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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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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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