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Understanding Screenwriting #79: The Help, The Whistleblower, Fury, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #79: The Help, The Whistleblower, Fury, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Help, The Whistleblower, Red-Headed Woman, Hold Your Man, Fury, They Won’t Forget, but first…

Fan Mail: Rob Humanick is thanking me for making sure I got the period at the end of the title of Crazy, Stupid, Love. I would love to accept kudos, but I only put in the commas. It was Keith Uhlich, our eagle-eyed editor, who picked up on the period business. This is not the first time, nor the last, that Keith has saved me from looking like a total idiot in print. Or rather in pixels.

I am afraid I am way too straight to see what David E. calls the “gay envy” in straight films. In the case of Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (see, I got the period right this time) Gosling’s character seems to me to be a living embodiment of a guy obsessed with Hugh Hefner’s 1950s Playboy ideal. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a straight guy is just a straight guy.

The Help (2011. Screenplay by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. 146 minutes)

Yipee, it’s August, take one: That means there is finally a film in the multiplexes without stuff we have been inundated with all summer:

There are no comic book heroes.

There are no comic book characters from other Marvel comics that are only in this film to help promote future comic book movies.

There are no explosions, other than dramatic ones.

It is not, in any theater, in 3-D.

Nor is it in any Imax theaters.

There are no aliens.

It is not a tent pole for a future film series.

It is not the next, nor the last, tent pole from a previously established series.

There is not a single teenager in the film.

No actors change bodies in the course of this film.

There are no couples that are trying to have sex without emotional complications.

Except in reference to a certain pie, there is no use of bad language.

There are no fart, dick, or homophobic jokes.

There are no pirates, talking animals or talking cars in this film.

The African-American characters are not just in the film to be killed off so the white hero can get revenge.

However, just to let you know this is indeed a film from the summer of 2011, Emma Stone does appear in the film, but in a serious role.

By now you have probably read the backstory of the film. Taylor and Stockett are friends from childhood, and she gave him the film rights for her novel before it ever became a best seller. He in turn, with the help of some friends, convinced the industry that he should direct the film as well as write it, since he and Stockett felt that he understood the South better than a non-southern director would. They were right, and it makes up for Taylor not being a slicker director. He brings his considerable talents as both writer and director to the service of the material, like most great directors do, whether they want to admit it or not.

You may have read some reviews that say this is yet another film in which a white person saves the day for black folks. It’s not. Let’s start with the film’s narration. Stockett’s book has first-person narration by three people. One is Skeeter, a young white woman who just graduated from Ole Miss’. She decides to write a book in which black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963-64 talk about their lives. So naturally, if you are making a film to play in the multiplexes (i.e., for white audiences), Skeeter is your heroine and you let her do the narrating. Guess again. The narration Taylor uses is from Aibileen, the most serious of the maids. So while us white folks may think this is Skeeter’s movie, it is as much Aibileen’s. At the end of the film Skeeter is going off to New York, but we don’t see her leave. The film goes on to show us what happens to Aibileen (although I gather the book goes even further), making it Aibileen’s film, and making clear both Skeeter’s influence and lack of it. The third narrator of the book is Minny, the maid who can’t keep her mouth shut even when she should, for her own safety. Minny is as much a major character in the film as Skeeter and Aibileen. Once Aibileen and Minny and the other maids start talking, Skeeter becomes a secondary character.

Taylor is also smart to keep Aibilieen and Minny as equal characters, since it means we are not getting just one black person standing in for all black people. Aibileen and Minny are about as different as you can get, and Taylor as both writer and director serves both of them well, as do the actresses playing them. I caught Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) on a talk show and seeing them in “real life” made me appreciate both their performances even more. Both Davis and Spencer are so detailed, vivid and “in the moment” that they overcome any sense of stereotyping of their roles or any “white girl saves the black women” cliches.

Because so many of the white women who hire the maids are so obviously racist, I thought as I was watching the movie that Taylor was underserving the white characters. Thinking it over later, I think he does give us a variety of white characters. Skeeter is of course a good person, but she is also ambitious (which gives Stone a lot more to work with than in some of her recent films). Her mother is a ditz who plays her ill-health card to the max. The unofficial leader of the white wives is Hilly, and while she is a bitch, she is a nuanced bitch. Somebody was quoted recently as saying, presumably on the basis of Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance as Hilly, that pretty soon Ron Howard will be known not as Opie, Richie, or a director, but as “Bryce Dallas Howard’s father.” I had reservations about Ms. Howard’s Southern Belle in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (2008) and I wrote in US#41 that “Bryce Dallas Howard should take lessons from the original Kitten with a Whip,” Ann Margaret, who was in that film. She obviously took my advice (yeah, right), and she is sensationally good here. The white-trash outcast among the white wives is Celia and Taylor has written a much better role for Jessica Chastain that Malick did in The Tree of Life. Chastain gets to do stuff here, unlike Tree.

The male characters are definitely secondary. The white husbands are interchangeable, as they probably were in real life, but Skeeter’s editor, Mr. Blackly, gives Leslie Jordan a couple of nice scenes. Unlike The Color Purple (1985), we do not see any of the black men, but they are talked about. And for all the maids’ perfectly justified bitching about white folks, Taylor gives us a nice white guy whom we never see. One of the maids tells about a doctor she worked for. When a farmer objected to her walking to the doctor’s house across part of his farm, the doctor bought two acres from the farmer so she could use her shortcut. See what I mean about the advantage of having somebody who knows the South writing and directing the film?

So we do get a range of white characters, but the focus is on Aibileen and Minny and the other maids. That’s the right thing to do with this material because the script shows us something we have not seen before in movies: what are all those black maids in movies, and life for that matter, have been thinking and feeling. Like the late August Wilson’s plays, this film is not just about African-American history, but about American history.

The Whistleblower (2010. Written by Ellis Kirwan and Larysa Kondracki. 122 minutes)

The Whistleblower

Semi-yipee, it’s August, take two: OK, there is a car crash in this one, but it’s a dramatic one, not a spectacular one.

This one is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska policewoman who went to work for a private military company as part of a peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1999. On the ground in Bosnia she begins to discover sex trafficking going on that not only involves the company she works for, but the U.N. peacekeeping mission as well. Needless to say, all this does not go down well with the company, the traffickers, and the U.N. She sends an email to the head of the U.N. Mission, but all that does is get her fired. She manages to sneak a pile of her files out and reports it all to the BBC.

Now that sounds like it could be a dramatic and compelling film, and it certainly has its moments, such as a raid on a bar/brothel out in the woods. Like The Help, it takes us into a world we generally have not seen, except perhaps in snippets on Law & Order: SVU. The Whistleblower takes us into a part of the world where it all starts, and makes us aware of the details of the situation. But the film suffers from a problem we have seen before with movies based on true stories. The writers (Kondracki also directed) have assumed that because it is true it will be interesting. It is, to a degree, but a lot of it is very on the nose. They also sort of pull their punches by using a fictitious name for DynCorp, the actual company. Well, it is a low budget film and they don’t want to get sued, but it takes until the middle of the film for anybody to mention that Bulkovac is working for a private company and not the U.N. They also don’t mention that in real life the prostitutes were 12 to 15 years old. There are of course practical reasons for that: if you have actresses those ages, you simply cannot do the kind of torture and sex scenes the movie has.

I also have a problem with the characterization of Bulkovac. She is a Nebraska policewoman, divorced, with three kids. But there is virtually nothing in the writing that gives us any sense of that background. The real Bulkovac, who is showing up on television and the Internet these days promoting her book on the subject as well as the film, is a big strapping corn-fed Middle Westerner. The film Bulkovac is played by Rachel Weisz. I love Weisz as an actress, but she is not big, nor strapping, nor corn-fed. She gives a good performance, particularly in closeups where we read her sympathy for the suffering women, but it is rather one-note. They probably should have, in addition to rewriting the character, got Mary McCormack from In Plain Sight.

The film also gets rather repetitious, with shot after shot of suffering women and Bulkovac being sympathetic. The officials she deals with are also one-note, either for good (Vanessa Redgrave as Bulkovac’s supportive boss) or bad (mostly the guys). David Strathairn at least is given a little bit of both to play.

Red-Headed Woman (1932. Screenplay by Anita Loos, based on the novel by Katharine Brush. 79 minutes)

Red-Headed WomanWriters and stars, take one: In early August the UCLA Film & Television Archives ran a series of Pre-Code films starring Jean Harlow. This was in connection with a new book by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira, Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937. On August 6th, the Archives ran a double bill of two Harlow films written by Anita Loos. This is the first one, and the one that made Harlow a star.

We often think of great star-director combinations: John Wayne-John Ford, Marcello Mastroianni-Federico Fellini, and Grace Kelly-Alfred Hitchcock, just to name a few. What you may not realize is that there are also great star-writer collaborations as well. In the early silent days, it took C. Gardner Sullivan’s scripts to turn William S. Hart from a stage Shakespearean actor into the first big western star. The pattern continues to this day. Sharon Stone was in movies for ten years before Joe Eszterhas wrote the part in Basic Instinct (1992) that made her a star. In Harlow’s case, she had been in small parts until she had a hit in Hell’s Angels in 1930. But she was a rather bland glamor girl in that and the movies that followed. Her career began to slide until she came to MGM. The novel of Red-Headed Woman was pretty much all melodrama, all the time, as it follows Lil Andrews sleeping her way to the top, breaking up a marriage in the process.

Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” head of MGM had originally put F. Scott Fitzgerald on the script, but Fitzgerald had no feeling for the character, or for Thalberg’s idea that if you make Lil funny, the audience can laugh with her rather than at her. According to Gary Carey in his 1988 biography Anita Loos, it was Paul Bern, Harlow’s mentor, who suggested Loos be put on the script. Not surprising, since a decade before it was Loos’s witty scripts that made Constance Talmadge into one of the great silent comic stars. Fitzgerald was off the project, Loos was on, and within a month she had finished the script. The director assigned was Jack Conway, whom you may remember from US#41 that I don’t think much of. He also did not find the material funny. He complained to Loos, “You can’t make jokes about a girl who deliberately sets out to break up a family.” Loos replied, “What not? Look at the family! It deserves to be broken up!”

Conway, ever the obedient studio hack, shot the film. It was not well-received at the first sneak preview. Here is a reason Thalberg was known as the “boy wonder.” He told Loos, “People don’t know whether they’re supposed to laugh or not. We need an opening scene to set the mood.” So Loos wrote a prologue. Lil is looking at herself in the mirror, especially her red hair (Harlow was already known as a blonde) spies the audience in the mirror, and says, “Gentlemen prefer blondes? Sure,” a reference to Loos’s famous book. Then Lil is seen in a dress in a shop and asks the off-camera sales girl, “Can you see through this?” The girl replies, “Yes,” to which Lil says, “I’ll wear it.” (Carey may have seen a different print. He has Lil’s line as “Is this dress too tight?” to which the clerk replies, “It certainly is.” Lil’s response is “Good.” Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr., the writers of the 2005 Beauty Shop, may have read Carey’s book. In their opening scene Gina [Queen Latifah] is struggling to get into a pair of jeans. She asks her young daughter, “Vanessa, do these pants make my butt look big?” Vanessa replies, “Yes, they do,” to which Gina slaps her own ass, smiles, and says, “Good!” You could have heard a pin drop in the nearly all-female audience I saw the film with. I still think that “Good!” was the most subversive line of dialogue in that entire decade.)

Loos’s prologue does set us up to laugh, but Conway’s direction does not get as much of the humor out of the material as could be gotten. And there are scenes that are pure melodrama. In spite of that, the picture made a Harlow a star, even though the mixture of comedy and drama was uneven. Then later in the same year, John Lee Mahin’s screenplay for Red Dust showed that Harlow could not only be funny, but say funny things.

Hold Your Man (1933. Screenplay by Anita Loos and Howard Emmett Rogers, story by Anita Loos. 87 minutes)

Hold Your Man

Writers and stars, take two: After Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust, Harlow’s star persona was set: a smart-mouthed, sexy, working class, funny woman. How could Anita Loos resist writing for her? Well, she couldn’t. And MGM appreciated Loos. Sam Marx, the story editor at MGM, told Carey that “shady lady” stories were always a potential censorship problem, even in the Pre-Code days, but that “Anita, however, could be counted on to supply the delicate double entendre, the telling innuendo. Whenever we had a Jean Harlow picture on the agenda, we always thought of Anita first.”

The picture starts like a house afire. Eddie Hall (Clark Gable, Harlow’s co-star in Red Dust) is a street con man who, while running from the police, hides in Ruby Adams’s apartment. First-rate wise-ass banter ensues. Ruby is sort of engaged to the sweetest guy in the world, but who can resist a character based on Loos’s old friend Wilson Mizner? (Loos went to the Mizner well often, especially for the roles she wrote for Gable; look at his Blackie Norton in her 1936 San Francisco.) Ruby gets involved in his cons, then gets arrested when Eddie accidentally kills a guy. So far, so good. I don’t know what was originally in the second half of the script, but it got dumped. There were enough complaints about Harlow and especially Mae West that pressure was building up to the institution of the 1934 revision of the Production Code. So Loos and probably Rogers turned the second half of the script into a drama of poor Ruby going off to a Reformatory, which Carey describes as “sort of a strictly disciplined Seven Sisters sorority.” All that was light and fun and sexy in the first half gets dropped, and everything becomes serious. And Harlow is not that good at serious, or at least not as good as she is at comedy. And Gable has a scene where he is, I think, sincere about convincing a minister to marry him and Ruby. But Gable’s fake sincerity in the con man scenes is so much more convincing that I was not persuaded his Eddie was being sincere. Everybody gets reformed by the end.

There are occasional Loos-type lines in the second half, as when during a church service one of the inmates is not singing. A matron asks her, “You don’t like the hymn?” to which the woman replies, “It was a him that got me in here.” As I mentioned in my comments on Rogers in US#41, he was one of Hollywood’s arch-conservatives, so I have to assume that the smart funny black girl in the reformatory is Loos’s, as is her minister father. I can’t find any reference to these African-American characters in any of the standard books on African-Americans in film, but the very casualness of their appearance probably was more subversive than scenes in more serious films. The first half of the film is great Loos-Harlow-Gable, the second half is bad traditional Hollywood.

Rooney and Vieira introduced the films at the screening and made particular mention of Loos, at least partly because her grand-nephew was in the audience. The audience remembered. As I was going up the aisle at the end, one guy in front of me said, “Anita Loos wrote great stuff.” Score one for writers.

Fury (1936. Screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Fritz Lang, based on a story by Norman Krasna. 92 minutes)

FuryThe Great American Sport of Lynching, take one: In late July Turner Classic Movies had as one of its theme nights films about failed justice. This film and the next one in the column were two of the ones TCM ran.

Joe is an average guy, in love with Katherine, who as the film opens to going off to another town where she has landed a better job. Joe promises to come to her after he earns enough money. Several months later he is on the way when he is arrested as a suspect in the kidnapping of a young woman. A montage shows the town gossip building up to the point where the townspeople burn the jail down, with Joe in it. Several of the townspeople are put on trial for murder. Joe has survived the fire and works through his two brothers to help convict the defendants. Joe finally reveals to the court he is still alive. Sounds like a typical torn-from-the-headlines mid-‘30s Warner Brothers film, doesn’t it?

It was made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Here’s how it happened. One day Norman Krasna was talking to Joseph L. Mankiewicz about a bunch of things. Krasna had already developed a reputation as a playwright and screenwriter of light comedies, which make up most of his screen credits. Mankiewicz, already an established screenwriter, had just been promoted to producer at MGM. He wanted to direct, but Louis B. Mayer told him he had to “learn to crawl before you walk,” which Mankiewicz later said was the best description of a producer he had ever heard. Mankiewicz and Krasna talked about a famous case of a year or two before in which an innocent man was accused in a kidnapping case and subsequently killed. Krasna wondered what would happen if he had survived. The two men went their separate ways, but the story stuck in Mankiewicz’s mind. He called up Krasna and asked if he had written it down. He not only hadn’t, he could hardly remember it. He never wrote it, but dictated what he could remember to Mankiewicz. Krasna was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story for the film.

Producer David O. Selznick had brought the German director Fritz Lang to MGM, but nobody could find any material for him. Lang expressed interest in this story, and the studio put him together with a story editor and writer named Leonard Praskins. The script they came up with was virtually useless, due at least in part to Lang’s lack of English. Mankiewicz in later years was still baffled as to why Lang’s name turned up on the credits, but that was when studios assigned credits however they wanted. Mankiewicz turned the script over to Bartlett Cormack. Cormack is virtually forgotten now, at least partially because he died in 1942 at the early age of 44, but he has several interesting credits. He came to Hollywood’s attention with his 1927 Broadway play The Racket, and he worked on the 1928 silent film version. It was remade in 1951. A former reporter, his first full credit was for the 1929 talkie Gentleman of the Press, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the 1931 version of The Front Page. The story twists in Fury, whether from Krasna, Lang or Cormack, are dramatic, and I would guess that the individual characterizations of the townspeople are Cormack’s, probably coming from his days as a reporter. I am sure that the few scenes with the state governor and his political hatchet man, which are brilliantly written, come from Cormack.

All this background comes from several sources. The information on Krasna comes from a biographical article on him in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 26. Mankiewicz’s involvement is from Kenneth Geist’s 1978 biography People Will Talk. The most detailed account of the writing of the script is from Patrick McGilligan’s 1998 biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. While we all know and love Pat from his Backstory collections of interviews with screenwriters, his day job is writing doorstop biographies of directors. But being a pro-writer guy, Pat is careful to find out as much about the writing of the scripts as he can. The section on Fury is done in a wonderfully McGilliganesque way: he gives you all the quotes from Lang on how it happened and then tells you how it really happened. From a director’s point of view, the worst aspect of contemporary film historiography is that studios have opened their files (well, shipped them off the lots to universities and other research facilities), which means that historians can find facts that contradict the legends directors like Lang built up about themselves. Yippee.

So Mankiewicz et al got a good solid script about a lynching. And they got it by Louis B. Mayer even though Mayer hated it. It did not look and feel like what he thought an MGM film should be. But according to Mayer’s biographer Scott Eyman (Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer), Mayer liked Mankiewicz and decided this would teach him a lesson. He promised Mankiewicz he would publicize the film as much as a big production, proving to him that it was something the public did not want to see. He kept his word. Oops, sorry L.B., but the picture made a profit of $248,000 on a cost of $604,000. And it made Lang’s critical reputation in Hollywood.

It also almost got Lang killed. He offended everybody on the production and at the studio. Most of the cast and crew would have cheerfully bumped him off, since he was obnoxious and dictatorial. He also directed the film well. Look at the way he emphasizes the individual reactions of the townspeople that Cormack has written for him. Look at his staging of the attack on the jail (you may recognize the jail, which was built on MGM’s Lot 2 for this film, from many other small town films, including the Andy Hardy series). Lang also insisted on one scene that did not survive in the final film. Towards the end Joe is walking through the streets trying to decide whether to reveal that he is still alive. He stops in front of a store with a bedroom set on display, just like the one he and Katherine saw the in the opening scene. He sees the faces of the 22 defendants reflected in the window of a flower shop. Then, in Lang’s version he is chased down the street by ghosts. Everybody else was dubious about this scene. At the first sneak preview of the film, the audience laughed and never got back into the film. Lang refused to cut the scene, so the studio cut it for him and fired him. He never forgave the studio or Mankiewicz, and spoke disparagingly of the whole experience the rest of his life.
There are those who are more Fritz Lang fans than I am who think Fury is his best American film. They will get no argument from me, and that’s not just because it shows the advantage of collaborating, however grudgingly, with good writers.

They Won’t Forget (1937. Screenplay by Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel, based on the novel Death in the Deep South by Ward Greene. 95 minutes)

They Won't ForgetThe Great American Sport of Lynching, take two: I have no idea if it actually happened this way, but it would not surprise me to learn that Warner Brothers, looking at Fury, got pissed that MGM was poaching on Warners turf, and decided to show them how to do a lynching film. You would have thought Warners could do it better, but not this time.

If you caught the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful 1998 musical Parade, you may be familiar with the story of Leo Frank. He was a New York Jew who managed a company in the South in the 1910s. He was accused of raping and killing Mary Phagan, a teenaged girl who worked for him. He was convicted on extremely circumstantial evidence. The governor thought he got a raw deal and commuted the death sentence to life. A mob broke him out of jail and lynched him.
Ward Greene’s novel and the film made from it change the story more than a little. Hale, as he is called here, is a teacher at the Buxton Business College. There is no indication he is Jewish, and the film does not even hint at anti-Semitism.

Mainstream Hollywood would not deal with that for another ten years. He is, however, from New York, which may have been sort of a code for Jewish in those days. The prejudice the film focuses on is the attitudes the North and South have against each other. The film begins with two quotes, one from Abraham Lincoln and the other from Robert E. Lee. Lee’s quote is about how all the South wants to do is live in peace and unity with the rest of the country. Needless to say, the quote is not dated.
When Hale is accused of killing one of his students, the very ambitious district attorney, who has been looking for a big case, decides that Hale must be guilty. The cops first interview the African-American janitor, but the D.A. dismisses him, telling his assistant that “anybody can convict a Negro.” The North takes a great interest in the case, presumably because of its prejudice against the South. Hale does get a hotshot New York lawyer, but he is convicted anyway. The governor commutes his sentence, but Hale is taken off a train going to prison and lynched, off-screen. In the final scene, Griffin, the D.A., and the reporter who covers the case wonder if maybe Hale was innocent.

The script is not as good as that for Fury. The character detail of the townspeople is not as sharp. Hale is a bland character played by an even blander actor, Edward Norris. Joe is played by Spencer Tracy. You have heard of Tracy, you probably haven’t heard of Norris, and with good reason. Unlike Taylor’s writing and direction of The Help, there is no real Southern atmosphere here, in spite of a Memorial Day parade with veterans of the Civil War. In the bar, all the Southern layabouts are wearing suits, for God’s sake. There are a couple of strong scenes, probably written by Rossen, who went on to write All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). In one, the town’s leading citizens come to Griffin and ask him not to incite the public. He replies by reminding what each one of them has done to rile up the town. In another, a local lawyer comes to talk to the janitor to persuade him to tell the facts the way Griffin wants them told. The film’s director, Mervyn LeRoy, was proud of what he saw was the positive portrayal of an African-American, but he seems very stereotyped to us, at least after seeing The Help a week or so before, and Hold Your Man a few weeks before that. As written and played, the character is nothing but fearful. And LeRoy lets Claude Rains, dreadfully miscast as Griffin, chew more scenery than Warner Brothers could afford.

Not only is the script not a patch on Fury, but LeRoy’s direction is not a patch on Lang’s. I can’t agree with Ephraim Katz’s description of LeRoy’s career in The Film Encyclopedia as “on the whole distinguished.” He made a lot of successful movies, but very few of them are particularly well-directed. Little Caesar (1931) is very stolid except for Edward G. Robinson’s performance. I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) has a certain power, but it comes more from the script and Paul Muni’s performance than LeRoy’s direction. LeRoy made a lot of films and he was very likable personally. He was also very down to earth. Peter Ustinov played Nero in LeRoy’s 1951 Quo Vadis? and tried to get LeRoy’s take on the character. LeRoy’s comment on Nero was “He’s a guy who plays with himself nights.” Ustinov wrote in his memoir Dear Me, “At the time I thought it a preposterous assessment, but a little later I was not so sure. It was a profundity at its most workaday level, and it led me to the eventual conviction that no nation can make Roman pictures as well as the Americans.”

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

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Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything

Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.

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Todd Haynes
Photo: Focus Features

For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.

But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.

In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.

How did you get involved with Dark Waters?

The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.

At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”

Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?

No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.

How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?

Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.

Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.

I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?

I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.

Why?

Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.

It was shot in the real Taft offices?

Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.

Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?

Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.

That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?

Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—

—rustic beauty—

Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.

How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?

We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.

In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?

I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.

The material through which systems work.

The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.

What are your upcoming projects?

My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.

They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.

Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.

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Review: Shooting the Mafia Is a Sketchy Tribute to an Iconic Photographer

At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.

2.5

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Shooting the Mafia
Photo: Cohen Media Group

At the center of director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making. The documentary tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia, who captured the brutality of the Cosa Nostra’s stranglehold over Sicily from the 1970s through the 2000s. Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. In one of the film’s juiciest moments, Battaglia, now an 80-something legend, tells of how she’d pretend to sneeze to muffle the sound of a camera. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. Children’s brains are seen splattered against street curbs, old women’s faces frozen in shock, cars upturned, and buildings caved in from explosions. Showing us these pictures, Longinotto illustrates Battaglia’s talent for aestheticizing tragedy, but without sentimentalizing the callousness of violence. The photographer’s compositions are beautiful wails of despair as well as acts of resistance.

Throughout Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto doesn’t entirely realize her one masterful formal conceit. The filmmaker contrasts Battaglia’s pictures with archival news footage of the crime scenes, in effect contrasting a closer approximation of “reality” with still art. In movement and in color, the crime scenes are hideous and offer true testament to the monstrousness of the Cosa Nostra, but as black-and-white stills, they’re imbued with Battaglia’s empathy and need to find grace notes in atrocity. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each. This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry.

Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion. Battaglia’s photographs, and the risk she took going against the Cosa Nostra, are innately impressive. The sexism that she faced, especially as, reportedly, the first female Italian photographer, is obviously of paramount importance to her story, though Longinotto spends nearly a third of Shooting the Mafia’s 94-minute running time on Battaglia’s life as a girl and eventual coming of age after she rebelled against her husband. And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her.

In Shooting the Mafia, we learn that Battaglia married as a teenager and had a family because that’s what you did in the 1940s and ‘50s. From the ‘60s onward, Battaglia lived a sexually and artistically open life, primarily in Palermo, becoming a journalist and a photographer, fraternizing with her younger collaborators. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress. The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. In fact, Longinotto is so eager to celebrate her hero that she also glides past thornier portions of Battaglia’s life, such as the effect that her liberation might’ve had on the children she seems to have left behind. (Her husband is a non-entity.)

The film comes to life whenever it returns to Battaglia’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness. Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Those wide, smug eyes come to haunt the film, especially in an interview clip where Leggio flippantly speaks of crushing “mollusks” and “homosexuals” who come after him, he says, to prove their manhood. The most memorable image in Shooting the Mafia that isn’t shot by Battaglia is news footage of mob men in cages in court while they await hearing. They look unmistakably like wild animals, and they affirm Battaglia’s daring with graphic conviction.

Director: Kim Longinotto Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

3

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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