters. OK, we are used to Allen’s anti-California zingers. The ones in Annie Hall (1977) was the reason the film was booed when it was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. In this film, however, he has Gil being a Hollywood screenwriter who hates his work and is writing a novel. OK, but Allen is very, and I mean very, careful not to tell us anything about what Gil has written. For all we know Gil might have written something as rich and complex as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, or as morally compelling as Steve Zallian’s script of Schindler’s List (1993), or as fast and funny as Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for last year’s The Social Network. I know Allen is a New Yorker born and bred and grew up with that New York attitude about screenwriting that is the reason for this column, but you would have thought that by now he would have learned better. I generally did not agree with a lot of what Timothy Leary said, but I loved his comment in the ‘70s that Woody Allen needed to come out to California and get a tan.

The Wooden Horse (1950. Screenplay by Eric Williams, based on his novel. 101 minutes.)

The Wooden Horse

Where’s Steven McQueen when you need him?: A sub-genre of World War II films that emerged in the post-war era was the prisoner-of-war film. Some of them became classics, like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). Some, like this one, didn’t.

Eric Williams was a POW during the early years of the war and his novel is based on his actual escape from Stalag Luft III, the site of the activities shown in The Great Escape. Why he turned it into a novel I have no idea, since it follows the events rather closely, but with the names changed. The story shows us how a group of British POWs come up with an ingenious idea for a tunnel. They don’t start under the barracks, which as you may remember from The Great Escape are a fair distance from the barbed wire fences. They construct a wooden vaulting horse from assorted wood found around the camp. It is closed on both sides so a man or two can hide inside. The prisoners bring the horse out to the exercise area and the man inside digs the tunnel while the others exercise. Then he crawls back up into the horse, covers the hole, and is carried back to the barracks. Yes, the Germans seem really stupid not to guess what’s going on, but they were big on physical health so maybe it all seemed natural to them. Eventually three of the prisoners escape and make their way to Sweden. If my telling of the story seems rather flat, it’s because the movie is flat. As I mentioned, the script is based on a novel. I have not read the novel, but based on the film, it does not look like Williams took advantage of fictionalizing the material. The script falls into the trap so many films “based on true events” do: the makers assume that because the story is true, it will be interesting. The characters are bland, and the storytelling is as slow as molasses. If the characters were livelier, we wouldn’t mind the pace. The film is not helped by casting Leo Genn in one of the two leading roles. He was a terrific character actor but not a leading man. The other “star” was Anthony Steel, who had a minor career as a minor star, but is, shall we say, charisma-challenged. When he came to Hollywood a few years after this film with his then-wife, you can understand why he was known around town as “Mr. Anita Ekberg.”

The Colditz Story (1955. Adaptation and screenplay by Ivan Foxwell and Guy Hamilton, from the book by P.R. Reid, dialogue by William Douglas Home. 94 minutes.)

The Colditz Story

When you have John Mills, you don’t need McQueen: This one is a better known and much more successful POW story. And that’s because the screenplay is much better. The source material is sometimes identified as a novel, but it is appears to be more a non-fiction account. Its author, Pat Reid, was the head of escape attempts at Colditz, a castle in Saxony where, early in the war, the Germans put the most incorrigible POWs. For some reason the Germans felt that the smart thing to do was to take all the prisoners who made the most escapes and collect them in one place. It did not work here, just as it did not work later in Stalag Luft III (see above and The Great Escape). Colditz had one of the highest escape rates of all German POW camps.

Reid’s book is apparently a livelier read than Williams’, going by comments on Amazon.com, and the script is a whole lot livelier than Williams. I am sure that it is helped by the dialogue writing of William Douglas-Home, working here without his hyphen. He was a hugely successful playwright, perhaps best known in this country for his play and screenplay of The Reluctant Debutante (1958). The later was remade in 2003 as What a Girl Wants starring Amanda Bynes. Sorry, but I could not resist a paragraph that connected Amanda Bynes to Colditz. You may sing a chorus of “It’s a Small World” if you like.

What the script, complete with Douglas-Home’s dialogue, does is give us a great gallery of characters. Pat Reid is right in the younger John Mills’s wheelhouse and he carries the picture. But Colonel Richmond, the senior officer of the British group, has several sharp corners to him. I first assumed the character Theodore Bikel was playing was Russian, but he turns out to be Dutch. The script gets some entertainment value out of the different nationalities at Colditz, including the Germans. It’s been a couple of weeks since I saw these two films, and I can’t remember Brian Forbes’s Paul in The Wooden Horse, but his Jimmy Winslow here is still fresh in my mind.

The Wooden Horse drags out its single escape attempt to 101 minutes, but within the 94 minutes here, we get several escape attempts, some of them successful and some not. You never know which ones are going to work and which are not. In Horse, you pretty much know they are going to get out. Here, not so much.

If you are beginning to think there were so many escape attempts at Colditz that it should have been a TV series, the Brits were way ahead of you. In 1972-74, the BBC ran the series Colditz, with some material from Reid’s book and another one he wrote about Colditz. In 2005, Granada Television in England did a four-hour television movie on the subject. I haven’t seen that one yet.

Helen of Troy (1956. Screenplay by John Twist and Hugh Gray, adaptation by Hugh Gray and N. Richard Nash, uncredited adaptation of The Illiad by Homer. 111 minutes.)

Helen of TroyNot as bad as I remember it: In the book Understanding Screenwriting I have a chapter in the Not-Quite-So Good section called “Some Lawrence Wannabes.” I start the book with a discussion of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and this chapter deals with recent epics that are influenced by Lawrence. One of them was the 2004 film Troy, written by David Benioff. Benioff does some nice things in the script, but the film suffers from having Brad Pitt as Achilles. Achilles is the fiercest warrior of them all, and fierceness is not really in Pitt’s range. I mention in passing that Helen of Troy at least gets Achilles right and imply that is about the only thing it got right. My memories of the film, which I saw when it first came out, were not good. So when it popped up on TCM recently, I gave it a second try. It’s not that good a movie, not even as good as Troy, but it’s not terrible.

I had another reason to want to watch the film. As a grad student at UCLA in the late ‘60s, I had Hugh Gray as a teacher in a class or two. I was not impressed. He flaunted his classical education a little more than I thought seemly. I suspect he did it because of his credits on films like this one and the 1951 Quo Vadis? On the latter he contributed to the writing of the Roman songs used in the film. In 1954 he was one of the co-writers, along with Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw of the clunky but entertaining Ulysses. He later got into academia, and was perhaps best known for his translation of André Bazin’s essay collection What is Cinema? In spite of the fact that several reviewers noticed that his translations were awful.

Gray and Twist run into the same problem that Benioff does: what the hell do you do with Paris and Helen, the great lovers? In fact, in The Illiad Paris is pretty much a narcissistic jerk and a coward, and while Homer is somewhat sympathetic to Helen, there are still problems using her as a dramatic character. As I wrote in the book, “William Shakespeare, who was no slouch at writing romantic heroines (Cleopatra in Antony and, Juliet in Romeo and), knew enough to avoid Helen as a major character. In his one Trojan War play, Troilus and Cressida, Helen is a very minor supporting role. And Christopher Marlowe just makes her a walk-on in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so that Faustus can get off the great line about hers being the ’face that launched a thousand ships.’ The problem dramatically is that Helen is inert: everybody adores her (why, other than her good looks?), but she is acted upon rather than taking action. Will was one smart playwright: Cleopatra and Juliet do stuff.”

Benioff focuses on Achilles as his main character, but Gray and Twist focus on the love story. While Benioff gets us right into the affair, Gray and Twist start out with Paris’s trip to Menelaus’s court to try to establish a treaty with the Greeks. That does not work out well. He meets Helen before he knows she is a queen. Then a lot of time is taken up with the romance. These writers’ Helen at least has a little grit to her, unlike Benioff’s. Paris is played by the French actor Jacques Sernas (here credited as Jack), but his voice is dubbed by the English actor Edmund Purdom. Both Sernas and Purdom are blocks of wood visually, but Purdom’s voice gives the character a little heft. Helen is the Italian actress Rosanna Podesta, whose face could launch three, four hundred ships tops, but who at least shows some spark of life.

Because we are so focused on Paris and Helen, the other major characters in the story become minor. As I remembered, Stanley Baker is the perfect Achilles, and he gets a great entrance. If the writers had given the other actors more to do, they could have done more than they do here. Since the writers are not focused on Achilles, they do not give us the most moving scene in The Illiad (which Benioff does). Achilles has killed the Trojan hero Hector and dragged his body around Troy. Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles under a flag of truce to ask for the body back. We just don’t get that scene here.

The battle scenes are spectacular and this being 1956, not overload with CGI as Troy is. The original wooden horse (you don’t think I would have left that unreferenced do you?) shows up because, well, it has to. One thing everybody knows about the Trojan War is the Trojan Horse. Except it is not in either The Illiad or The Odyssey. It does not show up until Virgil’s Aeneid. But the audience would have thrown things at the screen if it were not included.

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: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

3

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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