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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.” src=

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: Kill It and Leave This Town Vividly Marries the Mundane and the Dreamlike

Mariusz Wilczyński’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient.

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Kill It and Leave This Town
Photo: Outsider Pictures

Composed of sketches in motion, against backdrops of lined paper with the wrinkles, smudges, and tape left visible, Polish artist and performer Mariusz Wilczyński’s Kill It and Leave This Town militates against the extinction of traditional animation techniques. Not for a moment is the viewer allowed to forget that these are drawings, sequenced to create the illusion of movement. If the magic of animation is resurrected in Wilczyński’s hands, it’s a dark magic, as familiar with the grotesque as it is the lyrical.

Kill It and Leave This Town explores the industrial city in Poland where Wilczyński grew up. Among factories humming with machinery, along dreary streets lined with beer cans where the only splashes of color are the red stripe of the Polish flag or the ribbon in an old lady’s hair, Wilczyński’s mother and father stumble through their lives. Wilczyński himself makes cameos from time to time, drawn as a naked giant, at once infantile and overgrown. In one scene, the father attempts to show the family a fairy tale titled “How Fiki Miki Mouse Sailed Across the Seas and Oceans from America” on a slide projector, raving and cursing when the device gets stuck between slides. In another, the mother babbles on her deathbed to a son too busy drawing to pay her any attention. The film borrows its form from poetry as opposed to traditional narrative cinema, resulting in a loose assemblage of vignettes that loop back on one another, recreating the associative activity of memory and imagination.

The film’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient. Dense spirals pouring out of smokestacks, a recurring motif, resemble smoke only insofar as they cite the scribbles that stand in for it in children’s drawings, whereas the sequence of a mortician’s hands sewing up the body of Wilczyński’s mother exhibits the cold precision of a draftsman. One scene on a trolley is rendered entirely by hand except for the windows, replaced with live-action film of rain droplets streaming down glass. Such atmospheric composites recall Don Hertzfelt’s Everything Will Be Okay, as well as Soyuzmultfilm classics like Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog. Tadeusz Nalepa’s score, with all the charm of someone improvising songs on a guitar, echoes the animation’s off-the-cuff quality.

Wilczyński exploits his medium to bind the mundane with the dreamlike, continuing a long tradition of Eastern European surrealism. In a scene at a fishmonger, the fish floating in a barrel of water become people ready to be gutted and beheaded. Later, Wilczyński’s mother stumbles off the trolley into an ominous figure, sheathed in a trench coat, hat, and gloves, who gives her change for the fare. When she asks, “Who the devil are you,” his head swivels around to reveal a talking cat, like Behemoth from Buglakov’s Master and Margarita, who claims to be “part of that power which wills forever evil, yet does forever good.”

Only in hand-drawn animation can such fairy-tale grotesqueries convince, in part because it never aims for photorealism; Wilczyński leaves in the free-hand scribbles and the stutter between frames for our imagination to iron out. Even in a city only accessible to memory, a world of the past constrained by poverty and despair, anything is possible for Wilczyński, as it must have seemed in childhood—and yet no possibility scrubs clean of the stain of death.

Cast: Krystyna Janda, Andrzej Chyra, Maja Ostaszewska, Małgorzata Kożuchowska Director: Mariusz Wilczyński Screenwriter: Mariusz Wilczyński Distributor: Outsider Pictures Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: 76 Days Is a Harrowing Document of the Covid Outbreak in Wuhan

The documentary may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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76 Days
MTV Documentary Films

Like Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, Hao Wu and Wiexi Chen’s 76 Days—co-directed by another journalist who chose to remain anonymous—documents the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. While Ai’s film manages to slip a number of pointed critiques of China’s authoritarian tactics passed the country’s typically hawk-eyed censors, 76 Days, which takes its title from the length of Wuhan’s lockdown early in 2020, presents China in a more universally flattering light. What the film lacks in political commentary, however, it makes up for with its tight focus on the daily grind of the medical staff and countless volunteers tirelessly working at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Much of the film follows doctors and nurses, clad in protective gear, as they make their rounds, reassuring patients that everything will be fine, even as they’re only just beginning to understand the virus and how to treat it. The toll this regiment of 12-plus-hour days takes on the staff is palpable in virtually every frame, with insert shots of the medical team asleep on benches or slumped over in chairs speaking to the sheer exhaustion of being a cog in a medical machine, quickly churning through patients with no light at the end of the tunnel. One nurse, while being comforted as her dying father is taken away to quarantine, is ultimately told that she needs to remain composed so she can ready herself to return to work the next day.

Although the staff’s sacrifice and composure under fire is amply documented, 76 Days never stoops to sentimentality, eschewing fawning talking-head interviews and a musical score. Throughout, we’re left brimming in the immediacy of the chaos at hand; only the glimpses we catch of patients who’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, in the hospital provide a concrete sense of time’s passage since the start of the lockdown. Most memorable of these patients is an elderly man who repeatedly leaves his room to wander around the hospital and is continually corralled by different nurses back to his room. His exploits lend the film a bit of levity even as his backstory, once revealed, makes his foibles all the more heartbreaking.

The nightmare of caring for thousands of patients during a pandemic also extends to the intake and discharge processes. This makes for a few touching and cathartic scenes once certain patients finally receive the approval to return home, such as when the aforementioned older gentleman receives applause and well wishes from many of the nursing staff as he exits the hospital. But the film’s most poignant moment comes when an endlessly patient young couple finally meets their newborn child for the first time several weeks after her birth.

These brief glimpses of joy are counterbalanced not only by the gravity of the pandemic as it’s being fought on the frontlines, but also by the cumbersome and often tragic logistical tasks that the hospital staff must perform, such as dealing with the belongings of the dead. Among said belongings is the still-functioning cellphone of one deceased patient that displays 31 missed messages, a mere hint of the suffering that even many of the healthy residents of Wuhan endured in those early days of the outbreak. 76 Days is full of small yet revelatory moments like this, and in keeping its gaze so firmly planted on both the medical staff and patients as they’re forced to navigate the uncharted territory of a deadly new virus, the film may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Director: Hao Wu, Wiexi Chen, Anonymous Distributor: MTV Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Soul More Sublimely Mediates on the Pull of Music Than It Does the Afterlife

In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

2.5

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Soul
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the main character of Pixar’s Soul, is a jazz pianist living in Harlem who’s desperate for music gigs alongside his part-time job directing the disengaged middle schoolers in his band class. When the school principal offers him full-time hours with benefits, it feels more like a final surrender than a lifeline. The threat of lifelong mediocrity has tightened its grasp around every corner of Joe’s life. In a brilliant stroke, even the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” tune that plays over the logo before most Disney movies is heard here as if played by Joe’s out-of-tune student ensemble.

Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, quickly reveals that Joe is anything but mediocre. Hearing melody in the wail of sirens and rhythm in the cacophony of a jackhammer, he has music in his, well, soul. When Joe catches his big break auditioning to play with a pro quartet, headlined by imperious jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the film follows him into “the zone.” Not since Fantasia has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows. As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), Soul gives itself over fully to his music.

For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around. As such, it’s hard not to want Soul to be all about music, not just as metaphor but as the very real engine that drives the film’s characters forward. Music’s extraordinary impact is palpable when Joe’s face lights up as one of his students, Connie (Cora Champommier), leans into a trombone solo, and as Joe’s fingers escape his anxiety in their own improvisatory pursuit. Walk away 15 minutes into the film, at the end of what would make, on its own, a snazzy, sublime short, and you’ll have seen Pixar’s greatest, purest tribute to the arts.

But Joe’s joy, and soon the film’s, is cut short when he plummets down an open manhole, and finds himself—or, rather, his soul, depicted here as a blue-green turnip-shaped substance with glasses and a fedora—on the pathway to the Great Beyond. Refusing to face death, Joe hurtles into the void toward the Great Before, where not-yet-born souls obtain their personalities in a Youth Seminar. Mistaken for a celebrated psychologist, Joe’s soul is assigned a mentee, a cranky pre-human called 22 (Tina Fey) who refuses to cooperate: She’s unwilling, and, so far, unable to find the “spark” that will allow her to be born into a human body. Previous famous mentors have tried and failed (the soul of Carl Jung amusingly tells the difficult 22, “Stop talking—my unconscious mind hates you”), but Joe sees 22 as his ticket back to Earth.

It’s somewhere around here that Soul, co-written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, starts to veer down its own wrong path, abandoning its accessible storytelling, along with that vitalizing jazz soundtrack, for a confusing maze of pseudo-spiritual planes of existence. Besides the Great Beyond and the Great Before, souls can also be in the Zone, where tuned-in artists like Joe sometimes find themselves while still alive, or in a desert of Lost Souls, which belong to people who’ve forgotten how to live (hedge fund managers, in particular, we’re told).

In this ever-evolving terrain occupied by 2D and 3D life forms, the film’s visual adventurousness takes off as contrasting animation styles collide. At the Youth Seminar, flat, geometric figures with transparent features direct the bulbous souls to where they can pick up personality traits (at the Excitable Pavilion, for example). Meanwhile, a New Age-inflected Mystics Without Borders subplot, with Graham Norton voicing the tripped-out Moonwind, adds a daringly vibrant psychedelic color palette to the gentle blues and greens of the Great Before. But as the categories of souls keep expanding, the rules for these overlapping worlds grow foggy, and by the time that Fey’s voice is coming out of Joe’s body in a switcheroo that’s never quite explained, it’s hard not to feel as if the film has lost track of its internal logic.

At the core of the Pixar model is an exploration of friendship within the familiar parameters of the buddy comedy—Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, all the way back to Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody—and Soul tries hard to plug into the transformative power of friendship in pairing Joe with 22. Despite Fey’s droll delivery, 22, who says she chooses to speak with the voice of a middle-aged white lady in order to be “annoying,” isn’t convincing enough as a fully formed character for their relationship, or Joe’s investment in 22’s decision to be born, to ever matter.

The contours of these worlds seem just hazy enough to land on the safe side of blasphemy; sometimes it seems like the film’s imprecision is a deliberate attempt to draw piecemeal from various belief systems and sidestep offending religious audiences by addressing the presence or absence of higher powers at all. But the viewers that seem most painfully left behind are the ones to which Soul should rightly matter the most: kids. Soul swirls with self-help lingo about finding your spark and seeking your purpose, but that’s almost entirely in the context of Joe’s midlife crisis, a sliver of the human experience with which children seem unlikely to resonate. In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, which magnanimously welcomed grownups along for a sophisticated ride, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead and Inside Out’s representation of depression exemplify explorations of “grownup” topics with a probing awareness of the ways they also touch kids’ lives. For a while, it seems that Soul, in its treatment of the Great Before, will have a similar capacity for digging into big, unanswerable questions with care and clarity. But while most Pixar films pride themselves on presenting rich, fantastical responses to real-world wonderings, Soul keeps conjuring up visions that don’t correspond precisely enough to anything in the real world. It’s not clear whether the film ultimately offers a call to arms to pursue a passion or a warning that creative passion alone doesn’t provide for a fulfilling life.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi Director: Pete Docter Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Black Bear Is an Unnerving Look at the Baggage that Fuels Creation

Shot through with darkly existentialist humor, the film finds Aubrey Plaza throwing a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past.

3

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Black Bear
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear belongs to a long tradition of sexual psychodrama, in which a handful of frustrated and privileged characters hole up in a remote place and exorcize their resentments. This tradition is so venerable that it was parodied by Christopher Guest over 30 years ago in The Big Picture, and there’s also a dark strand of existentialist humor running through this similarly self-conscious film.

Levine casts doubt on his narrative’s sense of reality in the opening sequence, wherein a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) is sitting on a pier in a swimsuit looking out at a vast foggy lake. After a moment, she rises and proceeds into a luxurious home, ascends a flight of stairs, and sits at a desk and smokes a cigarette. Soon, she begins to write in a notebook and the narrative segues into what’s presumably a dramatization of the story she fashions. This scene will be repeated several times in Black Bear, suggesting both a leitmotif and a temporal loop.

We then see this woman, Allison, being dropped off on a road a bit away from the home. Meeting Allison at the drop-off point is Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who immediately sets about flirting with her. It’s the sort of flirtation indulged by aspiring artists and self-conscious intellectuals-in-training, rife with deflections, fake-outs, and challenges to the nature of reality that complement the suggestion that the entire situation is possibly a projection of some kind. Allison and Gabe arrive at the residence to meet Blair (Sarah Gadon), who’s pregnant with Gabe’s child, which wasn’t mentioned when Gabe was probing Allison about her career as a filmmaker and, especially, her relationship status. The trio have a long and boozy dinner and air a variety of grievances, leading to a shocking accident.

Allison, initially suggesting a prototypical Plaza character, seemingly prizes hip detachment above all else, in the process enraging the judgmental Blair, who was hoping for help in persecuting Gabe for various slights. This characterization of Allison is a purposeful trap door—a sop to expectation that Levine detonates. In Black Bear’s first half, Allison is cast as a male fantasy—a sexy, seemingly willing and wandering artist who’s uninterested in Blair’s sermonizing about gender roles. In effect, Allison gratifies the submerged feelings of men and even women who may feel that women wish to be subjugated—feelings that are perversely validated in the moment by Blair’s caustic hectoring, which is realistic of the patter of the blowhard at parties who wishes to bore everyone into submission with rigid political views. The film’s early scenes are so stacked against Blair that one may forgive Gabe’s own simplistic speechifying, though such forgiveness may prompt us to examine our own biases.

Remarkably, the film’s emotional intensity is inseparable from its parlor game-like self-consciousness, especially when Allison’s “cool girl” demeanor is unexpectedly demolished. At its halfway mark, Black Bear effectively reboots itself, switching the core identities of the women, with only Gabe tellingly gaining more power in the process. Suddenly, Allison becomes the vulnerable and rejected party, and Plaza imbues her transformed character with a raw and frenzied anguish. Plaza throws a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past, while Levine plumbs the various forms of subjugation that fuel the creative process.

In Black Bear’s second half, the remote house is now a set for an independent film with a plot that roughly re-stages the earlier clashes between Allison, Blair, and Gabe, who are now reimagined as two actresses and the director, respectively. The film thusly expands beyond the confines of a chamber play to include a micro community, with sustained, confidently intricate set pieces—reminiscent of the game-show scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—that explore the exhilaration and terror of corralling dozens of working parts and personalities to create something palatable for audiences. Both films understand such corralling to thrive in part on exploitation, and in the case of Black Bear, the film-within-a-story-within-the-film is constructed around Gabe’s gaslighting of Allison, which Levine stages with a sense of unnerving intimacy that might playfully echo his own experience working with his spouse, filmmaker and actress Sophie Takal, who’s among Black Bear’s co-producers.

Levine is hunting big game in Black Bear, as the film reflects to varying degrees the influence of dozens of self-reflective film classics, mostly notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If Black Bear feels too neat, a little too resolved as a game, it may be because the framing device gives us a convenient exit, though even the conclusion isn’t without ambiguities. Given that both stories are sex triangles fueled by exploitation, you may be driven to wonder if Plaza’s writer is attempting to find a way to channel real trauma. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, she’s conjuring it out of thin air, accessing unvarnished pain out of sheer talent and for the hell of it. This coda restores the smug Plaza stereotype to an extent, while alluding to the vast emotional undertow it suppresses.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng, Lou Gonzalez Director: Lawrence Michael Levine Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine Distributor: Momentum Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Survival Skills Surreally Straddles the Line Between Parody and Pathos

Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014.

2.5

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Survival Skills
Photo: Cranked Up Films

Purporting to be an actual VHS-shot police training video unearthed from the last gasp of the Reagan era, Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014, sandwiched between Too Many Cooks and reruns of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Yet writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature resists indulging the easy trappings of our current cultural obsession with ‘80s-era aesthetics as it digs into some rather contentious and particularly timely subject matter.

Survival Skills opens on a training guide introducing his lesson on a stagy classroom set. Credited as the Narrator, he’s played by Stacy Keach, a recognizable enough personality to immediately break any illusion of found-footage “authenticity.” But seeing as Armstrong will continue to break the fourth wall and experiment with meta-fictional ideas throughout, Keach, with his never-failing gravitas, becomes the perfect chaperone for this cracked video project.

The Narrator’s first order of business is creating the ideal police trainee, filtering the expected qualities needed for the job through an ancient computer system to end up with Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), an all-American goody-two-shoes who we’ll follow through his first year on the force in quaint Middletown, U.S.A. Speaking in insufferably chipper soundbites, Jim acts and sounds exactly like someone who you’d see in the kind of stilted training video that Survival Skills spoofs throughout. But as we enter Jim’s video world, the joke becomes that he’s almost the only one here who behaves this way, while his hardened partner—curiously named Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz), in what must be some kind of inside joke—and the people they encounter are all perplexed by his alien manner. No matter, though, as Jim continues to take his cues from the Narrator’s booming voice, which seems to be heard solely by him.

The line between the staged world and the real one blurs even further when Jim and Allison are tasked with responding to a domestic violence call involving a married couple, the Jennings. After the cops diffuse the situation, Mr. Jennings (Bradford Farwell) assures them that everything is okay while Mrs. Jennings (Emily Chisholm) sheepishly nods along, but Jim can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Defying orders from his superiors (and the natural progression of the training video), Jim begins a quixotic attempt to rescue Mrs. Jennings and her daughter (Madeline Anderson) from a situation that no one but him seems to particularly care about, while the Narrator desperately tries to steer him back on track.

Unlike many a throwback that adopts a retro look and doesn’t offer much beyond hollow non sequiturs (Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes instantly comes to mind), the film avoids cheapening its domestic-abuse storyline by using its formal conceit to also highlight another absurdity that Jim must confront: the impossibility of positive, meaningful police work within a broken legal (and social) system. The only lesson Jim can ultimately take away from his training is how to not get too involved, while his well-meaning suggestions to Mrs. Jennings that she flee her husband and file charges provoke immediate scorn from the same person he’s trying to help, since she’s already well aware how stacked the system is against her.

While mostly pulling off this tricky balancing act of humor and real-life horror, Survival Skills doesn’t quite go far enough in its critiques, especially in a climate where police-community relations are more frayed than ever. The whimsical mechanics of Armstrong’s world occasionally take precedence over the thematic issues at play, making it strange at times that Jim, who for all intents and purposes is a glorified android (Allison tellingly nicknames him “Robocop”), becomes so obsessed with this one case when he can barely read the room in any other setting. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in scenes with Jim’s hyperbolically domesticated wife, Jenny (Tyra Colar), who, while being the only other person in the film to behave in the same pre-programmed way, is clearly undergoing a stifled breakdown of her own. In these moments, Armstrong hints at but doesn’t fully comment on the correlation between the pressures of police work and domestic violence in police families.

The final act of Survival Skills, however, still intrigues, with Jim’s impossible quandary causing his idyllic existence to come unglued at the seams. Armstrong forcefully dives headfirst into the deep end of the meta pool, staging an aptly surreal revenge climax before Keach’s narrator concludes with a blunt lesson in the futility of policing. It’s a sentiment that ultimately resonates beyond the film’s stylistic posturing.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, Bradford Farwell Director: Quinn Armstrong Screenwriter: Quinn Armstrong Distributor: Cranked Up Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I’m Your Woman Is an Unresolved Grab at Feminist Revisionism

Julia Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything.

1.5

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I’m Your Woman
Photo: Amazon Studios

Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman is, in practice, a feminist response to the decidedly male-centric crime genre. Rather than follow a hoodlum named Eddie (Bill Heck) as he eludes his gangster cohorts, the film tracks Eddie’s wife, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), and their baby, Harry, as the latter are inducted into an underworld witness protection program. Such a premise has immense potential, especially given that Jean knows little about Eddie’s profession and that anyone could be an enemy looking to get back at him through her and Harry. A head of paranoid steam, resonant of Jean’s indentured status as a “kept” woman, could have been built up by the film, but Hart and co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz are barely invested in engendering suspense. Instead, I’m Your Woman is content to have us cheer Jean as she comes into her own apart from Eddie’s lies and manipulations—except that she never does, which appears to be an accidentally achieved irony on the filmmakers’ part.

I’m Your Woman is set in the 1970s, in conjunction with the second and third waves of feminism, and more pressingly so that Hart may have reason to offer the retro pop songs and ostentatious set designs that are common of films replicating the era. A strange opening scene, in which Eddie presents the mysteriously acquired Harry to Jean as one might an impulse purchase from a fancy store, establishes above all Jean’s complacency, which would shame a stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s, let alone the ‘70s. Indeed, Jean is so accommodating, defenseless, and opinion-less that she resembles a cult member, and as such you may wonder how she’s held the firebrand Eddie’s attention. As proffered here, these details are stereotypical and unconvincing, existing only as easy thematic signifiers.

None of this might matter if I’m Your Woman were remotely serviceable as a thriller, but it’s composed of a thicket of incoherent exposition, with a cipher at its center. Jean often hears rumors of what’s happening to Eddie while he’s hiding somewhere else, mostly as related by her primary protector, Cal (Arinzé Kene), and these stories suggest the conventional male-centric narrative that’s being consciously elided by Hart and Horowitz. But this gambit backfires, given that the story that Cal relates to Jean, however convoluted, is more exciting than the one we actually see play out on screen. At times, I’m Your Woman appears to be tipping its hat to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Gloria—two films, both made by men, that are far more curious about the inner lives of women than this one. Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes didn’t see their heroines merely as embodiments of an agenda, but also as volatile, intelligent, furious living and breathing human beings.

By contrast, nothing seems to elicit a recognizably human emotion from Jean. Once she’s sprung from life as Eddie’s plus one, Jean remains supernaturally passive—entirely reactive and played by the usually inventive Brosnahan in a monotonal stupor that nulls Hart’s theme of female empowerment. Jean is almost killed several times, and commits murder in self-defense, all without evincing remorse, panic, or jubilation at facing extremities of human existence, which Hart films perfunctorily without offering even scraps of the sort of basic narrative context that might’ve made these sequences thrilling. In other words, Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything, only to restore said bluster belatedly and halfheartedly once she’s run her single idea into the ground.

Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Bill Heck, James Charles, Justin Charles Director: Julia Hart Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy

The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.

2

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Superintelligence
Photo: HBO Max

Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.

The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.

Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.

Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.

Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.

McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

3

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Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.

2

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Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Film

Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.

2.5

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The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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