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Understanding Screenwriting #78: Friends with Benefits, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #78: Friends with Benefits, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Friends with Benefits; Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; Point Blank (2010); Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005); The Great Escape; MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot (book); The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography (book); Covert Affairs, but first…

Fan Mail: Contrary to what David E. thinks, I love films that are poetically structured. If you can find it, look at the great British documentary Song of Ceylon (1934), one of the most poetically structured films of all time. In my History of Documentary film course, the classes were always split: there were those who loved it and those who hated it because it didn’t tell a story. That gave me a chance early in the course to let them know that all films do not have to tell stories.

“Pippa” appears to be upset with David and me for taking things to “the Nth degree of irrelevance.” Then, alas, she goes on to provide a link to the “film structure in a circle” site that I wrote about in US#76. She ought to go back and read my comments on it. The problem I have with so much writing about screenwriting is that it is often only about structure (Syd Field’s plot points; the Hero’s Journey, etc) without a lot of understanding of the nuances of character, tone, et al involved. As in some of the films in this column…

Friends with Benefits (2011. Screenplay by Keith Merryman & David A Newman and Will Gluck, story by Harley Patton and Keith Merryman & David A Newman. 109 minutes)

Haven’t we recently seen this? Take one: No, actually we haven’t. In US#70, I wrote about No Strings Attached (2011) which has a similar plot: Two friends agree to have sex without any emotional attachments, but one of them naturally falls in love with the other and complications ensue. It was not particularly well done, for reasons I will come back to as we discuss this one. Friends is much better in a variety of ways.

One problem I had with Strings is that the characters were not equals. Emma was a doctor, Adam was a television production assistant who was just devoted to her since they were kids. So you can see where the story is going right away. In Friends, Jamie (Mila Kunis) is an executive headhunter who recruits Dylan to come to New York from California to become the new art director at GQ magazine. So they start out as equals. Will Gluck, who also directed, has said he wanted to do something in the vein of the old Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movies, and you can see and hear that influence. But Kunis and Justin Timberlake, who plays Dylan, don’t have that maturity or emotional weight. Which is OK, and Gluck and the others recognize that. These two are young professionals, but professionals nonetheless. The two characters and the actors who play them are much better balanced than Natalie Portman and Aston Kutcher are in Strings. Both Kunis and Timberlake have great chemistry on-screen and are hot, the latter of which is not normally said about Tracy and Hepburn. In Strings the sex was played mostly for slapstick jokes, but the sex here is very much in character.

One problem I have with most sex scenes in movies is that they tend to be very generic. The sex scenes here are not; you have probably never heard the word “burlap” the way it is used here. The writers focus on how these characters, having what they hope is unemotional sex, talk and screw and react. It is much funnier than just slapstick. It is very raunchy stuff—you are embarrassed to think of Tracy and Hepburn saying any of what gets said here—but it is not as off-putting as the raunch has been in other recent films, such as Bridesmaids (US#76) or Going the Distance (US#59). Character and attitude ground it.

Gluck, who directed but did not write Easy A (2010), also directs here, and he again shows a feeling for interesting supporting characters. They are not as well written here as those Bert V. Royal wrote in Easy A, but the script gives some nice moments to Woody Harrelson as Tommy, the gay sports editor at GQ. So it’s Dylan who has the gay best friend, not Jamie. Jamie’s mother Lorna shows up, played by Patricia Clarkson, who was great as the mother in Easy A. She’s not given as much to work with her, but there is a great running gag as to the ethnic identity of Jamie’s father, taking advantage of Kunis’s “ethnic” look (in Hollywood terms that means she is not a pasty-faced blonde). The most interesting supporting character is Dylan’s father, who is in first-stage Alzheimer’s. That’s a tricky character to throw into a rom-com, but the writers balance his crazy and sane moments nicely and everybody was smart enough to get Richard Jenkins for the part.

The writers also realize their film is coming along late in the current rom-com cycle, so there are a lot of jokes, a la Scream (1996) as to the rules of the genre. Jamie and Dylan never go the top of the Empire State Building, but to a rooftop where they can look at it. There is even a film-within-a-film that demonstrates all the cliches. Stick with Friends all the way through the end of the credits to see a funny payoff to that.

One way Friends is better than Strings is that it’s not just one character who falls in love with the other. Here both characters do, which leads to a nice scene where Dylan’s sister simply explains to him why the whole friends-with-benefits idea doesn’t work. We watch Jamie and Dylan truly sweat over the situation. We may not cry real tears over them, but we at least cry genuine cardboard tears.

The film also gets a lot of mileage out of the New York-California conflict, but I have to tell you this: My daughter saw the film in a suburb of New Orleans and she and her husband were the only two people in the theater that laughed at the New York and L.A. jokes. Maybe the rest of the country just doesn’t care about us, folks.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011. Written by Dan Fogelman. 118 minutes)

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Tone: Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, one plot in romantic comedies involved a divorced couple getting back together again. The great opening of The Philadelphia Story (1940) showed us the breakup in which Tracy Lords throws her husband C.K. Dexter Haven out of the house, golf clubs and all. But then we jump ahead to some time later when she is planning to marry someone else. His Girl Friday (1940) begins with Walter and Hildy already divorced (and Hildy planning on remarrying). What neither film shows us is what happens immediately after the breakup, because that is a little more serious than either film wants to be. Crazy, Stupid, Love. starts with the breakup and then follows what happens afterwards. So the tone is different. The film is funny, but there is an undercurrent of rueful sadness as well. While Friends With Benefits follows in the fast-talking spirit of films like His Girl Friday, Crazy, Stupid, Love. creates a different kind of balance. The almost completely forgotten 1957 film Divorce American Style tried something similar, but did not do it as well as the current film.

In the title sequence we can tell Cal and Emily are not on the same page by their shoes under the restaurant table. Emily tells Cal she wants a divorce and shortly thereafter he jumps out of the car on the way home. You could write that for pure laughs, but Fogelman gives it an edge, and the directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, capture the tone the script sets by keeping the action slow enough so that we can watch everybody’s reactions to the events. We get drawn into the characters and their situations. Fogelman co-wrote the screenplay for Cars (2006), worked on the story for this year’s Cars 2, and wrote the screenplay for 2010’s Tangled, so he knows both comedy and character. We get a subplot with Cal and Emily’s 13-year-old son, Robbie, who is madly in love with the 17-year-old baby sitter (Robbie has a younger sister, whom we don’t learn that much about) named Jessica. And Jessica has a mad crush on…Cal. The main plotline is Cal being taught by Jacob how to be a swinger, complete with a makeover of the kind one usually sees in chick flicks. It’s funny to see the shopping montage with guys.
Fogelman is very careful to set up the continuity of the film, usually letting us know what the next scene is going to be by having someone mention an upcoming event. That way we end up suspecting right away that when we do not see the teacher in Robbie’s classroom but only hear her, she will show up in some other situation, which she does. We can tell what’s coming and we anticipate it. Nice and tidy.

Then half an hour before the end of the film, Fogelman pulls off a real corker of a twist. I can usually see them coming, but not so with this one. Why does this one surprise the way it should? First of all, we assume the twist with the teacher is the film’s big twist. Second, Fogelman has done a great job preparing us by making us assume the characters involved in the twist are there for one function only in the plot. Third, he lays out everything else so neatly, we hardly expect something like this.

I also like the way Jessica, the babysitter is written and cast. She is not a raving beauty, but a gawky 17-year-old who does stupid things. I saw the movie with a fairly large crowd, and the two guys next to me were older teenagers who had no interest in Jessica until her final action in the film. It will endear her to teenage boys everywhere. And would probably get her arrested in real life.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling. 130 minutes)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Finally: I have to admit I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, nor have I seen any of the films made from them. Mythical British schoolboys and their magic wands don’t turn me on. So what I am doing writing about this film in a column about screenwriting? Just this: I am incredibly glad to see the series end and end on a good note, according to everybody. I do not begrudge anybody who made a bazillion dollars from it. And why am I glad to see it all end?

From the first film of the series back in 1893, the Warner Brothers Marketing Department has been relentlessly congratulating itself for doing such a great job of selling the films to the public. I imagine they all broke their arms patting themselves on their backs. But in fact, the WB Marketing Department did not have a damn thing to do with the success of the films. Not one damned thing.

People went to see the first film because of one person and one person only: J.K. Rowling. She, the writer of the novels, created those character, those stories, and the overall arc of the series. Without the love that people felt for her novels and her characters, they would not have shown up for the first film. It’s the writer, stupid.

Audiences kept coming back because of Rowling, who has at least gotten some of the credit she deserves, and one other person. That would be David Heyman, who discovered the books before they were bestsellers and took the project to Warners. Then he produced all the films in the series. You think that’s easy? Think about all the moving parts involved in the series. Because Heyman kept the level of quality up, people kept coming back. Steve Kloves, who wrote all but one of the screenplays, helped with the quality as well, of course.

So I am celebrating the end of the series because it now means that the Warner Brothers Marketing Department will now, we hope, FINALLY SHUT THE FUCK UP about how they made the films hits all by themselves.

Point Blank (2010. Written by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans. 84 minutes)

Point Blank

Luc-alike: In US#20, I wrote about Taken (2009), a fast, action-packed thriller co-written by Luc Besson. When Besson had a huge hit with his 1990 thriller La Femme Nikita, The New Yorker’s one-line blurb for it was “The end of French Cinema as we know it.” It was not entirely, but it did introduce the French version of the high-octane thriller. Point Blank, not to be confused with the 1967 film of the same name co-written by the great Alexander Jacobs, is very much in the Besson vein. We start with Sartet, a wounded safe-cracker being chased by a couple of guys trying to kill him. Sartet ends up in a hospital where Samuel, a nurse’s aide, saves his life. This puts Samuel on the bad guys’ radar. After the first chase scene, we have been introduced in a nice slow scene to Samuel and his very pregnant wife, Nadia. So Sartet’s cohorts kidnap Nadia and tell Samuel to get Sartet out of the hospital or they will kill his wife. You may remember from the last column, US#77, I wrote about the 1947 film noir Desperate and mentioned that the leading character got his wife out of town before the bad guys could do her any harm. Here the writers don’t give Samuel a chance, which certainly ups the suspense.

Then there is a lot of running around. And I mean a lot. We know Samuel is a nice guy, but here he is mostly, well, desperate. Sartet is a rather cool guy, but that’s about it for him. There are a whole variety of criminals, corrupt cops, not-so-corrupt cops, and they are all very sullen. Yeah, I know they are French, but they are all one note, although the one cop who may not be is killed off earlier in the film than you might think. So there are plot twists and several good scenes (I particularly love how Sartet and Samuel break into the police station to get an incriminating video on a USB), but it is all on one emotional level. Taken at least had a little variety to it.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005. Written by Simon Kinberg. 120 minutes)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Not worth waiting for: About five or six years ago I was visiting my daughter in Denver. I had not seen this film when it came out, and she had it from Netflix. We had a couple of hours before we had to leave for the airport, so we figured we could get it in. We started it and it looked promising. John and Jane Smith are a married couple going through a bad patch (they are both bored), so they are seeing a shrink. We get a flashback on how they met, and it is clear both of them were packing guns at the time. They apparently got married without telling each other what they do. One day Jane gets an assignment in her work as an assassin, and she sees that John is there too…and about then my daughter’s DVD player went on the fritz. It just would not work. So we had to give it up. I kept meaning to get around to seeing the film, but it was not high on my list. Finally I got it from Netflix.

Maybe my daughter’s DVD player knew something we didn’t, since the film begins to go downhill rather rapidly about the point we stopped watching. John and Jane figure out they are hired assassins, working for different organizations. For some reason this makes them furious with each other. So they go from having a boring life to trying to kill each other. About midway through the film they have a shootout in their house, which pretty much destroys the house. It is way too big for its placement in the middle of the film. And then, having destroyed the house, they are so turned on they have sex with each other.

OK, I can understand makeup sex if you have been arguing, but after destroying your own home? I suppose Kinberg is intending it to be some kind of commentary on marriage, but the shootout is so big, so noisy, and so long (they are pretty crummy hit persons if they are not better shots than that) that makeup sex seems stupid under the circumstances. They eventually figure out that their organizations (about which we learn virtually nothing—this is really a two-character piece) have finally (what took them so long?) learned they are married to each other and want both of them dead. Why? Who knows? I would have thought a married team might be useful. So the movie ends up another big shootout, this one between the Smiths and a lot of faceless guys. In a stunning lack of imagination on Kinberg’s part, this shootout is in a home furnishings department of a big store. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. And when the shootout is over, the Smiths have killed all the other soldiers. Fade out. Huh? Aren’t their two organizations going to try to continue to kill them? Maybe this was intended to be a setup for a sequel, but thank God there has not been one.

The Great Escape (1963. Screenplay by W.R. Burnett and James Clavell and among other uncredited writers, William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Nelson Gidding, based on the book by Paul Brickhill. 172 minutes)

The Great Escape

Even bankers think it is a nice little scene: I happened to see this again recently, since it is one of my favorite World War II movies and I look at it every couple of years. From the first time I saw the film in 1963, I have always like the little scene where Griffith, the tailor, explains to Big X how he is making civilian clothes for the escape. In the scene as written and played, Griffith behaves like a typical tailor as he lays out the possible materials he is using, what is he going to do with them, etc. It could be an on-the-nose scene, but Griffith’s attitude gives it some flair. The scene was almost cut out of the film.

I have mentioned Glenn Lovell’s excellent biography of director John Sturges, Escape Artist, before. I read through the chapter on The Great Escape before I looked at the film. According to Lovell, the writing was rather chaotic, mostly because of Steve McQueen, but also because there was so much material in the book. The rough cut ran five hours, which they cut down to a little over three. That cut worked well, but United Artists wanted it cut to under three hours. Sturges cut it, including the tailor scene. But when they needed extra money, they had to show the film to the Board of the Pacific National Bank to get the money. The bankers all asked how the prisoners got the clothes. The scene went back in.

I always pushed my screenwriting students to only include scenes in their scripts that they needed. The tailor scene may have seemed like one they didn’t need, but they did. See what I mean about screenwriting being a work of nuances?

MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot (2011. Book written by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, Michael Troyan. 311 pages)

MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot

The title gets its right: This is a big book, in many ways. It is wider than it is tall, and it is packed with an incredible amount of information about the old MGM studio in Culver City, complete with a list of what films and television shows were shot on which backlot sets. The studio is now owned by Sony, but the soundstages are still there. The backlots, of which there were several, were all torn down in the ‘70s and replaced by real estate developments. An acquaintance of mine lives in a house on what used to be Lot Two. I think we figured it out that he is close to the old Grand Central Station set, where in 1959 alone, Marilyn Monroe got spritzed by steam from a train in Some Like It Hot and Cary Grant got on board the 20th Century Limited in North by Northwest. Hallowed ground indeed.

The writers have uncovered not only the MGM records that still exist, but photos of nearly all of the sets on the backlots. You will recognize many of them if you have seen any movies, and not just MGM movies, made before 1975. And you will be surprised to learn that movies you thought were done on location were done on the backlot. Only two shots in An American in Paris (1951) were actually shot in Paris. The rest were done on Lot Two or on the sound stages.

So what does this wonderful book have to do with screenwriting? More than you might think. Because writers at the studio knew what was on the lot, they could write for it. Betty Comden and Adolph Green came up with the idea for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) while wandering around the lot. The book’s authors have several quotes from television writers who were inspired to write scenes based on the standing sets. They quote from a newspaper interview in 1959 with Rod Serling in which he talks about walking on “St. Louis Street,” built for the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis. Serling said, “I was suddenly hit by the similarity of it to my hometown. Feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, it struck me that all of us have a deep longing to go back—not to our home as it is today, but as we remember it. It was from that simple incident that I wrote the story ’Walking Distance’” for his series The Twilight Zone. The resources of a major studio could make television shows look much more expensive than they really are.

I had a first-hand look at how a writer used a standing set at MGM. In the spring of 1968, I was in a screenwriting course at UCLA. Williams Bowers was a guest speaker in the class, and we had read his wonderfully funny screenplay for Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), which had just finished shooting. In the copy of the script we read, the final shootout was missing. There was a page that said the details of the shootout would be written when they decided which western set they would use. They settled on the Western Street on Lot 3. As luck would have it, that summer I was a bus driver/tour guide at the slapdash studio tour. It was not run by the studio, but contracted out to a sleazeball who must have had incriminating photos of some MGM executive. He had three old buses, but had only registered two of them with the state, and he split one set of license plates between two busses. So I spent the summer going past the Western Street imagining the final shootout, based on what I knew of the characters and situations in the script. Needless to say, I was disappointed the first time I saw the shootout in the movie. It was not nearly as inventive as what I had come up with. On the other hand, mine would have run four hours…

The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography (2011. Book written by Aubrey Solomon. 384 pages)

The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and FilmographyIt’s the writers, stupid: Solomon’s book is not the nostalgia-ridden piece the MGM book is, but a serious history of Fox before the merger in 1935 with the upstart 20th Century Pictures. It is also the only place I know of where you will see photographs of Theda Bara topless and laughing. Not in the same photo however. Now that I have your attention, let me mention the section that is interesting in terms of screenwriting. The founder of the studio, William Fox, was kicked out of the studio in the early thirties. Whatever his character flaws, and he had a pile of them, he was a showman. The people brought into run the studio were not, and Solomon makes it clear that a large part of the problem from 1930 to 1935 is that there was nobody running the studio who understood scripts. He has quote after quote from reviews on how bad the scripts of the time were for most of the Fox films. It was no wonder that in 1935 the studio merged with 20th Century. Twentieth Century had Darryl F. Zanuck, who had the best story mind in Hollywood, and helped the studio recover and grow with the assistance of screenwriters like Lamar Trotti, Philip Dunne, and of course Nunnally Johnson.

Covert Affairs (2011. “Welcome to the Occupation” written by Zak Schwartz. 60 minutes)

Covert Affairs

Haven’t we recently seen this? Take two: A group of terrorists burst into a meeting of energy executives. The terrorists fire their automatic weapons into the air and tell the executives they are being taken hostage. Right, it is the opening of the first hour of the second episode of Carlos (US#62), when Carlos and his men take over the 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna. What we have here is a version of that domesticated for American television.

The terrorists in this case present themselves as eco terrorists, claiming the company GG&E is polluting Mexico, the country the meeting is in. They are not as uncontrolled as the guys in Carlos. Delgado, the leader, has even brought along an asthma inhaler, filled with the right prescription for one of the executives. That is not a touch from Carlos. Delgado is smoother then Carlos. With Carlos we never quite know what is going to happen. One of the women at the meeting is Megan, a C.I.A. field officer who has been working undercover at the company. She manages to get off a message to Langley before the terrorists take over. So while in Carlos our focus is on Carlos and his men, here we have other characters, including eventually Annie, the star of the show.

Annie, her boss Joan, and Ben, an operative Annie had a fling with, are set up as a eco television network unit and given permission to go in to interview the terrorists. It is made clear by Joan that their job is to provide information about the situation to a C.I.A. strike team, and they are not to take any other action. Yeah, right, who’s the star of the show again? And while Annie has warned Ben not to try any of the “cowboy crap,” we know that he will, simply because she’s told him not to. Annie eventually figures out that Delgado is not really into ecology, but just in it for the money, so she upsets him so much that he puts the three of them in with the hostages. She figures Delgado has no intention of freeing the hostages after the money transfer is made, and she’s right. Fortunately Ben has planted his camera bag there that, like all the stuff Q provides for James Bond, happens to be exactly what they need. He blows out a window, and the four guards come into the room. And Joan and Megan beat the crap out of them. Wait a minute, Annie’s the star, what does she get to do? Well, rappel down the side of the building with Ben to capture the escaping Delgado and the executive who was the inside man. This is the difference between a serious look at a terrorist and a light-hearted American summer television series: nobody rappels down buildings in Carlos.

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

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Review: Angel Has Fallen Paints an Incoherent Picture of an Action Hero

The film seems to have cobbled its set pieces together from a series of close-ups edited as if by random selection.

1.5

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Angel Has Fallen
Photo: Summit Entertainment

Ric Roman Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen sees U.S. Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)—having returned to his home turf after a trip across the pond—contending with more threats to international security. Mercifully jettisoning the Islamophobia of Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the film finds Mike framed for an assassination attempt on President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). And clearing his name appears to hinge, at least at first, on whether or not he learns to grapple with the physical and psychological toll of his previous exploits, as multiple concussions and spinal injuries have saddled him with insomnia and an addiction to painkillers.

As a fleet of miniature drones slaughters Trumbull’s security detail, it’s impossible not to think of Mike’s early interactions with his old Army Ranger buddy, Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), the head of a private military contractor. Angel Has Fallen introduces Wade openly lamenting that Trumbull’s efforts to stop war profiteering have hurt his business. It’s almost to the film’s credit that Jennings’s guilt is never in doubt, meaning that Mike’s subsequent escape from custody and quest to clear his name are rooted solely in his having to contend with his traitorous friend’s private army, and not some dull mystery centered around who set him up.

Still, the film’s framing of Mike as the most wanted man in America is clumsily executed. Given that his face is plastered on screens all over the country, you’d think that the man would be trying to avoid public exposure at all times. In practice, though, Mike is almost always in plain sight, never making any attempt to disguise himself, almost as if he’s aware that no one ever seems to recognize him. The only exception to this rule is when he’s held up by two armed, backwoods militiamen in Angel Has Fallen’s most baffling scene; after all, when one imagines the sort of people who might be driven to an outraged citizen’s arrest over an attack on a liberal, black president, one doesn’t immediately think of white nationalists.

Given the lack of significant impediment to Mike’s movements, the film allows plenty of space for action thrills, but Waugh seems to have cobbled his set pieces together from a series of close-ups edited as if by random selection. And because of so much coherence-defying shot continuity, it’s impossible to tell what’s happening during any given skirmish. Even the nonviolent scenes are jittery and aggressive; a close-up at one point tracks a character picking up a phone with a whip pan so fast that the shot slips out of focus. Worst of all, though, are the special effects that mark the more grandiose set pieces, with smoke from massive explosions hanging statically in the air as a giant, solid mass and, in the film’s rooftop climax, the obvious use of green screen revealing image artifacts around the actors’ faces.

It doesn’t help that, three films into the Fallen series, Mike has almost paradoxically lost some of his dimensionality as a character. In an age of impossibly conditioned physiques, Butler’s everyman image is a welcome throwback to the action stars of yore. But he doesn’t radiate much wit and personality, delivering Mike’s punchlines with the same leaden severity that he does the film’s exposition. Butler portrays Mike’s dire health condition with nothing more than the occasional flutter of his eyelids and a momentary stumble, and what could have given Mike’s quest to clear his name added urgency is swiftly abandoned as soon he goes on the run, evincing as he does no visible signs of suffering from any malady or trauma.

The only time that Angel Has Fallen exhibits any spark of inspiration is when Mike hides out with his estranged, traumatized veteran father, Clay (Nick Nolte), who’s secluded himself in a cabin in the deep woods of West Virginia. When Jennings inevitably finds his prey there, Mike’s efforts to take charge are overridden by Clay tripping a number of booby traps, setting off so many explosives that the sequence, for the way its initial tediousness blooms into improbable hilarity as each successive explosion dispatches one of Jennings’s men, comes to suggest a brutal iteration of the famous rake gag from The Simpsons. Nolte, with his gravelly voice, bent frame, and matted briar patch of hair, communicates in a few scenes all of the pathos of weariness and trauma that Butler fails to invest in Mike, providing Angel Has Fallen with its only sources of comedy and emotional resonance.

Cast: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Danny Huston, Michael Landes, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, Piper Perabo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lance Reddick Director: Ric Roman Waugh Screenwriter: Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook, Ric Roman Waugh Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

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Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.

Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.

Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.

Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.

Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.

While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.

The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.

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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

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

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

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

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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