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Understanding Screenwriting #84: Moneyball, Blackthorn, CSI, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #84: Moneyball, Blackthorn, CSI, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Moneyball, Blackthorn, Toast, Edna Ferber’s Hollywood (book), Arizona, Texas, CSI, Harry’s Law, Desperate Housewives, Suburgatory, but first…

Fan Mail: I pretty much knew when I was writing it that David Ehrenstein would take exception to my pan of A Single Man, and he did. What was interesting about his comments was that he spent so much time talking about Christopher Isherwood’s book. I am perfectly willing to believe everything David says about it and its importance in Isherwood’s life and career, but Ford and Scearce have not written a good script from it. I suspect the problem is that the novel is very interior (what is going on in George’s head during that day) and the screenwriters have not found a way to make that clear to the audience. As for Ford being a good director, I am not convinced, but I will give him one more film to persuade me.

Steven Maras, who wrote the terrific book Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice that I reviewed in US#38, sent me a couple of interesting items. You may not know that there is a Screenwriting Research Network that puts on a Screenwriting Research Conference every year or so. This year one of their guests was David Bordwell, one of the leading American film studies scholars. Bordwell wrote a blog item about the conference, which Steven sent me a link to. I found it, especially his opening comments, rather interesting coming from him. For years, he resolutely ignored screenwriting and screenwriters. His and his partner Kristin Tompson’s Film History: An Introduction, which is, as the title suggests, supposed to be an introductory text, hardly mentions screenwriters at all. It is only within the last ten years that he has begun to pay attention. He discusses in general terms in the blog why that’s so, without completely admitting he’s writing about himself. Then he gives you a nice view of some of the issues that come up in studying screenwriting. Bordwell and the Network and Conference are making the studying of screenwriting almost academically respectable. You can read the blog here.

Steven’s second item was sadder. He mentioned that Edward Azlant had passed away. That name may not mean much to you, but for those of us in business of studying the history of screenwriting, his unpublished 1980 dissertation, The Theory, History and Practice of Screenwriting 1897-1920 was essential. When I started work on my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, his dissertation was one of the first things I looked at. After Steven wrote, I skimmed over the footnotes in the silent section of FrameWork, and I was surprised that there were so few citations, since it was an enormous help to me, and certainly pointed me to a lot of other sources that do show up in the footnotes. I met Eddie only once, in the summer of 1983. I had finished my sabbatical year in which I did a lot of research, particularly on the silent screenwriting. In the spring I had been at the Library of Congress comparing the Thomas Ince films to the Ince scripts. My wife and I were up in the Bay Area for the wedding of my cousin’s son, and we arranged to stop off in Los Gatos. Eddie was at the time the landlord of an apartment building his uncle had left him. He was delighted to get away from landlord problems for an hour or two and talk screenwriting. We talked about Ince, and the section on page 44 of FrameWork on the use of “O.K.” in the Ince scripts could almost been a verbatim transcript of our discussion. We were cackling like fiends trying to come up with all the possibilities of what the “O.K.’s” meant. We couldn’t stay long, since we had to get down to King’s Canyon National Park by nightfall, so his wife Joan, who was pregnant with their second child, made us some sandwiches to eat on the trip. That was the kind of people they were. Eddie read the silent screenplay section of my book and of course gave useful comments. A few years later I sent him a copy of the complete first draft, but it was sent back to me as undeliverable. I guess they had moved, and I never heard from him again. The obituary Steven sent a link to shows he had a very interesting life beyond film.

Moneyball (2011. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. 133 minutes.)

And you thought baseball was a slo-o-o-ow game: You can see why people wanted to make this movie. A lot of people. It’s been in development for years. It’s the true story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, who comes across a statistics whiz kid who shows him different ways to evaluate baseball players. That means that Beane, whose spending on buying players is severely limited by his owner, can get players who can help the team for small amounts of money. Nobody in the game immediately understands it, but eventually Beane puts together a winning season. And still doesn’t get any further in the playoffs than he did the year before.

Lewis’s book went into a lot more statistical analysis than the movie does, or could, so it was necessary to find the story, which I presume is what Chervin did. Zaillian did the early drafts with Sorkin coming in after a change in directors. I assume a lot of the great dialogue is from Sorkin, although since they are sitting down and not walking, it’s hard to tell. The script gets off to a good start. The A’s lose in the 2001 playoffs and their three top players leave for other teams. Beane goes in to talk to the owner, and they start talking in cliches, but we know they are cliches, and they know they are talking in cliches, which gives the scene a nice texture. Then the owner gets down to business and lets Beane know he is not going to have a lot of money to refurbish the roster. So Beane goes off to the Cleveland Indians management to talk some more cliches before getting down to trading players. He notices that the baseball guys and the management seem to be subtly deferring to Peter Brand, who even though Jonah Hill has slimmed down a lot, is obviously not an athlete or even an ex-athlete. Beane hires him as his assistant. They put Brand’s ideas into practice, and the scouts, the manager, and everybody else objects. For a long time. For a very long time. My wife dozed off for about 40 minutes during this section and did not really feel she missed anything. I am sure all those people did object, but we don’t have to watch it at this length.

The film picks up when Beane finally explains to everybody what he is doing and why. This film should be used in business schools as a starter discussion on management skills. Beane, in the film, could have sped up the process a lot by just letting people know what he was doing and why. Communication is an essential management tool. The management skill the film does show in a positive way is how to fire people. We get scenes of Beane doing it and a scene where Beane has Brand do it. I suppose business schools these days do have to teach their students how to fire people, as sad as that may be.

So soon everybody gets with the program and the team starts winning. They even have a twenty-game winning streak. But they lose in the playoffs again, and Beane has a nice scene where he explains that you do not really win unless you win the last game of the season, preferably in the World Series. Beane is played by Brad Pitt, who stayed with the project through several drafts of the script and at least a couple of directors. It’s easy to see why. It’s a great part for him, and both Pitt the movie star and Pitt the character actor show up. The problem I had with his performance is that, as with Kate Winslet’s in Mildred Pierce (US#74), there is too much of it. We get a lot more closeups of Pitt than we really need, which also slows down the film, and we also get more shots than we need of his Beane walking out through the tunnel into the open baseball field.

After the playoffs, Beane goes to Boston to talk to John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox. One of the trickiest things to do in screenwriting is to let the audience knows what something means. How do you show that? In this scene, Beane is still disappointed, but Henry points out to him that his system has changed baseball, because any team that ignores it will not be operating as intelligently as they can. An end title points out that the Red Sox won the World Series a couple of years later using Beane’s method. Right, but the A’s haven’t won since, and with almost every team using some variation on the system, everybody is as equal as you get in baseball. Which is not much.

Blackthorn (2010. Written by Miguel Barros. 98 minutes.)

Blackthorn

Whose Butch?: The opening titles give us the backstory. Butch Cassidy, along with the Sundance Kid, were famous outlaws in the old west. In 1901 they went to Bolivia where they were killed in a shootout in 1908, but there is some evidence, gone into at length in the titles, that they may have survived the shootout. And so this movie is going to be about Butch 19 years later and his efforts to get back to the United States. Finally the movie starts. William Goldman’s screenplay for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid says in its opening title, “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.” Granted, the studio made them cut the “Not that it matters,” but it is still a more creative opening. Particularly since in 1969, nobody remembered who Butch and Sundance were. By 2010, we all know who they were. Paul Newman and Robert Redford don’t look a thing like the real characters, but if I say Butch Cassidy, you think Newman. Goldman’s version is part of our culture. Which means two things. One, you don’t need to tell us now who Butch and Sundance were. Two, if you are following in Goldman’s footsteps, you have an awfully big mountain to climb.

According to IMDb, this is Barros’s first feature screenplay and it’s not awful. I began to suspect as the film got going that he may have intended it to run without those opening titles. There is this older gringo in Bolivia who has been training horses. He writes a letter to his “nephew” (we eventually learn he is Etta Place’s son) saying he, Butch, is going to come back to the States. The letter is signed “Butch” but that may not have been enough on its own to let us know. The gringo sells his horses and on the way home is shot at by Eduardo, a Spanish guy who came to work in the tin mines. The gringo’s horse runs away with all his money, and Eduardo, who is likeable, persuades the gringo to go with him to an abandoned tin mine to retrieve a bunch of money he has stolen. Now wait a minute. In Goldman’s version, based on history, it was Butch who was the likeable one, and Sundance the restrained one. Here it’s reversed. Based on the script and Sam Shepard’s wonderfully laconic performance as the gringo, we would be more likely to believe he is Sundance than Butch. Why? Because the 1969 film has established, in the way movies do, what we think we know about those characters. And Barros is not yet a good enough screenwriter to overpower 42 years of Goldman’s script.

Eduardo and Blackthorn, as the gringo calls himself, go to the mine, get the money, and escape to Blackthorn’s shack. Two Bolivian peasant women ride up to the shack and tell Blackthorn they have found his horse and his money. And then they start shooting, killing Blackthorn’s girlfriend/cleaning woman, Yana. Given a big twist near the end, Barros really needed to make the point that these were peasant women, not Pinkerton agents or Federales or marshals, but it slips by in the action, since we are feeling for Yana’s death. Then Blackthorn and Eduardo are chased. A lot. They go across salt flats that look more like the Nefud in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) than Utah and Colorado in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman keeps his chase in the second half-hour much more interesting than Barros does. The scenery here, as elsewhere in the movie, is gorgeous. If you miss this in a theater, at least watch it on a hi-def television. Do not watch it on your iPhone.

Barros actually one-ups Goldman in the last half-hour of the film. You may remember that the Superposse was just “those guys,” as in “Who are those guys?” We learn a name or two, but never meet them. Barros has created the wonderful character of McKinley, a Pinkerton agent who came to Bolivia when he was chasing Butch and Sundance years ago. He was not convinced they were killed in the shootout and he has stayed in Bolivia, becoming a sort-of part-time American consul and full-time drunk. After Blackthorn is wounded and brought into a local doctor, the doctor asks McKinley if this is the gringo he keeps referring to. Talk about Ahab coming face to face with the white whale, with the whale unconscious. As Butch begins to wake up, we get a great scene between him and McKinley, beautifully played by Stephen Rea. I am not sure I agree with Barros’s resolution of the scene and McKinley’s story, but it’s still a terrific scene, even though here, as elsewhere, his dialogue is not a patch on Goldman’s. Well, whose is?

Barros also includes some flashbacks of Butch, Sundance and Etta in their younger days. Not only is he going up against the skill of Goldman, but against the combined star power of Newman, Redford, and Katharine Ross. That was really a fool’s errand, since the flashbacks are not needed. We know whose Butch, Sundance and Etta are our Butch, Sundance and Etta.

Toast (2010. Screenplay by Lee Hall, based on a memoir by Nigel Slater. 92 minutes.)

Toast

And more…: I’m not much of a foodie. Being from the Midwest, I am a slabs-and-mounds guy, slabs of meat, mounds of potatoes. (And hamburgers—I am delighted to see House and this column picked up Wendy’s as a sponsor, at least for a week or two; I ate at a Wendy’s near LACC for forty years.) So I am not that much into foodie pictures, as my comments in US#31 on Julie & Julia made clear. This one, based on a memoir of Nigel Slater, a famous British chef I have never heard of, is a little charmer. It was shown on British television, then played film festivals and now has a mini-theatrical release.

We start with young Nigel, aged 9, in 1967. His Mum is not much of a cook at all. She boils the tins of veggies by putting the cans in boiling water. Her default food is toast, which she barely manages. But Nigel loves her. Then she dies. His Dad is a bit of a grump, but he eventually hires Mrs. Potter as a housecleaner. Nigel hates Mrs. Potter. She is always waving her rear end around, obviously trying to entice Dad into a little hanky panky. But she is a fabulous cook. And Nigel still hates her. I began to get worried at his point in the film, since Hall has established that Nigel might be gay. Nigel looks a little longingly at the young stud gardener as he strips down to nothing to change into his work clothes. Is Mrs. Potter one of those dreadful caricatures of women that gay writers create (see my comments on A Single Man in US#83)? No, Hall avoids that. Young Nigel seems to object to her because she is lower class. So he is a snob, but in Oscar Kennedy’s great performance, we love him anyway.

Unfortunately we jump ahead to Nigel’s teenage years, and the role is taken over by Freddie Highmore, who based on his early work as a child actor, should have been perfect for the part. He’s not. He’s turned into a sullen twerp, and he shows none of the charm Kennedy does. So our sympathy shifts a bit to Mrs. Potter. She is still married, but she has run off to the country with Mr. Potter. Rather than trying to learn her cooking secrets, teenaged Nigel gets into cooking contests with her for Dad’s favor. OK, granted she does not suggest they work together, so there may be some fault on her side, but she’s still a character we would rather watch by that point in the film than Nigel. When he leaves her after Dad dies, I was thinking good riddance (at least until the sound went off. The theater I was seeing it at had all kinds of problems, but it was very near the end of the film. If anybody who has seen it wants to write in and tell me what happens after Nigel walks out of the house with her following with a cake, please do).

Part of the reason we love Mrs. Potter is that she is spectacularly played by Helena Bonham Carter. I remember thinking, when Bonham Carter was appearing in all those E.M. Forster adaptations in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that her career would be over when they ran out of Forster novels to film. Oh me of little faith. She has of course become a great character actress, and her full skill set is on display here.

Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History (2010. Book written by J.E. Smyth. 337 pages)

Edna Ferber's Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and HistoryShe had me at Cimarron: J.E. Smyth is one of my favorite younger (compared to me) film historians. The first book she did was 2006’s Reconstructing American Historical Cinema From Cimarron to Citizen Kane. In it, Smyth looks at the historical films about America that Hollywood made from 1931 to 1941. What caught my attention right away is that Smyth figured out that if you are going to talk about the subjects of films, such as history, you are going to have to spend as much and probably more attention to the screenwriters than to the directors. And unlike older and/or more opportunistic academics, she seemed to have no hesitation about writing so much about screenwriters. Well, yes, it’s the writers who provide the content. In her first lengthy chapter on Cimarron in Reconstructing she spends pages writing about Howard Estabrook’s work on the screenplay, and not so much on the film’s director, Wesley Ruggles.

I suspect it was Smyth’s digging into Cimarron that got her involved in the work of Edna Ferber, who wrote the book the film was based on. Ferber was one of the most successful and popular American novelists of the twentieth century and she had more of her books made into more films, many of them more than once, than any other novelist of the period. There were three versions of Show Boat (1929, 1936, and 1951) alone. She did very little screenwriting herself, but kept a very close eye on the productions whenever possible. She worked out very impressive deals with the studios so the film nearly always had her name above the title, both on the film and in the ads.

As the subtitle of the new book notes, Ferber wrote about gender, race, and history, and Smyth is great at laying out what was in the novels and how that got changed by Hollywood, sometimes drastically, sometimes not so drastically. Jane Murfin did what Ferber thought was an adequate adaptation of Come and Get It (1936), but when Howard Hawks came in to direct, he brought in Jules Furthman to do a rewrite, which changed that characters and story around so their version became a typical bunch-of-guys-and-a-tough-dame script. The producer, Samuel Goldwyn, was upset by the changes, fired Hawks and Furthman, and brought in Murfin to do what she could and William Wyler to finish directing the film. On the other hand, a lot of what Ferber had in the novel of Giant (1956) survived in the film, and it was one of her more pleasant experiences, even if she had her usual quibbles. When I showed Giant to an American film history class I taught at UCLA in 1986, the class was astonished that a big budget American film dealt in such strong terms with both race and gender.

Great scholar that she is, Smyth has researched a variety of sources and collections, including not just Ferber’s papers, but studio files on the films. She also writes clearly, with virtually no academic gobbledy-gook. If she has a flaw, it is a minor one: she tends to take studio press releases at their word. She quotes the press book from the 1931 version of Cimarron as saying the studio spent $4,000 on books as the lead actor could prepare for his role. Don’t believe everything the press people tell you.

Ah, yes, one other thing for regular readers of this column. J.E. Smyth is the same Jennifer Smyth I mentioned in US#53 who got me to write an article for a book of essays she was editing. She couldn’t get my piece past the publisher’s readers, but I ended up getting it into the online journal Senses of Cinema. No hard feelings, Jennifer.

Arizona (1940. Screenplay by Claude Binyon, story by Clarence Buddington Kelland. 125 minutes.)

Arizona

Not Ferber: As I was reading Smyth’s book, this one showed up on TCM, along with the next one. Since this film was very obviously inspired by Cimarron, I thought I would give it a shot. In Cimarron, we follow the adventures of Sabra Cravat, a pioneer in the Oklahoma Territory in the 1890s through World War I. Her husband, Yancy, keeps wandering off to have adventures, and she runs the newspaper and gets involved in politics. In Arizona, we follow tough pioneer woman Phoebe Titus, who sets up a freight hauling business in the 1860s in Tuscon, while the man in her life, Peter Muncie, wanders off to have adventures. Ferber and Howard Estabrook took their history seriously, as well as their dealing with issues of race and gender. Clarence Budington Kelland was mostly a writer of light humor, best know at the time for his stories about Scattergood Baines, several of which were made into films. He is best known now as the author of the short story “Opera Hat,” which Robert Riskin turned into a great script for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Likewise, Claude Binyon was best known for his comedies. See anything in there that would make you think they could handle an epic western? Well, they can’t. There are some nice characters, including the occasionally drunk Judge Bogardus, played by Edgar Buchanan much like he plays a similar character 22 years later in Ride the High Country. But the characters are much lighter weight than those Ferber and Estabrook provide. The director of the film is Wesley Ruggles, whom you might remember directed Cimarron. His direction of Cimarron was not all that great, and his direction here is not either. He is in his serious Cimarron mode and doesn’t get as much out of the light touches Kelland and Binyon do provide as he could.

The picture was produced by Columbia, which was better known for its B westerns. This was an attempt to do an A western, hence following the Cimarron pattern. The studio built a replica of old Tuscon outside the real one just for this picture. The studio turned it over to the city after filming was completed, and it has been used in a million western movies and television shows. The original adobe buildings have been added to a lot, but if you watch westerns, it will look familiar to you.

Texas (1941. Screenplay by Horace McCoy & Lewis Meltzer & Michael Blankfort, story by Michael Blankfort & Lewis Meltzer. 93 minutes.)

TexasNow that’s more like it: You will notice that this one is 32 minutes shorter than Arizona. Shorter is better. Arizona must have been enough of a hit that Columbia figured they could take on another state. But the story and script for this one do not even pretend this is an epic, even though Texas is a much bigger state than Arizona. Instead we have a slightly lighter story of two friends, Dan and Tod, who start out in Kansas, work their way south, robbing a stagecoach robber and taking his money. They split up and when they meet sometime later Tod is helping a group of cattleman trying to avoid outlaws, one of whom is Dan. Shootouts occur.

The script moves a lot faster than Arizona’s, which wanders all over the state. The director here is George Marshall, who had done Destry Rides Again two years before, and since he knows this is not an epic, he brings that same light touch. And the script gives us a nice twist. We assume Edgar Buchanan, playing an occasionally drunk dentist, is just the comic relief, but it turns out he is one of the higher ups among the criminals.

Yes, the Horace McCoy who worked on this script and many other B westerns also wrote the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. Which is not a western. Lewis Meltzer has a couple of good credits on his resume, including The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and The Brothers Rico (1957). And Michael Blankfort’s best credit is for a movie he didn’t write. He was the front for blacklisted Albert Maltz on the 1950 Broken Arrow. Aren’t you glad I am around to lead you through the thickets of writers’ credits?

CSI (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Lighten up: CSI has always been a dark show. Well, searching through evidence of crimes, usually murders, will lead to that. The original leader of the CSI unit, Gil Grissom, cracked a slim smirk from time to time, but never an actual smile. His subordinates were pretty much the same. Well, Grissom left a couple of seasons ago, and the showrunners never seemed to be comfortable with promoting his second in command, Catherine Willows, to the top spot. They did last season, but kept undercutting her. Laurence Fishburne came in as Dr. Raymond Langston, but he was not the boss, and Fishburne’s command presence was not very effectively used. Fishburne left the show this year and now, at the start of the show’s 12th season, Catherine has been demoted and a new head is being brought. So the writing problem on the floor is: at this point in the series, who do you bring in and what qualities does he or she bring?

The season opener, “73 Seconds” (written by Gavin Harris), starts with the CSIs finding what look to be three bodies on the floor of a house. But one of the bodies gets up. He is D.B. Russell, the new head of the unit. He likes to lie where the bodies are to get a feel for what happened. Well, Grissom was into bugs, so this makes Russell just as weird as he was. Then in the middle of the investigation Russell’s wife calls and asks him to find out where there are any Farmer’s Markets in Las Vegas. And Russell does. This is the team’s first dealing with Russell, and a much more interesting introduction than if they all just had a meeting. Harris not only establishes Russell as a lighter character than Grissom, or Langston for that matter, but gives the other characters something to react to. At the end of the episode, Russell overhears Catherine talking to Nick Stokes that he has to be more by the book, since she has been demoted for being too easy on the crew. Russell overhears this and invites them all to breakfast with him. We don’t see the breakfast, which is a smart move on Harris’s part. There would be too much exposition that is going to be better if it is doled out in small doses over several episodes.

By “Maid Man” (written by Dustin Lee Abraham), the fourth episode of the season, Russell and the CSIs are pretty much in synch, and the humor that Russell, as played by Ted Danson, brings adds a new color to the series. In the A story, Oscar Goodman, the ex-mayor of Las Vegas playing himself, is shot, but survives because he is wearing a bullet-proof vest. Well, he was a lawyer who represented mob members. At the end of the episode he tells Russell and Brody, Russell’s boss, that he is going to represent the woman who shot him. Brody says that if he ever needs a lawyer, he wants Goodman. Russell replies, “I want his suit.” This episode also does something that I pinged on the season opening of Law & Order: S.V.U. (see US#83) for not doing. The B story starts out with what seems to be the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story: a Prince who visits Vegas often always asks for Maria, the same maid. She is found dead in his hotel room. But it turns out she was arranging to steal his jewelry with a friend of hers. Nice twist.

Harry’s Law (2011. Four episodes, all written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes.)

Harry's Law

More reservations: In US#69 and 72 I wrote about this show in its first half season, and I expressed some reservations. I have even more now in the way Kelley has restructured the show. In the three-part season opener (“Hosana Roseanna,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Sins of the Father”) Harry defends a rich man on charges of killing his wife. OK, but it’s like every other Kelley law show. And Harry is no longer in the former shoe store on the ground level. She and Adam, her young partner, have moved upstairs to what looks like a regular law office. Well, we’ve had regular law offices before (Kelley’s The Practice) and now (The Good Wife), so why another one? Yes, the shoe jokes got old, but if you are in a law office on the first floor, all kinds of interesting people will come charging through the front door. Jenna, whom Kelley never found a character for, now occasionally comes upstairs to announce something, but by episode four (“Queen of Snark”) she announced she was leaving, and we got a very unearned tearful goodbye scene. Meanwhile Adam has been sidelined, and Harry has brought in two more conventional attorneys, Cassie Reynolds and Ollie Richard, the later being played by Mark Valley exactly as he played Brad Chase in Boston Legal. And Tommy Jefferson, who in the first season had a big office of his own, has moved into the office space Harry is in, although they are still two different firms. Tommy is an OK character as the odd wild card from time to time, but he really does not fit into an ensemble show.

I think Kelley may be aware of the problems his changes have caused. In “Queen of Snark,” he has a long scene with Adam complaining to Harry that the office has changed too much. The speech may well have come from the actor playing Adam, Nathan Corddry complaining to Kelley. Kelley may do something about it, but for now he seems content to have turned a potentially interesting show into a copy of his previous shows.

Desperate Housewives (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Desperate Housewives

No, really, they are desperate this season: At the end of last season, the cliffhanger the show left us with was that Carlos had killed Gaby’s stepfather, who threatened her. Needless to say, none of them went to the police, but buried the body in the woods, where characters on this show have been burying bodies for years. So this season they are beginning to work out the guilt they all feel, both for the killing and the hiding of the body. So we get some real desperation. Susan seemed to feel it the most, getting almost hysterical when she had to bury a dead hamster at the school where she works in “Secrets That I Never Wanted” (written by Bob Daily), the season opener. In “Making the Connection” (written by Matt Berry) Susan gets arrested for shoplifting and finds it an exciting way to deal with her guilt. She tries to get arrested again, but fails several times before succeeding. She can’t call Mike to pick her up, so she calls Carlos. They have a nice scene where it becomes clear that the two of them felt more guilt than the others. Susan and Carlos have never been friends, but this looked as though it might be in the cards. Unfortunately in the next episode, “Watch While I Revise the World” (written by John Paul Bullock III), Mike gets suspicious and Susan and Carlos explain what’s going on to him. Jeeze, guys, if it is your last season, go for broke.

Suburgatory (2011. Multiple episodes. 30 minutes.)

Suburgatory

Juno’s sister: As longtime readers of this column know, I am a Diablo Cody fan, and I particularly liked Juno (2007), so I got a little skittish when I watched the “Pilot” episode, written by the show’s creator, Emily Kapnek. We get the wise-assed voiceover from the snarky teen girl, Tessa in this case. Her father George, after finding a box of condoms in her drawer, decides to move the two them (her mom “pulled a Kramer vs. Kramer” on them) from the city out to the suburbs. As Tessa puts it, “A box of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic.” So we are going to get Tessa’s take on the suburbs, and in the pilot the take seems even more exaggerated than it needs to be. One of their neighbor moms, Dallas Royce, is way over the top. But the writing and the acting begin to settle down in the following episodes. Like Juno, the show gives us a sympathetic parent in George, and even in the pilot, we get a lot of reaction shots of George and Tessa to each other. We get the feeling that they know they are in this together. So the show is not just fast, snarky voiceover and dialogue. In the second episode “The Barbeque,” written by Bob Kushell, Tessa finds herself attracted to a Big Man on Campus type, Ryan. Ryan happens to live across the street, and is the brother of Lisa, a nerdy type Tessa had an awkward run-in with in the pilot. Tessa and Lisa are now getting to be friends, but Tessa finds herself appalled that she is attracted to Ryan. Kushell writes some nice back-and-forth for Tessa as she tries to talk herself out of her crush. In “Don’t Call Me Shirley,” written by Patricia Breen, Ryan and Lisa’s mom’s collection of Shirley Temple dolls is stolen, leading to a fear of a crime spree in the ’burbs. This causes Dallas and her bitch daughter, Dalia, to descend on George and Tessa to spend the night. Breen has some nice stuff as Dallas tries to run George’s life her way. Again, not just dialogue, but characters and reactions. Worth a visit. Unless like some people you hated, HATED, HATED Juno.

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: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

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

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

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

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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

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

3

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril

In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

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Midway
Photo: Summit Entertainment

“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.

Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.

Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.

The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.

Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.

Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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