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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

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

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

1

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

3

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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