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Understanding Screenwriting #8: Eagle Eye, American Gangster, The Captive City, The Ex List, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #8: Eagle Eye, American Gangster, The Captive City, The Ex List, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Eagle Eye; American Gangster; The Captive City; 9 to 5 (stage musical); The Ex List; Mad Men; CSI, ER, The Starter Wife, but first:

Fan Mail: No, Anonymous, I do not think you were obnoxious for bringing up a grammatical point. As someone who writes about writing, I have always made every effort to write as well as possible. However, I am only human and bad stuff does sneak through, in spite of my best efforts and those of the various editors I have worked with. It is very disconcerting when I open up the first copy of a new book of mine and inevitably fall on the biggest grammatical error that slipped through. I try to keep up the quality of my writing, but I do depend on the kindness of strangers to keep me on my toes. I think what I meant by the line was that Gaby was getting shrill. A latter episode suggests the writers are finding a way to write the new version to Longoria Parker’s strengths.

I was delighted to see that my comments on the Biden-Palin debate entertained some readers. I must say that the comments on all the debates by the HND writers have been well above what I have read elsewhere. And now to this column’s haul of goodies.

Eagle Eye (2008. Written by John Glenn & Travis Adam Wright and Hillary Seitz and Dan McDermott. Story by Dan McDermott. 118 minutes): Last year director D.J. Caruso and star Shia LeBeouf teamed up for Disturbia, probably the best of all the Rear Window ripoffs. For their efforts, they got sued by a man who owns the rights to the Cornell Woolrich story Rear Window was based on. I don’t think the plaintiff has much of a case, since all the things Disturbia ripped off came from John Michael Hayes’s screenplay, not the woefully undernourished short story.

Caruso and LeBeouf are back this year with a film that rips off both North by Northwest (an innocent man on the run, a scene in a flat landscape) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (a killing set to a music cue). The word on the street in Hollywood is that next year they will do a film ripping off Jamaica Inn, The Paradine Case, and Family Plot.

Johnny Carson used to use the phrase, “You buy the premise, you buy the bit,” which is show-biz for what academics call “the willing suspension of disbelief.” In practical terms it means we may not think flying saucers exist, but for two hours-plus of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we will accept them. The premise of Eagle Eye is that there is a massive computer built by the government that can not only keep track of everybody but order changes in traffic lights, electric signs, etc. at will. Anyone who has ever dealt with real computers knows they are marvelously prone to a variety of what the techno-geeks I know called “fuck-ups.” That is not the case here until the supercomputer begins to go a “little funny in the head,” to quote another Kubrick film rather than the obvious one being ripped off here. What this means in practical terms is the first half to two-thirds of the film is relentless, and not in a good way. The computer always does things right, so there is no hope for the puny humans.

What the script needed were a few grace notes, a little counterpoint to the relentlessness. Billy Bob Thornton plays an F.B.I. agent and he gets a couple of good lines, but not enough. The relationship between the guy on the run, Jerry (LeBeouf), and the woman with him, Rachel, is never developed enough to provide a counterpoint. Look at Roger and Eve in North by Northwest or Jeff and Lisa in Rear Window.

This being a big-budget American film, there is the obligatory car chase, not bad of its kind. Of the film’s chases, I preferred the one through the luggage-handling area of a big airport. At least the locale is different.

American Gangster (2007. Written by Steve Zaillian based on an article by Mark Jacobson. 157 minutes): In writing about Transformers (in US#3) I mentioned that one of the advantages of watching a movie at home, whether on DVD or on cable, is that you can turn down the sound. American Gangster, which I’d DVR’d off HBO, provided another reason: you can fast-forward through the interminable drug-taking montages. Yeah, it is a movie about a drug dealer, so we should see the damage he does, but we get it with the first montage. More is not better.

The big script problem with this one is that, for all the development it went through, it has the standard first-draft flaw: way too much time is spent establishing the characters and their world. We have seen drug dealer movies and television shows before; we get it. What this excess exposition usually means, and it really does here, is that what should be crucial later gets rushed. The film tells the story of Frank Lucas (who rose to power in the seventies as the Black head of a drug operation) and, in parallel scenes, the story of Richie Roberts (a detective trying to track him down). OK, so for most of the film we do not seem them in the same scene. After Richie finally arrests Frank we do get a good scene: Richie trying to convince Frank to turn on his own, especially the dirty cops he supported. Of course Frank won’t because he is a man of honor—wait a minute, he does agree to turn snitch. Now that’s a story we have not seen before, but Zaillian has not allowed himself enough time to tell it as fully as he could. This is also unsatisfying because it means we are not going to get what could be great scenes between our two stars, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, which is part of why we came to see the movie in the first place.

The Captive City (1952. Screenplay by Alvin B. Josephy Jr. and Karl Lamb, Story by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. 91 minutes): In my last column I gave you an example of a fifties B movie (The Tall Target) that was much better than A movies, both then and now. This film is an example of why they were called B movies.

The story is similar to many films of the period: a crusading newspaper editor fights the mob infiltration of his small town. See The Phenix City Story, if you can find it, for an example of how it ought to be done. Here everything is flat and literal, probably from the writers’ assumption that since it was supposedly based on a true story, people would believe it anyway. Not a chance. No matter how true the events, the filmmakers have to make it believable on film. This film is made in the “documentary” style of the late forties and fifties, but it just lays there on the screen. The one upside is that Lee Garmes’s cinematography is terrific. But that does not count for much if what he is photographing is not interesting.

After the main story is over, we get a little speech from Sen. Estes Kefauver, who in 1950 and 1951 ran the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. Since the film was released in March 1952, one can’t help but believe that at least someone was thinking this would be a great advertisement for Kefauver and his attempt to get the Democratic presidential nomination that year. If it had been a better film, he might not have lost to Adlai Stevenson.

9 to 5 (2008. Stage musical book by Patricia Resnick, music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. Approximately 150 minutes—depending on how much the audience laughs. Based on the film 1980 film 9 to 5, screenplay by Colin Higgins and Patricia Resnick, story by Patricia Resnick. 110 minutes): The new musical is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and is scheduled to move to Broadway in a few months, so I thought I would give you a head’s up.

The movie would seem to be a logical choice to turn into a stage play, especially a musical: it has a relatively small cast, and an even smaller number of sets. Broadway tending to overdo things, the cast of the stage musical is larger than that of the films, and the sets are so complicated they had problems throughout previews and even on opening night. More is not necessarily better.

Resnick has done a very good job of adapting the screenplay. There are more characters and more character development, especially for Violet (played in the film by Lily Tomlin, on stage by Allison Janney). She is now given an accountant boyfriend, although Resnick does not use him as well as she could in the main plot. Doralee, the part played in the movie by Parton, has been conceived here as very much a Parton substitute. A look at the poster in the lobby made before the costumes were finished shows you how much has been added to Megan Hilty’s figure so she can do the Dolly Parton boob jokes. It may seem unimaginative, but since the songs are by Parton, having someone bringing Parton’s good-natured quality to the stage adds to the fun of the evening.

Because Parton is a performer as well as a songwriter, she really knows how to write songs that can be performed. Allison Janney is not much of a singer or dancer, but she acts the hell out of the stuff that Parton gives her. Those songs include “One of the Boys,” beautifully choreographed in that Broadway style that keeps the dance crew busy so we won’t know how much she is not doing, and “Let Love Grow,” which is a small number but wonderfully shaped for the actors.

The sequences that people remember from the movie are the dream sequences, which show up here in the first act, though structurally, the first act goes on too long afterwards. This will probably be where cuts are made, if any are, before it gets to New York. On the other hand, Resnick has, I think, sped up the latter part of the film, which is now the second act, and that is all to the good.

No, it’s not Sondheim, but the tourists are going to love it. Since the previous balance of New York theatergoers of 60% New Yorkers to 40% tourists has shifted to 60/40 the other way, that’s good business news. Take your parents when they come to town.

The Ex List (2008. Based on the Israeli series Mythalogical X by Seghal Avin. Developed for American television by Dianne Ruggiero. Episode “Pilot” written by Dianne Ruggiero, based on the episode “The X Jonathan Diamant” of the Israeli series written by Seghal Avin and Rinat Ydor. 60 minutes): Talk about “buy the premise, buy the bit”! Bella, a mid-thirties flower shop owner, is told by a psychic that if she does not get married in the next year, she will never get married, and she will marry someone she already knows. And Bella believes her. Because if she does not, there is no series.

Ruggiero recognizes the problem and handles it in several interesting ways. First, the psychic is an interesting character. She ought to be brought back. Second, Bella did not seek her out for herself, but as a gag for her sister, who is getting married. Third, the psychic, unlike most such characters in films and on television, is occasionally wrong, guessing that Bella has a son, whereas it is her dog. But the psychic makes a prediction about the dog having trouble with water, seaweed, and fish. Bella retrieves the dog from her ex-boyfriend, whereupon her drunken sister throws up her sushi dinner all over the dog. Well, won’t that make you believe in the psychic?

The other problem with the premise is that it means that each week Bella is going to have to deal with an ex-boyfriend. I have no idea how long the Israeli series ran, but if this one runs more than a couple of years, Bella is going to look like a total slut.

Which may be where the series is going. It is surprisingly raunchy for a network rather than a cable show, with a subplot about Bella’s female roommate having shaved her genital area. But the network is Two and Half Men’s CBS; we are a long way from The Andy Griffith Show’s CBS. The tone of the show is otherwise light, romantic dramedy, and the raunch may get in the way of it. Ruggiero has left the show after the first few episodes, so we will have to see how the balance develops.

Mad Men (2008. Episode “The Inheritance” written by Lisa Albert & Marti Noxon & Matthew Weiner. Episode “The Jet Set” written by Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): I knew the day would come, and it finally did with “The Inheritence” episode, that Mad Men would have a scene that was cliched. As you might expect, it took them a while: ten episodes into the second season.

Betty’s father has had a stroke, and she and Don get together long enough to visit him. Don is actually being supportive, as he sometimes tends to be. The father not only occasionally thinks Betty is his late wife Ruth, but actually fondles her breast at one point. Betty handles it well, but then has a talk with the Black housekeeper who has been with the family for years. What we end up with is the standard Large, Strong, Supportive Black Woman who protects the Emotional White Woman. Surely they could have done something more interesting with this.

As in fact they do in a wonderful scene later in the episode. Paul, one of the guys at SC, had been scheduled to make a business trip to Los Angeles, irritating his Black girlfriend, who wanted him to go south with her to help on a voter registration drive. When Don takes over the trip, Paul pretends to his girlfriend that he decided to join her instead of taking the trip. We see them on a bus in the South filled with Black people as Paul, quoting Karl Marx, tries to explain how advertising will bring change to their lives. One of the themes of Mad Men is how far removed from reality the men at SC are; this scene is a little jewel expressing that theme.

“The Jet Set” is one of the jewels of the season so far. Mad Men is very much a New York City show, and putting Don into L.A. provides the kind of subtle tension the show specializes in. We have been watching the tensions between the men and the women in the show, as well as the tensions between the world of the ad men and the real world (see above). There are also the tensions between the past (beautifully handled in the writing, the direction, the art direction, the set decoration, the props, and the costuming: the ladies’ lingerie is about as early sixties as you could get) and the present (we know where all that smoking is going to get them).

The first shot in L.A. is Don in his gray flannel suit, surrounded by a lot of people wearing a lot less beside a swimming pool. Don and Pete have gone to Los Angeles to a convention of aerospace companies. Pete seems to be taking it more seriously than we would expect Pete to do, but it is obvious from his comments when he returns to SC that he has not been paying attention at all. Don is undone by the openness of the California style, all sun and exposed bodies, and the presentation at the convention of a slide show on nuclear missiles unnerves him even more. He lets himself be picked up by Joy, a 21-year-old he meets at the hotel. She drives him to a house she is visiting in Palm Springs, which is filled with seemingly well-to-do “nomads” who stay at friends’ houses. They are refugees from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Antonioni’s L’Avventura, both of which came out two years before the time of this episode. Don faints, supposedly from the heat, but also from disorientation. Don sleeps with Joy, only to discover the older man who introduced them is her father. Who does not seem concerned about their affair. As she tells Don, “My father likes having you around. You’re beautiful and don’t talk too much.” The writing, as well as the directing, captures the inchoate feelings many East Coasters get when they first come to Southern California.

As you know if you saw the episode, there is a lot more going on as well.

CSI (2008. Episode “For Warrick” written by Allen MacDonald & Richard J. Lewis, story by Carol Mendelsohn. 60 minutes): Last season’s cliffhanger was the shooting of CSI Warrick Brown. Would he survive or not?

He’s dead before the main credits of this episode, which deals nicely with not only capturing his killer, but the grief felt by his co-workers. Most series usually do not spend a lot of time grieving about the death of a character. ER’s characters got through Pratt’s death and their grieving fairly quickly, although there is a brief mention of it in the next episode. This CSI episode spends so much time on the grieving process that the characters seem to be swimming underwater for most of the episode, which is a nice change of pace from the usual episodes. The grieving process may also be being used here to help set up Grissom’s decision to leave the unit later in the season.

ER (2008. Episode “Another Thursday at County” written by Lisa Zwerling. 60 minutes): Well, it’s fall, it’s time for the ER at County General to get another new head. You know the drill: a big guest star comes in, yells at everybody, thinks they are all incompetent, and several episodes later comes to appreciate them.

Well, we get about half of that in this episode, but with some twists. The big guest star is Angela Bassett as Dr. Cate Banfield. We don’t see her face at first as she does her kickboxing exercises at home, which is intercut with yet another new set of interns arriving at County. After they have introduced themselves in straight-to-the-camera comments, Banfield strides through, telling one intern on his cellphone to “Put down the mobile penis.” She sits down facing the camera and says, “I’m your new boss” with all the power that Bassett can bring. Have I been telling you to write for performance?

Yes, she chews out the doctors and interns, but there are counterpoint moments to this. Nurse Haleh, who has been on ER from the beginning, tells Banfield she thinks she has seen her before, which Banfield dismisses. When Banfield goes into a particular examination room, she seems to have a reaction to it, but we are not clear exactly what the reaction is. When Neela does not want to waste time letting a mother have a moment with her son before he goes into surgery, Banfield lets the mother have the moment (and a very conventional moment it is, too). In the final scene, Banfield is alone in her apartment, nursing a drink, and we see a picture of her, a young boy, and a man whose face we cannot see. Which of all the many male doctors we have seen over the first fourteen seasons do you think he is?

The main story of the episode involves a ricin scare in which Gates and three of the interns are quarantined with a man who has a packet of the powder under his shirt. After they get out, the intern with the cellphone begins to feel ill. What did I tell you in the last column about nobody being safe in the last season of ER? We’ve got a pile of young interns plus the regular cast, so we can kill one of them off. Surprise: he was only having a psychosomatic reaction, and the ricin was not enough of a powder to get into people’s lungs. He lives. For now.

And you have to wonder about bringing Bassett in for the last season. Does this mean that final episode will be Tina Turner waking up in a hospital after a beating from Ike and our realizing the whole series has been the dream she had while she was in a coma?

The Starter Wife (2008. Episodes “The Only Forty Year Old Virgin Queen” and “The Diary of A Mad Ex-Housewive” written by Josann Gibbon and Sara Parriott, based on the novel The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer. 112 minutes for both episodes together) The USA network ran the miniseries version of The Starter Wife in the summer of 2007 and it did “surprisingly” well.

Let me explain about “surprisingly.” Whenever a film or television movie or series aimed at women opens well, it is always described in the press as doing “surprisingly” well. In 1996 I did a short piece for the Los Angeles Times pointing out that Hollywood and the press should not be surprised when something aimed at women does well. After I submitted it, I got a call from the editor handling it for the Times, who said they were going to have to delay running it a few weeks. I said, “OK, just so long as it runs before Waiting to Exhale opens.” That was met by the phone equivalent of a blank stare from the editor. The piece ran a couple of weeks before Exhale opened. According to the press, it opened “surprisingly” well. So much for my influence on Hollywood thinking.

Since the miniseries did well, it naturally occurred to USA to do it as a series, which they have. The film opens with Molly, the titular heroine, explaining that the happy ending of the miniseries “blew apart.” She is now the ex-wife of a Hollywood executive, who seems a little nicer both in the writing and recasting than he was in the miniseries. Molly is still living remarkably well for someone who keeps complaining her ex is not keeping up with support payments. She has a nice apartment, she’s not starving, but she cannot afford $1200-a-pair shoes. There are people worse off in the world, but then this is not supposed to be realism. What we are tuning in for is the satirical look at Hollywood and its excesses. At least in these first two episodes, the satire is rather lightweight. Joan, Molly’s friend, a veteran of rehab, has taken a job driving celebrities to and from rehab. Her first customer is a boozing British actor, but very little is done with that. Molly makes the point later that one of the good points of her writing is her power of observation, but we are not seeing it in the scripts for the show.

The plotting is incredibly sloppy. Molly joins a writing workshop and the hunky writer who runs it encourages her to bring her journal to a party at his apartment. Someone steals the journal from her purse when she leaves it on a shelf. Now this is not a small journal. It’s about 8 ½ by 11, hardcover, but when Molly leaves, she picks up her purse and does not notice it is missing until she gets home. If she noticed right away, of course, she would have found it and the subsequent storyline of elements of it showing up on the Internet would fall apart. Likewise, when she goes back to the writer’s apartment and they dig around in the trash to try to find it, they come up with a manuscript he has been working on but threw out. This guy is a professional writer and he does not work on a computer? And he’s a Hollywood liberal who does not recycle his paper copies? OK, OK, I said it’s not realism, but a smidgen of verisimilitude shouldn’t be out of the question.

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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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.

2.5

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.

2.5

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.

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Perfect
Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions

In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.

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Photograph
Photo: Amazon Studios

Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.

In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.

Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.

Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.

Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.

But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Film

Review: The Wandering Soap Opera Is a Riddle Stubbornly Wrapped in an Enigma

After a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor the film.

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The Wandering Soap Opera
Photo: Cinema Guild

The most remarkable aspect of The Wandering Soap Opera isn’t in the film itself but in its trajectory to the screen. The late master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz shot a collection of sequences in his native Chile way back in 1990 before abandoning the project. Then, several years after his death in 2011, Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow and frequent collaborator, decided to complete it. It’s a path that echoes that of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Visit or Memories and Confessions, and one that brings a ghostly tinge to the satiric vignettes that comprise the film.

The Wandering Soap Opera is divided into a series of chapters that initially abide by the campy conventions of Latin American soap operas: melodramatic dialogue, a gloomy sound score, stiff acting, implausible scenarios, and ridiculously unconvincing special effects. This is a world where every man seems to have salt-and-pepper hair, don a suit and tie, and hold a stake in some financial company. They’re also constantly in the process of either seducing a woman or conducting some shady business practice with another man over rounds of scotch. The sequences, however, eventually turn these conventions into what seems to be some kind of national critique or allegory, and through the surreal exaggeration of the genre’s tropes.

In the film, one character says that soaps are “the fourth power,” another does mean things to a pig, and another caresses a bunny rabbit. An actress says she has multiple names: Alma Rios, Alma Comunista, and Scheherazade. A ghostly character is juxtaposed to a soap scene, like a double exposure, in order to deride it, remarking on its artifices. We’re told that nothing is real or happens in a soap opera. It’s all just fake characters commenting on other fake characters, someone says, conflating the film itself with how audiences consume soaps.

In one sequence, a woman responds to the incessant flirting of a man by asking if he’s a leftist and establishing his politics as prerequisite for him to touch her. In the same vignette, the woman keeps reminding the man that “people are watching” them. She eventually tells him she loves men with big muscles, which prompts the man to hand the woman a chunk of raw meat. This and other scenes unfold in very cryptic fashion, suggesting some kind of master plan toward a biting political critique that at times feels like we’re too illiterate to enjoy.

There’s a strong presence of a political code in this darkly humorous film, but it never seems as if we can quite crack it or what it’s in service of. And this opaqueness makes many of the sequences seem either too cerebral or just downright dull. The exception is when the over-the-top approach is such that the film veers toward complete absurdity, allowing us to completely revel in the nonsense on screen instead of wanting for meaning. As when a bearded man sucking on a popsicle asks a stranger where La Concepción Street is located, only for another man to join them and let them know that his wife’s name is, yes, Concepción.

That particular sequence becomes an unbridled play of associations that recalls the best segments of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales. In the Ruiz film, all characters end up revealing some intimate knowledge of or silly relationship with the word “Concepción.” Suddenly the characters decide to push somebody’s broken-down vehicle while chatting about how awful it would be for a father to name his daughter Concepción, knowing that sooner or later she would get the nickname of Concha. Someone then wonders if “Hermes” is spelled with or without an “H,” before then heading off to a bar called “H” with a man named Homer.

It would seem that we’re in the middle of someone’s dream, and after a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor The Wandering Soap Opera. Or to regress to a child-like state, where the pleasures of language aren’t in sense-making, but in the sheer joy of uttering or hearing gibberish for gibberish’s sake.

Cast: Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana García Director: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento Screenwriter: Pía Rey, Raúl Ruiz Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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