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Understanding Screenwriting #76: The Tree of Life, Bridesmaids, Too Big to Fail, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #76: The Tree of Life, Bridesmaids, Too Big to Fail, & More
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: The Tree of Life, Bridesmaids, I Died a Thousand Times, Screaming Eagles, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), Too Big to Fail, but first…

Fan Mail: I really want to thank “Lorraine” for giving us the link in her comments on US#75 to a site that has the best satire I have ever seen on screenplay analysis. Each bit takes on a given film by having a guy’s arm draw a circle on a dry erase board, divide up and explain a given film’s structure at about 300 words per minute. The specific one Lorraine linked us to was for Pirates 4. The guy gets a lot wrong about the movie (the stuff he puts in the first quarter of the film takes a lot less time; the ending of the film is not a closed circle but very open ended, etc), but goes so fast you can hardly tell. It will have you on the floor, even if you take “Hero’s Journey” more seriously than I do.

At least I’m assuming it’s satire…

The Tree of Life (2011. Written by Terrence Malick. 138 minutes)

Pure cinema, like Meek’s Cutoff: Sometimes in my Screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College, I ran a film in segments over the semester, and we discussed the screenplay as we went. Sometimes I did not decide on the film before school started. Once I had a student ask on the first day why he had to learn screenwriting, since he did not want to tell stories, but “create pure cinema, like Hitchcock.” I instantly knew I had to show Rear Window that semester. I did, and the student never uttered the words “pure cinema, like Hitchcock” again. I always found it odd that a director working in the mystery-thriller genre, which depends so much on suspense created by narrative, would claim he was making “pure cinema.” The student believed the term meant making films with less focus on narrative and character. There are other directors who can more legitimately claim they are attempting pure cinema. Terrence Malick is one of them.

As Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have discussed in their two(so far)-part discussion of Malick and The Tree of Life at the House, Malick is part of the site’s DNA. So I should start by giving you some idea of where I stand in general on Malick. I have always had mixed feelings about his films. Badlands (1973) seemed to me mostly a very late addition to the Bonnie and Clyde genre, and I was not sure the girl’s narration added to the film. I would have been more impressed with Days of Heaven (1978) if a) the design of the ranch house was not so clearly a steal from Boris Leven’s gothic mansion in Giant (1956), and b) I could understand anything that was said in the voiceover. On the other hand, the film was beautifully photographed by Néstor Almendros and others, and it was one of the most inventive early uses of Dolby Stereo. You could hear every leaf on every tree rustle in the wind. It was obvious Malick had a great eye and ear for landscape, in the great tradition of Robert Flaherty, Henry King, and David Lean. I went to see The Thin Red Line (1998) with some trepidation, since it was obvious from the reviews that it bore no relationship to the James Jones novel it was based on. The film got off on a bad note for me. In an early scene, the characters are on board what is supposed to be an attack transport. It’s not. It is a restored Liberty ship (a cargo transport) called the Lane Victory, and perfectionist as Malick is supposed to be, it does not occur to him to have some CGI to add in some assault boats. (I often have this problem with “perfectionist” directors who seem to be so sloppy about the obvious stuff; did no one dare tell Kubrick that the font on the street signs in the New York street set built in London for Eyes Wide Shut [1999] simply was wrong?) But then The Thin Red Line began to put me under its spell, and I began to see what others saw in Malick: a poetic look at man and nature. The New World (2005) was a letdown for some of the same reasons The Tree Of Life is. The poetry overpowers the story and characters. The latter two elements are Malick’s weakest areas of filmmaking. Lean managed the combination of the beauty and power of nature and strong stories and characters.

A word here on screenwriting as it applies to Malick’s films. We know from the way he works that he does not sit down, write a script, and shoot it as written. The story, characters, scenes, and structure are constantly in flux. When talking about the screenwriting in The Tree of Life, I am talking not just about whatever written script or scripts Malick was using during production, but the way in which the screenwriting process continues throughout production and especially post-production. The structure of the film, which the written screenplay usually provides, clearly came here in the post-production process. This is not uncommon in documentary films. Frederick Wiseman has said that the editing of his film is “non-rational, that is to say irrational,” as he finds the connections and structure in the editing room. So it is possible to do that, even in fiction films, more often than people who write about screenwriting normally admit.

The opening twenty minutes of the film establishes the O’Brien family, although we do not get their name in the film, and we know they have children, but who and how many we do not know. The main “event” in this section is the news delivered to the family that one of their sons has died, but we have no idea which son. Putting the news of the death at this point in the film (you could recut the film and place it much later, after the main body of the family sequences) gives it an importance that the rest of the film does not support. It is like putting a tuba solo in the first movement of a symphony and then only getting a few notes from the tuba in the final movement. There is nothing in the main family sequences that set us up for the son’s death and what it may do to the family, especially since we learn he died at age 19. We only come back to it in the last fifteen minutes, when we get the “afterlife” sequence, but that is so badly shaped we cannot tell which son we meet there is the one who died.

The opening shot of the film is an abstract shot of a flame, so it is not much of a surprise that twenty minutes into the film we go into an abstract sequence of the evolution of the world. It is a higher-toned version of the “World is Born” sequence from Fantasia (1940), but without the energy or the fun or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to back it up. There are a lot of pretty pictures, but they do not connect, which makes the sequence into more of a Power Point presentation than a sequence in a film. Film takes place in time. It is a temporal as well as a visual medium, and as Ingmar Bergman observed, film may be closer to music than to theater. Part of screenwriting in the editing process is to find the structure that will pull the audience along and make viewers feel they are going somewhere. Enlarging the scope of the film at this point to include all of creation might work, but the connections with religion in the family scenes are limited. The family scenes show religion in a very domesticated way.

After forty minutes we return to the family. I am a couple of years younger than Malick and I grew up in a small town similar to the one in the film. I was looking forward to these sequences, but they turn out to be very generic: the kids throwing rocks, setting off rockets, swimming at the pool, etc. Malick not being very specific about the characters robs these scenes of the texture they should have. Malick is working more on the physical texture of the place, but it’s not enough. The same is true of the family scenes. The kids have very little individuality, except for Little Jack, but not that much for him. Mother is an abstract portrayal of grace, which gives Jessica Chastain, who plays her, very little to do. The Father at least has a couple of sides to him, loving and strict. In writing about Troy (2004) in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I said of Brad Pitt, “Fierceness is not really in his normal range, especially when he is going up against actors like Brian Cox (Agamemnon) and Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus) who can do fierce with one hand tied behind their backs… There seem to be two Brad Pitts. One is a terrific character actor, as seen in Twelve Monkeys (1995). The other is the movie star, who seems bland, as in The Mexican (2001). Unfortunately for Troy, the movie star showed up.” Fortunately Pitt the character actor shows up here and we get enough fierceness from him. Pitt shows us a lot of nuances in the close-ups Malick gives him, unlike Chastain, who doesn’t. When one actor in a film stands out as much as Pitt does here, it’s usually the actor and not the writer and director. Both the actor playing Young Jack and Sean Penn, who plays the older Jack, are stuck without a lot to do. This lack of specificity hurts the end of this segment of the film, where the family is forced to vacate their house. Compare what Malick does, or does not do, with what Nunnally Johnson and John Ford do with Ma Joad when she and her family have to leave their house. Nunnally and Jack are a lot more specific and poetic than Malick is here.

The last fifteen minutes or so of the film is either the afterlife or a dream of the afterlife by the older Jack. For a guy who is supposed to be creative (he’s an architect), he has a very unimaginative view of it. Everybody is on a beach and they all have semi-beatific smiles (not quite like people looking at flying saucers in a Spielberg movie, but close) and they all hug. Again, there is no texture to how these people relate. We think we find out which other brother died, but both of them show up. And they show up in their kid forms, rather than as 19-year-olds. The classic way to handle this sort of scene is the finale of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), but Robert Benton’s graceful and poetic final scene in Places in the Heart (1984) does what I think Malick is after even better. And simpler.

I also have the suspicion from watching the film that Malick may have worked on it for so long that he has eliminated whatever was fresh and vital in the original material. This often happens in the screenplay “development” process in the studios, but it can also happen with individuals working on their own. There are, for example, some family scenes in the middle of the picture that look as though they have been cut to make them seem less like narrative scenes than they may have originally been. The way Malick should have gone is to bring up enough character and story elements to support the other things he wanted to do in the film.

Ah, the Meek’s Cutoff (2010) reference in my snarky subhead. You may remember in US#74 that I mentioned the audience at that film laughed at the end because they felt they had been taken in. Before I saw Tree, I was talking to my wife’s former boss. He had seen the film, hated it, and said there was a similar laugh at the end of Tree. There was not at the screening I attended. Some people hate it, some people love it. I was just disappointed.

Bridesmaids (2011. Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig. 125 minutes)

Bridesmaids

Hollywood is gonna learn the wrong lesson from this one: There has recently been a lot of writing in different places (The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, et al) about the difficulties of making a comedy about women that would do really well at the box office, where raunchy comedies about dudes regularly clean up. This is a historically myopic discussion, as most discussions of this kind are.

Hollywood is always amazed when movies by and for women open “surprisingly well.” Sixteen years ago I wrote a short piece for the Los Angeles Times decrying this and pointing out “women’s” films that had recently opened “surprisingly well.” The editor at the Times called me up after I submitted it and said that since it was not time-sensitive, there would be a little delay on running it. I said OK, just so long as it appeared before Waiting to Exhale (1995) opened. That was met with a baffled reaction on her part. The piece appeared a week before the film opened, and, sure enough, the Times noted the film opened “surprisingly well.” For several years thereafter, women in the industry put “surprisingly well” in at least air quotes when they used the term.

In the case of Bridesmaids, a lot of the discussion has focused on the fact that Judd Apatow has “godfathered” the film. He is the King of Raunchy Comedies, and when the film opened “surprisingly well,” most people in Hollywood assumed it was his touch as the producer that made it a hit. As has been mentioned in some reviews, the scene where the bridesmaids get a run, pardon the expression, of diarrhea during a fitting of gowns was suggested by Apatow. Two things. That scene does not really fit the tone of the rest of the script and in fact bends it out of shape. Secondly, while the picture opened well, it has shown even greater legs, with less decline in box office than any other film this year, including The Hangover II. Apatow’s assistance may have helped it open well, but it is Mumolo & Wiig’s screenplay, as flawed as it is, that will provide a “surprisingly” higher total box gross than anyone expected.

Yes, let’s get down to the script. The script opens with a long scene establishing the relationship of Annie and Lillian, who have been friends since childhood. The scene not only establishes the characters, but the rhythm of the film. It not only takes its time with the characters, but it takes its time with the scenes. This is not always for the best. There is a reason for the cliché that brevity is the soul of wit. Most films of this kind run about 90 to 100 minutes, but this one is 125 minutes, and as with most movies, longer is not necessarily better. There are scenes and sequences that should have been cut, such as the subplot with Annie’s two roommates. This is the first feature screenplay by the two writers, who are used to working in shorter forms. They will learn in the future not to get carried away.

So what we get is a character comedy rather than a gaggy one. In writing about A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) in US#27, I noted it was a film I smiled at more than laughed. In that case it was because I was charmed by the surrealism of the approach to the material. I smiled more than laughed at Bridesmaids, here because of the characters and their relationships. But the length and pacing cause a problem. Annie, a bit of a flake and not in the cute way movies usually show flaky women, is asked by Lillian to be her maid of honor at her wedding. Annie agrees, but keeps finding herself upstaged by Helen, the rich wife of Lillian’s fiance’s boss. The first of these occasions is when Annie and Helen end up giving dueling toasts at a reception. It’s funny, but goes on longer than it needs to. It also begins to show us Annie’s jealous side. That side comes out again when the bridesmaids are off on a plane for a weekend in Vegas. There is bonding between the bridesmaids, but Annie, seated in coach, keeps trying to sneak into first class, where Helen and Lillian are. The scene is the best in the film, because it successfully manages the mixture of Jane Austen and Blake Edwards the film is aiming for. But then the writers try to top that by having Annie go completely bonkers at the wedding rehearsal, and like the assorted scenes in the sequels to Star Wars (1977) that try to outdo the Cantina scene by having more of everything, we are in the land of overkill. We lose patience with Annie as the film progresses and she becomes less and less sympathetic. So when after the rehearsal, Megan, one of the bridesmaids, reads Annie the riot act, we are way ahead of the movie. We’ve wanted somebody to say that to Annie for almost half an hour. Annie and Lillian eventually make up.

Mumolo & Wiig have given us some well-rounded women characters, and provided great parts for the actresses. Megan is played by the wonderful Mellisa McCarthy (Sookie on The Gilmore Girls), who acts the shit out of the part, literally in the diarrhea scene. Rita (Wendi McClendon-Covey, late of Reno 911) is a married mother of several who hates her kids (when have you heard that in a mainsteam American film?) and tries to explain it all to a bright and perky Becca, who thinks marriage is going to be wonderful. As often happens (it even happens to Jane Austen), the two women writers have not developed the male characters very well. The fiance is almost invisible, and the highway patrolman Annie ends up with is standard issue. The writers also shortchange Helen. To nobody’s surprise, at one point late in the picture she breaks down emotionally and admits she has no friends and tries to buy friendship with money. OK, but the writers don’t go anywhere with that. Helen then continues to throw the most lavish wedding ever for Lillian, but we get no reaction shots of Helen to show us she is now embarrassed by her excess or has simply resorted to her previous default setting. Mumolo & Wiig are ruthless, but not yet Billy Wilder ruthless. I certainly hope they get there.

But I have to tell you, I still smiled a lot.

I Died a Thousand Times (1955. Written by W.R. Burnett, based (uncredited) on his novel High Sierra. 109 minutes)

I Died a Thousand TimesEverybody hated this movie, except for one person: I first saw this in 1955 when it came out and sort of liked it. It is a remake of the classic 1941 movie High Sierra, which I had not seen at that point. In the ‘50s, Hollywood remade a pile of its old movies, I suppose partly for a lack of creativity (then as now), and perhaps maybe to persuade the anti-Communists that the movies could not be subversive if they were based on films that had made lots of money in capitalist America. Most of the remakes suffer in comparison to the originals. I liked High Society (1955) and couldn’t understand why critics thought it was so inferior to its source, The Philadelphia Story (1940). Until I finally saw The Philadelphia Story. In the case of Died, I originally liked the CinemaScope photography of the Southern California desert and its small towns. I have been trying to see the film again, but without much luck. Netflix doesn’t have it. I suggested it to Turner Classic Movies a year ago, without any luck. Until now. TCM ran it a while ago.

If you have ever read any reviews of it, you know the critics hated, hated, hated it. But one reason I wanted to take another look at it is that I discovered there is one person who liked it better than High Sierra. That would be W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel, co-wrote the screenplay for High Sierra, and wrote the screenplay for this version. I’m always interested in what the writer has to say.

The story of High Sierra began when Burnett and a friend when fishing at June Lake and stayed it a cabin, which Burnett, ever the author, figured would be a good hideaway for Roy Earle, a killer and bank robber modeled on John Dillinger. The book was bought by Warner Brothers and assigned to John Huston to script. It was to be for Paul Muni (see US#52 for more on Mr. Muni), but Huston pissed off Muni, so Jack Warner assigned Burnett to work on the script as well. Muni still turned it down, and the studio was thinking of George Raft, but Bogart convinced Raft he was not right for the part (Burnett agreed) and Bogart took it over. The producer was Mark Hellinger, who was a problem for Burnett. One issue was that he insisted everything be explained in the script in detail, which Burnett did not think was necessary. The other was that Hellinger was what Burnett called a “sentimentalist.” Hellinger was not convinced that the crippled girl Velma would turn against Earle after he paid for an operation cured her. Burnett and Huston knew better, but they had to soften the character. (All of this background is from a terrific interview Ken Mate and Pat McGilligan did with Burnett for the 1986 book Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the first of four—so far—of the Backstory books.)

For Died, Willis Goldbeck, the producer, and Burnett saw eye to eye on the film they were making. Burnett cut a lot of the exposition Hellinger had insisted upon, and Velma, who does not get as many sentimental scenes as in the original, turns against Earle in a nice edgy scene. And the picture, at least in its DVD version, runs nine minutes longer than High Sierra. The script is better, but the picture is not as good. One reason is that Raoul Walsh has been replaced as director by Stuart Heisler. Heisler was a journeyman director about whom Nunnually Johnson said, “His main function seemed to be that he kept the actors from going home before 5 o’clock.” Heisler simply does not provide the energy and the drive Walsh did, which slows down the film. Another reason is that the film was shot in the early days of CinemaScope, and we spend a lot more time on the scenic shots of desert than we really need to. As much as I loved them when I was 14.

There is also the matter of casting. Yeah, you try following Bogart in one of his signature roles. Jack Palance is actually very good in the part, and it is one of his better performances, since he gets to show a more human side than he normally does. His moll, played by Ida Lupino in the original, is Shelley Winters, adequate, but not up to Lupino. Burnett was little more hard-edged about his two stars, “The remake is a better picture. Except we had two repulsive people in it—Jack Palance and Shelley Winters… Who gives a damn what happens to Shelley Winters? Or Jack Palance, for that matter?”

Screaming Eagles (1956. Screenplay by David Lang and Robert Presnell,Jr, story by Virginia Kellog. 79 minutes)

Screaming EaglesThe Longest Day, the lost episode: I got really rushed this Memorial Day and June 6th (end of semester at school, preparing to retire, and another small operation for my wife), so this B-picture is the best I could come up with for the occasions. It’s a story that could have become an interesting A-picture, but the script doesn’t do it justice.

The story is by Virginia Kellog, whose writing career was mostly providing stories for films (T-Men in 1947 and White Heat in 1949). It tells of a unit of the 101st Airborne (their nickname provides the film’s title) assigned to drop behind enemy lines on D-Day to take and hold a bridge. Sort of a cross between the Richard Todd and John Wayne sequences in The Longest Day (1962). As with the Wayne sequences, the platoon we follow is dropped in the wrong area and has to work their way towards the bridge. By the time they get there they discover another element of the 101st is already holding the bridge. You could turn this into a nice picture on the confusions of war, something the 101st sequences in The Longest Day come close to, but the script botches it. First of all, we spend an enormous amount of time on two new additions to the unit, one of whom, Pvt. Mason, is a sullen pain in the ass. And he’s supposed to be the main character of the film. Except after the action begins, he does not have that much to do. The first half of the film is the other guys in the unit complaining about Mason, and nearly all of those scenes take place in one setting, the barracks. Then we get a lot of stock footage of battle, and low-budget battle scenes with our ever-diminishing cast.

Thinking about this some more, it occurs to me that perhaps Kellog’s story was the Mason plot and Lang and/or Presnell got into the war stuff. Subject for further research, if anyone cares.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958. Written by Mark Hanna. 65 minutes)

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

You’ve seen the poster: The poster for this film is one that everybody knows: the 50 foot high woman standing over a freeway, holding one car in her hand and reaching for another one. As often with ‘50s B movies, there is no scene like that in the film. This may have been a case where the poster was created before the script was written. That was a common practice at American-International Pictures, but this was released by Allied Artists.

The film does not get shown that much, and you can see why. The idea is terrific, in a ‘50s sort of way, but badly developed. A married woman gets zapped with something from an alien in a space ship, and she grows to the announced height. She uses her height to get revenge on her husband and his slutty girlfriend. But most of that just happens in the last 15 minutes or so, and then gets rushed. Hanna spends way more time than he needs in setting up the love triangle, and then even more time with the spaceship, which looks like a volleyball painted silver. The special effects are less than cheap, even by fifties standards. There is no freeway, and the film is mostly set in the desert. The location is not for dramatic purposes, as in the opening scenes of Them! (1954, see US#15), but so they won’t have to hire any extras. The payoff, when it finally arrives, is not very inventive. The woman knocks down a building and the girlfriend is crushed. The actors mostly overact, although Yvette Vickers, whose body was recently found after she had been dead for some time, gives great slut as the girlfriend. For some teenage boys in 1958, I am sure that was enough.

Too Big to Fail (2011. Screenplay by Peter Gould, based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin. 95 minutes)

Too Big To Fail

Well, no, not really: This is one of those subjects (the chaos on Wall Street in the fall of 2008) that you could probably not get made as a theatrical release. Its director, Curtis Hanson, was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times, “The studios just shy away from dramas. And on the surface, this was about a bunch of bankers sitting around talking.” He’s right, that’s exactly what it is. And because it was for HBO, they could get a lot of great actors to sit around and talk: William Hurt, James Woods, Edward Asner, Kathy Baker, and the list goes on and on.

But there’s talk, and then there’s talk. The talk here is very plot-driven as I am sure it was with the bankers involved. And it may well be the way the people Sorkin interviewed remember they talked. But just because something is true does not make it interesting. There are only a few scenes where the great actors involved are allowed by the dialogue to bring their characters alive. A lot of the big names here could be collecting unemployment insurance for all the real acting they get to do.

We have discussed a number of times how documentaries these days very often give us more interesting characters than fiction films do. Go look at last year’s Inside Job as a companion piece to this film and you will see what I mean. The makers of that film got all kinds of financial big shots to talk about the debacle, and in the process the big shots reveal more about their attitudes than Gould gets here.

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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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 form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

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

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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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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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