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Understanding Screenwriting #77: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, & More

Let’s go back to the first film for a minute.

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Understanding Screenwriting #77: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, & More
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Follow Me Quietly, Desperate, The Malta Story, Some Late Spring-Early Summer Television 2011, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein, to no one’s surprise, objected that I said that in The Tree of Life “The poetry overpowers the characters and story.” His point was that there should be room for a Cinema of Poetry. I agree there should be. The problem I had with the film is that Malick did not structure his poetry in as compelling a way as he could have. With a little more attention to connections via not only characters and story, but visually and thematically, the film would have been better.

Olaf Barthel raised several interesting points, specifically in regard to my references to Kubrick. He pointed out that the unreality of certain films, and it is true not only of Kubrick, is part of their artificial style. That’s true, but if the artificiality becomes distracting, then there is a problem. He suggested that the only way to solve the problem is for the filmmaker to do everything. I’d suggest the opposite. Kubrick tried to do everything, and it meant that he probably was not getting the collaborative input that can be so crucial to making a film.

A note for my Portuguese-reading fans. My book Understanding Screenwriting has now been translated into Portuguese. It was published in Brazil in May by the Zahar publishing company under the title Por Dentro do Roteiro. Erik de Castro, a former student of mine who is now a writer/director in Brazil, helped with the translation and tells me that one line is funnier in Portuguese than it was in English. I was making fun of Lucas’s silly names and wrote of Count Dooku “try saying that name out loud and not laughing.” In Portugeuse Dooku means something really dirty. In Brazil the name was translated in the subtitles as Dookan, but people heard it anyway and laughed.

This is the first official translation of one of my books. In the early ‘90s there was an unofficial translation of Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. I found out about it from a student of mine. Maguy was a French woman who went back to Paris during one of the vacations. She was talking with some friends of hers from the Ecole Lumiere film school. When she mentioned she attended Los Angeles City College, one of her friends asked her if she knew me. She said she did, but asked how they happened to know of me. The friend said they were reading Storytellers in class. She asked if they were reading it in English. Many were, but the teacher had provided a French translation. Maguy asked to see it, so they went off to the library where it was on reserve. She read about five pages of it and later told me it made no sense at all. So that’s the French: they love Jerry Lewis, Sharon Stone, and me in a bad translation.

Super 8 (2011. Written by J.J. Abrams. 112 minutes)

The Tree of Kaboom: I saw this one two days after I saw Tree of Life (see US#76) and because of the similarities I was struck immediately at how much more textured this is than Tree. We are in small-town America, with a bunch of pre-teen boys, one of whose father is not perfect, and right away we are dealing with death. In this case, it is the mother of Joe Lamb, who will turn out to be our main character. She has died, and we see the ways people are grieving. The actions and emotions are much more specific than anything in Tree, as are the physical details of the town, the houses, the rooms, the streets. Film is a concrete medium not an abstract one, and the details here are very particular.

The emotions and the characters are also very specific. We quickly get the gang that Joe hangs out with. Look at Joe’s reaction when Charles, the would-be movie director of the group, tells the guys that he has asked Alice to appear in their movie. And Abrams follows that up with a nice scene of Joe and Alice as he applies her makeup for the film. Like most kid filmmakers Charles (a wonderfully satirical take on directors of all ages) wants more “production values” in his film, so when they are filming one night at an abandoned train station and a train shows up, they quickly arrange to shoot—Kaboom! The train crashes. Big Time. As in what Leonard Maltin calls the “swell train wreck” at the end of De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. We are no longer in art house cinema land. But that’s OK. No, really it is.

Super 8 shows the advantage of having a writer (and a director; Abrams also directed) who has learned his craft by working constantly, both in film and especially in television. I mentioned in my item on Tree that Malick may have “developed” the life out of the material by working it over so much. That can be a disadvantage of having too much time to work on a piece.

Abrams started out writing features, including the comic book Armageddon (1998) and the more subtle Regarding Henry (1991), but he made his name writing and producing for television, where both story and character are often more crucial than blow-’em-up-real-good scenes, and speed is of the essence. Both Felicity (1998-2002) and Alias (2001-2005) not only focus on character, but on female characters. Not surprising that in Super 8 Alice is the smartest person in the group and we spend as much time with her as we do with the boys, something that would not likely happen in say, a Steven Spielberg movie. But wait a minute, this is a Spielberg movie.

Abrams had the idea for a film about a bunch of boys making Super 8 movies and he talked to Spielberg about it, according to the interview with Abrams in the May/June Creative Screenwriting. Spielberg told him he needed to develop it further, and Abrams remembered an idea he’d had about an alien creature from Area 51 escaping from a train. Spielberg liked the idea and mentioned that he had wanted to do a movie about divorce but couldn’t make it work until he added an alien. So the director (but not the writer; that was Melissa Mathison) of E.T. (1982) became one of the producers of Super 8. But Abrams did not lose his sense of balance. Yes we get big scenes suggesting the alien on a rampage (influenced by Jaws [1975] where we don’t see a lot of the shark), but they are balanced by the character scenes with the kids. And unlike the younger Spielberg, Abrams is good at character, both as a writer and director. Yes, the adults here are pretty much standard issue, but his work with the kids is excellent. I did not think much of Elle Fanning in Somewhere (2010; see US#68), but she is spectacularly good under Abrams’s direction, as is Joel Courtney as Joe. When Abrams the director gives them close-ups, it is because Abrams the writer has given them some emotions to express.

Not only does Abrams’s work in television make him focus on character, it also has taught him storytelling. The train wreck comes as surprise, and Abrams immediately begins setting up questions. Why was the kids’ science teacher driving a truck into the train? Why does the Air Force swoop down on the wreck? What are those red trucks with the white dots? Why are all the pets running away from the town? What are those little white things that look like Rubik’s Cubes? And why, in one of the most memorable shots in the film, does one of them attach itself to the town’s water tower? Most of those questions get answered, although I am not sure about the red trucks. It may be that Abrams is a little too profligate with his twists and turns. Between the twists and the elaborate (and sometimes evocative) special effects, the last hour of the movie gets exhausting. One begins to long for a simple Terrence Malick loping, poetic dolly shot following a kid down a leafy street.

Spoiler alert here. Skip this paragraph if you have not yet seen the film. It turns out the alien only wants to get back to his home planet. But he is no cute little E.T. He looks like something out of the Alien movies, and I had a hard time buying the “sensitive” scene between Joe and the alien. As with several of the adults, Abrams’s gift for character is less present with the alien.

But when Abrams has his mojo working, he’s very good. There is a nicely written and directed scene of some of the characters attacked in a bus by the alien. The scene is almost as good as the sequence with the two trailers, the baby T-Rex, the rope, the winch, the cracking glass and the backpack that David Koepp wrote and Spielberg directed in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).

Cars 2 (2011. Screenplay by Ben Queen, story by John Lasseter & Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman. 106 minutes)

Cars 2

Passion: When I wrote about WALL-E in US#2, I mentioned that when we walked out of seeing Cars (2006), I turned to my wife and said, “This is the beginning of the end of Pixar as we know it.” I was wrong, of course, about it being the end of Pixar, as you can see in my comments on not only WALL-E, but also Up (2009, in US#27) and Toy Story 3 (2010, in US#50). Given my feelings about the first Cars, you can imagine I approached 2 with some trepidation. Especially when it got a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 35% from the critics, who hadn’t liked the first one either. And while it opened well, 2 dropped 52% at the box office in its second weekend, and another 52% the third weekend. But Cars 2 does turn out to be a better film than Cars. And it may just be too smart for the room, the room with both the critics and the audiences in it.

Let’s go back to the first film for a minute. I wrote about in US#2 that my problem with the film was that “Previous Pixar films…focused on characters and story. Cars, especially in the never-ending opening race, seemed much more interested in how dazzling the animation could be.” The GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) were over-impressed with how flashy they could make the animation, so it detracted from the film rather than add to it. The filmmakers tried to give the car characters the kind of depth that they had done with the toys in the Toy Story franchise, but the GAPS couldn’t do it, and the film simply did not have the emotional resonance the other Pixar films did. John Lasseter’s love of cars got in the way of making the film as rich as the other films. A lot of the critics seemed to hate the idea of a sequel.

So why would John Lasseter want to do a sequel? Well, he still has a passion for cars. And for the characters. And as some cynics have suggested, a passion for the money he can make from the toy tie-ins. But Lasseter is also smart, which you shouldn’t have to be told at this point. So 2 is different. It is not trying for the emotional qualities of Up and Toy Story 3, and it is not as good a film as those, or other Pixar classics. Lasseter recognized instinctively that Lightning and Mater won’t take you down that road. So the emphasis is more on the fun we can have with these characters. Lasseter wants to play with the characters the way kids play with toy cars, and he wants us to enjoy the game. Ben Queen, the screenwriter, told Danny Munso in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, “John, from the beginning of this movie, just wanted it to be a fun ride. I’m not saying that’s going to trump the emotion of it, but it’s not a tearjerker. We really wanted it to be a fun time.”

As a result, the focus is more on plot than in the first film. For the first film, Pixar had a sequence of Lightning taking Sally to a drive-in to see a spy movie with British secret agent Finn McMissile. The sequence was dropped because it took away from the main story, but Lasseter loved the character. As he toured the world for the openings of Cars, he imagined how Lightning would behave in places like Tokyo, Paris, and London, which brought him back to McMissile. Lasseter loved Hitchcock, so he put those characters into a spy story. And then he decided that people would assume that Mater, the redneck tow truck, was really a master spy.

What?!? Mater was the Jar Jar Binks of Cars. He’s a character actor, not a leading man. Never underestimate the artistic intelligence of the GAPS. Real logic says don’t put Mater in a starring role, creative logic says, sure, if you surround him with a lively story, terrific “location” work, and a whole pile of other characters. Plus the great joke that while we know Mater is a doofus, everybody else thinks it’s all a disguise. The Lightning-Mater relationship was key to the first film, so it makes sense it is key to the second one, but in a wholly different situation. The balance is right, and the structure works. That’s Lasseter and Pixar: the balance between passion and artistic intelligence. Even if critics and audiences don’t necessarily see it.

The locations provide great opportunities for the Pixar designers. Each city is both real and not real, with assorted clever “car” details, some visual, some verbal (Big Ben is now Big Bentley). The opening scene, of McMissile on a set of oil derricks, is intentionally something out of a James Bond movie and makes you wonder if you have stumbled into the wrong theater. But it sets up the spy story in a flashy visual way, which lets the next scene spend some time talking, giving us that bane of all sequels, exposition.

The opening scene also establishes, as if it needs to at this point in time, that Pixar is the true heir to Walt Disney. One thing the Disney animated films did better than anybody else was water. Look at “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia (1940) or the whale sequence in Pinocchio (1940). The ocean in Cars 2 is the equal of those, so much so that I found myself getting seasick. Or maybe that was just the stupid 3-D and those stupid glasses.

Larry Crowne (2001. Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos. 98 minutes)

Larry Crowne

Well, they got one thing right: In US#34 I gave the then-new television series Community a hard time for geeking all the details about community colleges. I stopped watching after about the third episode, and nothing I have read about it since has suggested that got on the right track. Most of the critical comments have been about how full of pop culture references the show is. Cannot we call a moratorium on the use of pop culture references in movies and television? Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) managed to do OK without them. On the other hand, the Hope-Crosby road pictures are so full of them that the pictures don’t make a lot of sense to modern audiences.

The problem I had with Community is that it shared the general condescension that exists in America toward community colleges. Listen to any references to the CCs from any late-night comic. A colleague of mine at Los Angeles City College, Jonathan Kuntz gets interviewed by the media all the time, but since he teaches part-time at UCLA, he gets identified as “an adjunct professor at UCLA” rather than as a full-time one at LACC. Recently he was asked by the New York Times to do a piece on Elizabeth Taylor for their online blog, and he was identified as someone who teaches at LACC as well as UCLA. That may be the millennium coming, but I suspect somebody at the Times got fired for letting it through. Interestingly, that condescension toward our CCs does not exist overseas. We got a lot of foreign students who attended LACC because they didn’t know they were not supposed to. And I recently supplied a blurb for a book published in England, and to my astonishment I was identified as being from Los Angeles City College.

So you can see why I wanted to see and like Larry Crowne. Larry is an early middle-aged guy who loses his job at a big box store because he never went to college (the writers really have to do some tap dancing to make that even slightly convincing). At the advice of a neighbor, he enrolls in a community college. And it is not treated as part of his failure in life, but as a way to help him out of a difficult situation, which is one, and only one, of the things the CCs are there for. So Larry Crowne starts out ahead on points on my scorecard. Then it goes to hell.

The writing is very flat and “on the nose.” We get very few details about Larry, and they are not very expressive. We know he was a chef in the Navy, but that does not come into play until late in the film. There are a couple of mentions of his ex-wife, but we learn nothing about her. Larry mentions to his friend that he intended to live with his wife and watch his kids grow up in his home. But the line never makes it clear whether he had kids, or was just thinking about having them. When he has to give up his house to foreclosure, he drives away from it for the last time. Unlike the long shot of the similar scene in Tree of Life, we hold on Larry’s face in a closeup, but the only expression we get is sadness. There is a lot more that could be done with that scene. Meredes Tainot, his teacher in his Informal Public Speaking course, is given a little more detail, but it is standard issue. She is a borderline alcoholic who has a husband who surfs Internet porn all day while claiming to be writing a novel. Their arguments are nothing we have not seen before.

And those are the star parts. Hanks plays Larry Crowne, and directs as well. Unlike Welles, Olivier, and Eastwood, he does not direct himself well, so there is a hole in the middle of the film. Julia Roberts is Mercedes, and the writing gives her some stuff to do, but not that much. The implication of the promotion for the film is that the story is going to be a love story between Larry and Mercedes, but that only develops late in the film. Most of the film seems to be about Larry developing self-confidence from taking classes. I applaud that for obvious reasons, but it means most of the film plays like Julia Roberts is the elephant in the room.

The writing of the supporting parts, and Hanks’s direction of them, is much better. So the film will not be suggesting that all CC instructors are borderline alcoholics, we are given an instructor Larry has in an Economics class. He is Doctor Matsutani, and he is given a lot of character detail. He is played by George Takei in a way to make you forget he played what’s-his-name on that old TV show. Larry’s platonic classmate, Talia, is a lively character, as is her suspicious-but-not-too suspicious boyfriend. And the students in Mercedes’s class seem like a real collection of community college students. I suppose for now we have to make do with that.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011. Written by Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi. 88 minutes)

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Structure, structure, structure and structure: William Goldman says in his Adventures in the Screen Trade that screenwriting is structure, etc. He is right. And that applies to the structure of documentaries as well.

In writing about Tree of Life (we can’t seem to avoid it these days, can we?), I quoted Wiseman’s line that the editing of his documentaries is “non-rational, that is to say, irrational.” That may be his process, but the result is that his films end up with very rich and complex structures. Wiseman’s films of course deal with institutions, and what he looks for when he shoots is the way the institution relates to its clients. How does the hospital in Hospital (1970) deal with its patients? How does the Kansas City police force in Law and Order (1969) deal with both the crooks and the victims? The scenes then coalesce around the theme.

As the subtitle of Page One suggests, this film is going to take a look at the institution of the New York Times. Well, is it going to take the Wiseman approach and look at how the Times deals with its clients? No, because who are the Times’ clients? The readers? We get nothing from the readers here. The advertisers? We get nothing from them. So Wiseman’s approach is out. Well, how about the ideas of Robert Drew, the founder of the American Direct Cinema movement? He looked for situations that provided what he called “turning points,” and what others have described as providing a “crisis structure.” Certainly the Times, and print media, are seen these days as undergoing a crisis, but unlike the Kennedys trying to integrate the University of Alabama in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), it is long rather than sort-term crisis. So the film is unable to follow that kind of dramatic structure. Do we follow a charismatic individual, as D.A. Pennebaker does in Don’t Look Back (1967)? Not really, although one Times columnist, David Carr, steals every scene he is in, so the filmmakers might have done better to focus on him. They could have made him our access character.

The problem may be that the Times is simply too big and complex an organization to be covered in one film. The filmmakers (Rossi also directed) had surprising but occasionally limited access to people at the Times, but as talking heads, those people don’t tell us much we don’t already know, if we have followed the problems the print media have had over the last decade. There are some sequences, such as the Times dealing with Wikileaks and the Tribune bankruptcy, that work as sequences, and do in fact connect to the themes of the film, but the filmmakers have not done enough of those well enough to keep the film from seeming unfocused. In other words, they have not found a workable structure for the film.

Follow Me Quietly (1949. Screenplay by Lillie Hayward, story by Francis Rosenwald and Anthony Mann. 60 minutes)

Follow Me Quietly

Forgettable: This popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies. It is directed by Richard Fleischer and sounded like it might be one of those great little films noir he did in the period. It was done three years before he did the classic The Narrow Margin.

So I started watching and almost immediately began counting up the standard film noir elements. We begin in a bar/café (it is RKO cheap, so use one set instead of two), run by a guy who bets on the horses. A beautiful woman reporter comes in looking for a police lieutenant to give her a story on the serial killer called “The Judge.” The detective shows up and brushes her off, but they later get involved. The Judge only kills on rainy nights and it’s raining…(one of the big problems I have always had with films noir set in L.A. is: where do all those wet streets come from? It never rains in L.A.) and The Judge throws a crusading newspaper editor out the window. Out of the clues the police do have, the detective has a mannequin built with similar features. That is a bit unusual, but I am sure I have seen some variation of it before in a film noir. The cop finally tracks down the killer and they have a nice chase through a gasworks, very much a standard in…wait a minute. It is not just that all these elements are standard film noir, it is that I had seen the picture before.

Usually I have a pretty good memory for films I have seen, but this one, which I probably saw in the last few years, had gone completely out of my mind. Yes, it has all the standard elements, but even in genre filmmaking you have to add a little creativity to the mix to make the cake rise. This particular cake has not put them together in any memorable way.
I am not the only one who forgot about the film. Richard Fleischer doesn’t mention it in his autobiography at all.

Desperate (1947. Screenplay by Harry Essex, additional dialogue by Martin Rackin, story by Dorothy Atlas and Anthony Mann. 73 minutes)

Desperate

Not that desperate: Steve is your usual film noir veteran, now driving a truck. He gets talked into unknowingly participating in a heist. A cop is killed, and the boss’s brother is arrested. The boss wants Steve to take the fall for the brother. So the cops and the boss are after Steve. But then Steve does the smart thing. He calls his wife, tells her to take the train out of town. He catches up with her on the train, and after some adventures, they end up staying with relatives of hers where the cops and the boss can’t find them. Smart move, but what’s so desperate about that? I very often ping on movies for having the characters doing dumb things just so we can have some action. Why do those stupid kids keep going back to that camp in the Friday the 13th movies? Here Steve behaves intelligently and it kills the picture.

Steve eventually goes back to talk to the police, who are not really interested in arresting him. That does not increase the desperation factor, at least not until we learn the cops are using him as bait to catch the boss. We do get some nice suspense at the end as the boss (Raymond Burr, not only at his most villainous but at his most sensuous if you can imagine it) threatens to kill Steve at the stroke of midnight, when his brother is to be executed. We end with a nice shootout in a stairwell. But the ending hardly makes up for the sagging middle.

The Malta Story (1953. Screenplay by William Fairchild and Nigel Balchin, story by William Fairchild, based on an idea by Thorold Dickinson and Peter de Sarigny, with material from Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd, K.C.B. K.B.E. M.C. D.F.C. 103 minutes)

The Malta Story

Actors, you have to see this film: I picked this up from Netflix, since I think I had seen it when it came out, and I wanted to take another look at it. I was not going to write about it, but one element demands mention. This film has the worst single performance Alec Guinness ever gave on screen. And it is not like he was just starting out. He had already done Great Expectations (1946), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Man in the White Suit (1951). What happened?

As you might guess from the number of contributors to the screenplay, the problem begins with the script. The film is about the English Royal Air Force and Navy on the island of Malta in the summer of 1942. They are under constant attack from the German’s, since from Malta the Brits can disrupt German shipping to the Mediterranean. Much of the material is given the kind of documentary treatment I discussed in writing about The Wooden Horse (1950) in US#75: assuming that the fact that these things happened is enough to make it interesting. It’s not. The screenplay is very unfocused, skipping all over the place. After a scene that goes nowhere, we get a lot of stock newsreel footage. I suspect the reason the incident of the Ohio, a tanker ship bringing fuel, is used is that they had footage of the crippled tanker coming into the harbor in Malta.

And what does this have to do with Guinness? Well, not much, unfortunately. He is playing Flight Lt. Peter Ross, whose specialty is taking aerial reconnaissance photos. He is on a flight to Cairo that lands in Malta. The Germans bomb the plane and he is assigned to stay in Malta. Guinness starts out playing him as a rather whimsical character, probably because one of the other military men describes him as “not exactly military.” But nothing more is done with that, and Guinness seems completely lost in the picture. The director, Brian Desmond Hurst, does not help. In one scene Ross is supposed to fall in love at first sight with a Maltese woman, Maria. Hurst has him give the most obvious reaction he can, rather than the kind of subtlety Guinness is noted for. Neither the script nor Hurst, nor Guinness for that matter, have any idea how to play this non-existent character, even when he becomes heroic late in the picture. Actors should see this film to learn how even a great actor can be at sea without a smart script and/or a smart director.

The Good Wife

Some Late Spring-Early Summer Television 2011. No, I haven’t stopped watching television this spring, but I have gotten behind on writing about it. Here are some assorted comments on assorted shows.

Because of the end of the school year and my retirement and other stuff, I did not get around to watching the season finale of The Good Wife until late June, but it was worth the wait. “Closing Arguments” had a teleplay by Robert and Michelle King from a story by Corinne Brinkerhoff. Will and Alicia win a tricky case and they go out for drinks afterwards. What follows is probably the best six minutes the show has had. We pick up the two of them in a hotel bar, and they are both a little tipsy. Will tells her that his girlfriend Tammy was going to fly off to London the day before. He was going over to talk her into staying, but just then the crucial piece of evidence showed up. So Tammy is gone. Will says he and Alicia always had bad timing and wonders what it would be like if they had good timing. Tammy’s gone, Alicia has dumped Peter. Sounds like good timing to me. But the writers are very smart not to rush into it. At the reception desk, they have trouble getting the attention of the clerk, who is on the phone. Then there are no rooms because there is a convention in town. Well, there is the Presidential Suite, but it’s $7,800 a night. Look at Alicia and Will’s reaction to that. Will pulls out his Gold Card. Yeah, I think she’s worth too, Will. The first elevator that opens its doors is full of service carts. Some joker has pressed all the buttons in the second one, so Will and Alicia take their time, necking in the elevator. Then Will’s door card does not seem to work. And they both take it very coolly. Alicia turns his card upside down, and it works. Now, that is true suspense. Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend’s would be proud.

Burn Notice has returned with an interesting change in the franchise. At the end of the last season, Michael was cleared to go back to work for the C.I.A.. That changes the dynamics of the show. In the first episode of the season, “Company Man” (written by Matt Nix), Michael is assigned to be part of a team that tracks down the guy he thinks got him burned. The guy is in Venezuela, and Michael insists he be allowed to take Sam and Fi on the assignment. Needless to say, when the official plan goes south, Sam and Fi can improvise and save everybody’s asses. Except for that of the bad guy, who dies. So Michael won’t get to talk to him about why he was burned. In the following episode “Bloodlines,” written by Alfredo Barrios Jr., Jesse, who is now working for a security company asks Michael to use his C.I.A. contacts to help him on a case. The third episode “No Good Deed,” written by Michael Horowitz, has Michael obsessed with going over the documents he has on his burn situation. So now we have the three elements that are going to play out in the season’s episodes: Michael’s friends helping him in C.I.A. work, Michael using his C.I.A. contacts to help his friends, and Michael still looking into his being burned.

Franklin & Bash is just what we need, another lawyer show. Well, no, we don’t need it, and you probably would not want to watch it in the winter, but it’s passable in the summer. Franklin and Bash are two hot-shot (are there any other kind?) young lawyers who are brought into a posh firm by its head to help shake things up. They do. They win cases. The best thing about the show is their boss at the posh firm. He is Stanton Infield, and he is what looks to be a retired hippy who has a variety of interests besides the law. He is played by Malcolm McDowell, and I was delighted to see that he actually handled a case in the third episode, “Jennifer of Troy,” written by Dana Calvo. The Chinese computer geek fixing Franklin and Bash’s computer system needs help dealing with a problem in Chinatown, and since Infield lived in China, he goes to talk to the “Council of Elders” gets the issue settled. I hope they keep giving cases to Infield, simply because McDowell is more fun to watch than anybody else on the show.

Necessary Roughness is The Good Wife with jockstraps. Dr. Dani Santino is a therapist who discovers her husband is cheating on her (the bed in the guestroom is a little too neatly made up) and kicks him out. To augment her income, she agrees to take on as a patient Terrence King, a pro football player who keeps dropping passes. She is also dealing with two teenage children, especially a daughter who is a real pain in the ass.

The good news is that the show finally gives the wondrous Callie Thorne a show of her own. The writers have given Dani has a lot of sides to her, and Thorne is up to the task. In the “Pilot,” written by Liz Kruger, Thorne was a little more than up to the task, but in the following episodes she has settled into the part. The franchise is going to be Dani dealing not only with King and other players on the team, but as word of her success gets out, other people in high stress situations. King continued as a patient, but in the second episode, “Anchor Management” (written by Jeffrey Lieber & Tracy McMillan) she is primarily treating a network TV anchor, and in the third, “Spinning Out” (written by Liz Kruger & Craig Shapiro) the patient is a race car driver. The downside of the series is that, as in all movies and most TV shows, the cures come very quickly, with just a smidgen of psychobabble. The writers keep the scenes lively and the storylines moving, but at some point you just have to say, did that psychological cliché really work? I suppose they do, but I am not the only one who is a bit dubious. The Los Angeles Times runs an occasional column called “The Unreal World” that gives you the truth about the medical cases presented on television. You can read the one about Necessary Roughness 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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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

2

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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

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

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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