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  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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography
The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.2
More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.
Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.
If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.
Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.
At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.
Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Half-Baked Under the Silver Lake Is in Love with the Image of Itself
Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism.2
David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, a pastiche of cinematic representations of Los Angeles wrapped in a retro-fetishistic detective story, infiltrates the glittery, vapid underbelly of La-La Land, where aspiring starlets pay their rent doing sex work and popular culture turns out to be even more monolithic than one imagines. Within a few scenes, Mitchell establishes a grammar whose endless referentiality takes on a conspiratorial cast. Shortly after seeing a squirrel fall from the sky (shades of Magnolia), a layabout named Sam (Andrew Garfield) sits on his courtyard porch with a pair of binoculars, ogling a nude woman and then a self-possessed, dog-toting blonde sunning herself by his complex’s pool.
That scene evokes, among other films, Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, and Lolita, though Sam is no damaged matinee idol. Instead, he’s a no-rent riff on Elliott Gould’s riff on Philip Marlowe, unemployed and horny, and days from being evicted from his apartment. Sam is pointedly in no hurry to find work or cash; rather, he’s relentlessly distracted by women and strange happenings, like news of a rash of dog killings in East L.A. or a string of mysterious geometric signifiers scrawled on apartment walls. His unheroic quest is propelled by the girl by the pool, who he briefly comes to know as Sarah (Riley Keough) before—after a brief, unconsummated relationship—she disappears, taking on a totemic meaning that pushes Sam to tie together the increasingly odd and nefarious events happening around him.
Like Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is steeped in nostalgia and exists in an indistinct time. Though Sam carries an iPhone and peeps on a friend’s (Topher Grace) neighbor with the assistance of a video-equipped helicopter drone, the film’s ubiquitous cultural icons dwell in most of the previous century, including B noirs, Hollywood romances, and old issues of Playboy and Nintendo Power. In both Sam’s addled logic and the film’s visual code, all of these artifacts are clues of one kind or another.
A zine-maker chronicling the forgotten history of the neighborhood and Hollywood scandals further convolutes Sam’s journey, offering an interpretational lodestar in the form of a mid-century cereal box with a treasure map on its back. The artist is played by Patrick Fischler, instantly recognizable as the man who suffers a waking nightmare at Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The casting confirms yet another evident inspiration for Under the Silver Lake, whose cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis) expresses a slightly dirty, ambient unease even in glittering daylight or at industry parties featuring odd performance artists.
Under the Silver Lake navigates its thicket of references with breezy confidence, undergirded by Disasterpeace’s lush, menacing score. But as with the more efficient It Follows, it’s never evident what the film’s subtexts are meant to add up to. Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, during a lengthy musical medley with a brutal climax, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism. Mitchell’s L.A. proves to be a sort of zombie culture, one whose artists are fed notes and messages from hidden ghostwriters and where originality was unceremoniously wiped out some decades ago. Every party is designed to be an experience, but every experience is forced and fundamentally hollow.
Oddly, Under the Silver Lake comes to feel as complacent as the milieu it’s satirizing, due in large part to the void of ambition and tact at its center. Sam is at once the film’s avatar, audience surrogate, and object of ridicule. He’s forsaken worldly duties for the sake of his dick, and rather incidentally stumbles into an elaborate riddle about the meaning of art and the rot underneath his neighborhood. Sam’s enthusiasm for amateur detective work is meant to be as shaggy and winning as his other behavior is off-putting, but there’s something askew about both Garfield’s effortful performance and Mitchell’s idea of his main character.
Talking with a fitful speech impediment in lackadaisical tones, Garfield swerves from a state of passive narcolepsy to addled, sometimes aggro enthusiasm with minimal cause. Throughout the film, Sam accepts frequent offers of sex with a vacant, glassy countenance, and at one point vigorously masturbates over a vision board of naked women. He also castigates the homeless and beats up a group of marauding teenagers. Sometimes he feels like an analogue to a Reddit troll, and at others his quest for meaning seems entirely earnest. Sam is meant to be confounding, but it’s unclear if he’s meant to be so incoherent.
These problems are in step with a film that’s in complete control of its imagery but remains half-baked in its ideology and execution. Maybe it’s apropos that a film so critical of predominant cultural modes feels so oppressively patriarchal in its attitude and rolodex of references: A reading of Under the Silver Lake can accommodate how one alternative subculture (comic books) has been subsumed into and now monopolizes an entire industry, but if Mitchell’s film is about those left behind and adrift in its wake, why wouldn’t it address those almost entirely left out of the conversation? It’s difficult not to question the composition of Mitchell’s chosen milieu as its impressive artifice comes to feel entirely perfunctory, and one is left to choke on the exhaust of Under the Silver Lake loopy daisy chain of references and its disconnected series of blasé shock tactics.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome Director: David Robert Mitchell Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell Distributor: A24 Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2018
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