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Understanding Screenwriting #85: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, The Sturges Project, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #85: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, The Sturges Project, & More

Coming Up In This Column: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, Feet First, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, Bitter Rice, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Bend of the River, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that the model for Charlie in A Single Man (2009) was Iris Tree, who shows up in Steiner’s party in La Dolce Vita (1960). And she is much less a caricature there than the character is—in the film, at least—of A Single Man.

Just a small note that hardly warrants a full item, at least not yet. I recently learned that there is a new book out by Kim Hudson called The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening. It’s apparently the women’s version of the Hero’s Journey, including such things as the “13 beats of the Virgin’s journey” and the “Virgin archetype.” That’s all fine and dandy, but what if, like say Anita Loos, you don’t want to write about dip-shit virgins and prefer to write about real women? As most people realize after they reach adulthood, even if they know they are not allowed to say it in public, virginity is vastly overrated.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011. Written by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. 90 minutes.)

Maybe too early: As longtime readers of this column know, I love shaggy dog stories. So naturally I liked the first Harold & Kumar film, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), in which the boys have the munchies and are just trying to get a couple of burgers. Hurwitz & Schlossberg, who have written all three films, were Billy Wilder ruthless in finding obstacles to throw in their way. The second one, 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, on the other hand, was a real dud. H&K were just stoners in the first one, and the humor was stoner humor. In the second, the writers tried to add a political dimension to the film, which simply does not fit with the characters of H&K. There was even some parody of George W. Bush that was well past its sell-by date. The H&K movies give us a lot of social comment, usually in throwaway jokes, but the political stuff in Guantanamo Bay is too heavy-handed to work in the H&K film universe.

Fortunately Hurwitz & Schlossberg are back on track in Christmas. H&K have not seen each other in a while. Kumar is still a stoner, but Harold has finally married Maria and is living in the suburbs. A mysterious package addressed to Harold is delivered to their old apartment, and Kumar takes it out to Harold’s house. Harold is setting up for Christmas, and his Latino father-in-law, Mr. Perez, who hates all Koreans (see what I mean about social comment), has brought a special Christmas tree. Kumar manages to burn it down and H&K go off to find another one while the Perez side of the family attend midnight mass. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that? The Billy Wilder ruthlessness is back at full power. And it is funny. I think I laughed harder at this film than I have any other one this year. Yes, the jokes are gross and borderline creepy, especially those involving Harold’s neighbor’s toddler who keeps getting stoned, but they just don’t stop, and they are often very surprising, which you don’t usually find in sequels and threequels. Two or three Christmas icons show up and are thoroughly trashed. Traditionally stoner comedies are very slowly paced, for obvious reasons, but this one moves like a house, or a Christmas tree, afire.

Normally I have a limited appetite for inside jokes, but there are some dandies here. As they get ready to go into a fancy party, one character says of Kumar, “We’ll tell them you work at the White House,” to which Kal Penn’s Kumar replies, “Yeah, like anybody will believe that.” Penn of course spent the last couple of years working in the Obama administration, not however in the war on drugs. Neil Patrick Harris is back as “himself.” He came out as gay in real life since the last film, and he and the writers have a wonderful time with that, ending with his waving goodbye to H&K, saying “See you guys in Number 4.”

The best gags are the 3D gags. Sorry, did I give you a heart attack there, given that you know my take on 3D? What makes them work is the attitude the film has toward 3D. There is none of the Jeffrey Katzenberg-James Cameron reverence for 3D here. It is a gimmick, the filmmakers recognize it as a gimmick, make references to the fact the film is in 3D and then throw everything they can think of at you. In keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, some of what pops out of the screen is just plain gross, as in a particular bit of Claymation. But the film also shows the limitations of 3D. Early on Kumar is blowing smoke from his joint out across the heads of the audience. You can see it but you just can’t smell it, dammit. So there, Katzenberg.

If, like me, you feel like you are drowning in Christmas hype as the season approaches, you may want to see this one as a relief. I am a bit surprised that Warners released it in early November. If it stays around until mid-December, you may need to see it.

The Women on the 6th Floor (2010. Written by Philippe Le Guay and Jérôme Tonnerre. 104 minutes.)

The Women on the 6th Floor

The Help, Parisian style: When I first saw this, I thought that I would probably not write about it for this column. It’s a funny, charming comedy about a Parisian stuffed shirt (Fabrice Luchini of course) who gets involved with the Spanish maids who live at the top of his apartment building. Then, as I was walking home, it occurred to me that the film is the French equivalent of The Help.

The time period is 1962. Jean-Louis and Suzanne are a very bourgeois married couple living in the same apartment building he has lived in since he was a child. He is an investor; she has gone from being a girl from the country to the epitome of an upscale French wife. One day, Jean-Louis learns that the toilet the maids use isn’t working, so he gets a plumber out to fix it. Then his long-time maid quits/is fired, and he ends up hiring Maria, the niece of Concepción, one of the older maids. Yes, Maria is attractive, but Jean-Louis is even more impressed that, unlike the previous maid, she follows his instructions on how to boil his morning egg. I don’t know what is written in the script as to Jean-Louis’s reaction when he first tastes her egg, but Luchini gives us about four or five reactions in one. You can tell that romance is going to bloom, but Le Guay (who also directed) and Tonnerre take their time. We spend a lot of time with all the maids and get a sense of their lives, especially in contrast to Suzanne and her hoity-toity friends. You can imagine the similarities here with Aibileen, Minny and that crowd. We don’t get these women telling stories so much as we see what they go through. We also get the romantic plot, or really subplot, with Jean-Louis and Maria, which ends well, although the last scene is more confusing than it might be as to how many children she has.

One thing that struck me in watching this film was, why is it set in 1962? There are some references to the period (De Gaulle, Franco), but nothing that requires that time period. I don’t know the social situation in France well enough to know if the maids are still immigrants from Spain, or are they now more from the Francophone former colonies in Africa? If the latter is the case, the lightness of touch of a contemporary version of the script would seem as condescending as some people think The Help is.

Feet First (1930. Scenario by Felix Adler Lex Neal, story by John Grey & Al Cohn & Clyde Bruckman, dialogue by Paul Girard Smith. 91 minutes.)

Feet First

What I said before, only more so: In US#3, back in the dark ages, I wrote an item about the transition from silent films to sound films. I was specifically talking about the silent and sound versions, both in 1929, of the Harold Lloyd film Welcome Danger. Lloyd was not adapting well to sound, since he added verbal prissiness to his visual prissiness, and the screenwriters, both for that sound film and for his 1932 film Movie Crazy, had not figured out how to write both funny and playable dialogue. Feet First comes between those two movies, and the dialogue problem is the same, not surprising, since Smith did the dialogue for both sound films.

Smith had first made a name for himself writing vaudeville acts, and wrote for the stage productions of the Ziegfield Follies in the ‘20s, so he certainly should have known better how to write comedy dialogue. Maybe the fact that he came to Hollywood in the mid-‘20s to work on silent comedies, including a couple for Buster Keaton, threw him off his stride. He certainly continued to work in films, and theatre, and early television after the Lloyd films, but nearly all of his film credits are B pictures.

The other problem with Feet First is that the visual gags are re-runs. Lloyd’s character Harold is on a ship coming from Hawaii (with the 1930 Westwood Village standing in for Hawaii in the opening scene) and since he has no ticket, he is avoiding the ship’s officers. In one scene they are chasing him around the ship. It is not unlike Keaton and the girl trying to find each other in The Navigator (1924), but without Keaton’s precision. Later in the film Harold is trying to deliver a envelope with some important papers, but he gets caught up in a painters rig that pulls him the side of a large building. Hmm, Lloyd on the side of a building. Where have we seen that before? Safety Last (1923), in case you never watch black-and-white movies. But in the earlier film Lloyd is specifically climbing to the top of the building. Here the painters keep raising and lowering the platform for no logical reason, and the scene just dithers away as you watch how much the downtown Los Angeles area has grown up since 1923.

The location details above are from the newest book by the great John Bengtson. Bengtson is a business lawyer (see, a few lawyers are good for something) who developed an interest in the locations used in silent films. His first book was 2000’s Silent Echoes, in which he tracked down locations used by Buster Keaton. I spent an afternoon driving around town with Bengtson’s book in my car looking at those sacred spaces. He followed that up with the 2006 book Silent Traces about Chaplin’s use of locations. I always think of Chaplin sticking to his backlot, but the book shows he used a lot of location work, especially in his earlier films.

Bengtson’s new book, out this year, is Silent Visions, and it’s about Lloyd and his locations. Lloyd’s studio in the late ‘20s was only a couple of miles away from where I live, and many scenes in his pictures were shot in areas I drive by all the time. I obviously need to take this book out for a drive around the neighborhood.

The Great McGinty (1940. Written by Preston Sturges. 81 minutes.)

The Great McGinty

The Sturges Project, Take One: Last Christmas, one of Santa’s elves was very good to me. She gave me a DVD box set of seven films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed. Since I have dealt with box sets before (Budd Boetticher and Errol Flynn), and since I dealt a little with Sturges the writer before he became a director (Remember the Night [1940] in US#38), I thought it would be a great opportunity to go through the films for this column. I was intending to do that during the summer, but some family matters intervened. And then there was the start of the television season. There was some time before we get overloaded with the end of the year films for me at least to get started, so welcome aboard for a ride on Sturges’s cockeyed caravan.

The films are, in chronological order, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and The Great Moment (1944). Notice anything missing? Yeah, the box set does not include The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), I suspect for reasons of the ownership of rights. However, Paramount (rather than Universal, which owns most of the Paramount pre-1948 films) released a now out-of-print DVD of Miracle that I have managed to get my hands on. So I will throw that in as a bonus at no extra cost to you. What I call the Sturges Project will continue over the next several columns until I have covered all eight of the films. The background information for the project comes from James Curtis’s excellent 1982 biography Between Flops and, even more helpfully, the 1985 collection Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, edited with great introductory essays by Brian Henderson. Henderson followed that up in 1996 with Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, which covers the rest of the scripts I’ll be dealing with. The books have photocopied versions of the production scripts (although I am a bit dubious of one, which I will talk about later), so we can see what Sturges intended to shoot and how.

Sturges was born on August 29, 1898 and spent his youth flitting around Europe with his mother, a friend of Isadora Duncan. His stepfather was a stockbroker, and his mother started a cosmetics firm that Preston was running in his teens. So you can see Preston had a variety of experiences in his youth. Never underestimate the value of worldly experiences for a future screenwriter. Better than film school, truth be told. Sturges wrote plays for Broadway and then came to Hollywood in the early ‘30s. The first script that brought him attention was The Power and the Glory (1933), the story of the rise and fall of a businessman, but told in non-chronological terms. It is considered very much the forerunner of Citizen Kane (1941), but it was a flop. After Power, Sturges began to think about directing, because he noted what William K. Howard had done and not done as the director. But this was the 1930s and no studio was about to let a writer direct. The studios had a very strict division of labor. You can see why they applied it to writers. Why let a writer spend a lot of time writing and directing one film, when you could have him write two or three scripts in the same time? Writers were too valuable to be allowed to direct. In 1936 he wound up at Paramount, where he wrote hits like Easy Living (1937) and If I Were King (1938). He kept bugging his boss at Paramount, William LeBaron, for a chance to direct. LeBaron had a weakness for talented writers, especially comic ones like W.C. Fields, Herman Mankiewicz, Mae West, and Brackett and Wilder. Finally LeBaron agreed to let Sturges direct. The film was finally titled The Great McGinty.

The script was inspired by stories of politics in Chicago that Sturges heard in his youth. Sturges was particularly impressed with the tale of William “Old Bill” Sulzer, a Democratic politician who rose to be governor of Illinois. Then he started doing things the people wanted, which were not necessarily good for the Democratic machine. He was impeached for doing too much good for the people and not enough for the party. Sturges did the first draft screenplay in 1933, entitled The Vagrant. He saw it as a companion piece to The Power and the Glory, dealing with politics instead of business. After the flop of Power, nobody wanted it, and they certainly were not about to allow him to direct it. Over the years he changed the title several times, ending up with Down Went McGinty, the title the shooting script bears. As Henderson points out, there were considerable changes in the material from The Vagrant. McGinty still begins as a bum who surprises the politicians by managing to vote 37 times on election day, but he meets the Boss earlier in the script, which makes their relationship a lot closer and a lot more detailed. In The Vagrant, McGinty’s wife is a “renegade from the Purity Leauge” as Curtis describes her, but in McGinty she is McGinty’s secretary Catherine, with no other exposition when we first meet her. When the Boss suggests McGinty get married, he talks it over with Catherine, and she suggests they get married. This is a nice scene as written, since she seems to be doing everything to help out because she believes in McGinty’s reform ideas. One can imagine another director, oh, all right, Mitchell Leisen, turning it into a romantic scene, with us being clear that she has been in love with McGinty for a while. Sturges does not do that in his direction; the scene is played straight and much fresher for that. The Boss and Catherine are set up as the forces pulling on McGinty. When he gets to be Mayor of Chicago, Catherine encourages him to try to do some good. There is a great scene that was cut from the film where he tries to persuade the Boss to let him do good, and the Boss tells him all the reasons he can’t. Why was the scene dropped? I suspect that because shortly thereafter there is a similar scene after McGinty becomes governor, and that one is more crucial to the film. And the later one leads to McGinty telling Catherine that sweatshops for little kids are not that bad. He asks her if she ever worked in one. She says she didn’t. McGinty says, “Well, I did, see? When I was seven years old. Instead of playing on the street and learning dirty words I earned four dollars a week for my mother and it wasn’t dark and airless, it was very neat and clean…And I want to tell you something: we liked it!” (The ellipses here is mine. Sturges writes in several of his own—and the actors pay no attention to them at all.)

Although by now Sturges should have known better, he wrote in camera directions. As always happens, the director (Sturges) did not pay any attention, oh, well, some, but very little attention, to what the writer (Sturges) suggested. There are also cuts for budget reasons: the writer calls for the main titles over shots of “the harbor and waterfront of a banana republic,” but the titles are just cards. There are also cuts, probably for length. A scene of a farm boy talking to construction workers about the buildings the mayor is building is replaced by a simple ‘30s construction montage. McGinty has a long, wonderful scene with Maxwell, who runs a bus company, in which he explains how the graft works, but very little of that remains in the film. In some cases the cuts were made during the shooting, as in speeches that are changed in single take scenes, and sometimes in the editing room.

The film looks and feels like a lot of ‘30s newspaper comedies. It certainly has the cheerful cynicism of those films. It is slower than most, since a lot of the scenes are talky, but not yet with the wonderful use of language that will show up in later Sturges films. There is more conventional ‘30s slang. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff are fine as McGinty and the Boss, but they are not quite up to the level of later Sturges stars. There are some Sturges touches in the casting. The Boss’s bodyguard is played by a wimpy looking actor (that casting does not work out; he’s too bland) and his chauffeur is played by an ex-boxer, so his short speech on why he and his girlfriend broke up is funnier. What Sturges needed to find was the kind of character actors who could populate his world. In one case he was on the right track. For the Politician, an underling of the Boss, Sturges considered character actors who usually played those types: Grant Mitchell and Sidney Toler. In the end he settled on William Demarest, who was born to read Sturges’s dialogue. We will catch up with him in later films.

Christmas in July (1940. Written by Preston Sturges. 68 minutes.)

Christmas in July

The Sturges Project, Take Two: In January 1940, McGinty was still filming, but LeBaron already knew what he had and asked Sturges what he wanted to do for his second film. Sturges figured that if he whipped out a second one quickly, at least one of them ought to be a hit. He needn’t have worried. Both were hits, and McGinty won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for 1940, beating out Foreign Correspondent and The Great Dictator, among others. I don’t think McGinty is anywhere close to Sturges’s best script, but its win certainly helped open the floodgates for all the other writers who wanted to direct. Huston, Wilder, and everyone who came later owe it a lot.

Since he wanted to do something fast, Sturges went back to his trunk and dug out A Cup of Coffee. It started as a stage play in 1931, and after three previous flops nobody wanted to produce it. It tells the story of James Macdonald, who works at Baxter Coffee as a salesman. He had entered a contest for a new slogan at Maxwell House Coffee. At the end of the first act, he gets a notice he has won. In the second act, he has been promoted at Baxter, but at the end of the act, he learns that he has not won the contest. The winner was another James Macdonald. In Act Three, the company finds out he did not win the contest, and the company now must decide if they will give him his regular job back. Jimmy’s girlfriend Tulip convinces the bosses to give Jimmy the contract they were originally going to give him, but without pay so that he will have to prove himself. At the end a representative from Maxwell House shows up and says Jimmy did win after all.

In late 1934, Sturges adapted the play into a screenplay of the same name. He realized it could be made on a limited budget, even if he expanded the three sets of the play. He hoped to make it his first directorial effort while at Universal. They said no, but kept the rights when he went off to Paramount. In 1940, Sturges got LeBaron to obtain the rights, Sturges slapped a new title page on the 1935 script and gave it to the producer assigned to him on McGinty, Paul Jones, who had produced Bob Hope movies and was not intimidated by Sturges. Sturges worked on revising the screenplay from February through May as McGinty was in post-production. First of all, he made Jimmy a more consistent character than he was in play, where he was an outgoing salesman type in Act I and a genuinely nice guy in Acts II and III. Second, he changed the details about the contest. Three co-workers hear him talking on the phone about the contest, and they send him a phony telegram telling him he is the winner. Events escalate from there, and they finally confess. Third, Sturges expanded the locations. In the play all three sets are in Baxter offices. Jimmy at one point sends out for some presents for his office co-workers and they are sent to the office. In the screenplay Jimmy and Betty (thank God she got renamed from Tulip; well, Sturges wasn’t quite ready for the Kockenlockers) go on a shopping expedition for presents for everybody on his block. The big slapstick sequence, on the street in front of the houses, is the arrival of the presents and the department store people who want them back. There was no big slapstick scene in McGinty, just a minor fight between McGinty and the Boss. The scene with the presents is described in considerable detail, but it is much shorter in the film. It’s also clearer in the film; Sturges as director is good at focusing on what he needs to in the scene.

Sturges also shows us the radio show with the contest and the activities at the sponsor’s office (Maxwell House in the play, Parker House in the script, and Maxford House in the film). He was not only expanding the locations, but expanding the characters. He was beginning to gather around him the stock company of character actors that would appear in most, if not all, of the eight films we will be discussing. William Demarest is back as Bildocker, the head of the jury judging the contest. Late in the film he has an argument with Dr. Parker, the head of the company. Parker is played by Raymond Walburn, who would appear in two more Sturges films. When Demarest and Walburn get up a full head of steam, we have a scene that could only have come in a film written and directed by Preston Sturges. And you remember the chauffeur in McGinty? He was Frank Moran, and he appears here as Patrolman Murphy, a role his ex-boxer’s mug is perfect for. Al Bridge is the jewelry salesman Mr. Hillbeiner, whom Sturges gives a great scene with Jimmy and Betty. Bridge goes through a whole range of expressions, depending on how legitimate he suspects Jimmy’s money is. Bridge appears in the remaining six films we will be discussing.

There is still something early-‘30s about the film as Jimmy, the little guy, triumphs. But Sturges the writer is undercutting the sentimentality that Riskin and Capra would have brought to the material. Those guys assume that it is only natural that the little guy triumph in America. Jimmy’s manager at Baxter’s is a little more skeptical, in the tradition of the “sweatshop” speech in McGinty. He tells Jimmy that he one day realized that he was never going to have $25,000 (the contest prize), and then later he realized, “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works, but no system could be right where only half of one per cent were successes and all the rest were failures. That wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure, I’m a success, and so are you, if you earn your living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.” Sturges slips that in as a throwaway speech rather than making a big deal of. It’s not given to the star, but to a minor character. Written in 1940, it is something for us in the 99% group to keep in mind.

Bitter Rice (1949. Screenplay by Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Mario Monicelli (uncredited), Gianni Puccini; story by Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Gianni Puccini; dialogue Franco Monicelli, (uncredited); writers: Corrado Alvaro, Carlo Musso, Ivo Perilli. 108 minutes.)

Bitter Rice

Lust! Murder! Crane shots! Neorealism?: This film has always been the black sheep of the Neorealist family. After all, Neorealism was supposed to tell stories of real people in real settings and deal with social problems of the time: the Nazis, poverty, more poverty. After the white telephone movies of the Mussolini era, the Neorealist films were above all serious, especially about society. And they were done with the most primitive filmmaking technology. Ah, not quite. The legend is that Rossellini shot Rome, Open City (1945) with what are called “short ends,” bits of film from film magazines not used in other productions. Oops, the recent restoration of the film shows that only four different film stocks were used, not unusual in a feature. And also, what is that rear projection shot doing in the truck scene in Bicycle Thief (1947)?

So Bitter Rice shows up in 1949 with a veneer of Neorealism. It is about women who go out into the rice paddies of the Po River valley in Northern Italy, the same area where Rossellini shot Paisan (1946). The women come out from their regular jobs for a short season of planting and harvesting rice. OK, poor people, that’s good. But the story only indirectly focuses on their social condition. It begins with a thief, Walter, and his moll, Francesca, escaping from the cops. Walter sends her on a train with the women going out to the paddies. Francesca befriends Silvana, and they begin to envy each other’s lifestyle. Walter shows up and Silvana gets the hots for him. He figures out a way to steal the rice before it gets to market. He tricks her into opening the dikes to flood the rice paddies while he loads up the truck. She discovers it, gunshots are fired.

I suppose you could write a piece now on how Bitter Rice is a pre-feminist piece, but in its day it was sensational in every sense. The camera (yes, there are crane shots, which do seem out of place in a Neorealist film) follows, to the point of ogling, the women, barefoot, in their rolled-up pants, as they wade into the fields. Even if you have never seen the film, you may well have seen the most famous still from it: Silvana Mangano, who plays Silvana, up to her bare calves in the paddies wearing a very tight sweater. That still, and the film, made Mangano an international star, even though her performance is one of the worst in the film. The picture was a huge success, not only in Italy, where it outgrossed all the other Neorealist classics, but all over the world.

And now it is considered respectable. The UCLA film archive recently ran a retrospective of classic Neorealist films and included Bitter Rice. The catalogue entry described it as “Giuseppe De Santis’ scorching crime drama set against a portrait of rural labor and exploitation.” Yeah, but as a studio head we will meet a couple of columns on would put it, “And a little sex.”

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, Screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross, story by Maurice Zimm, idea by William Alland. 79 minutes.) and Bend of the River (1952. Screenplay by Borden Chase, based on the novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulik. 91 minutes.)

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Bend of the River

Orson and Gaby and William and Julie and Borden: According to film historian Alan K. Rode, early in the ‘40s Orson Welles had a dinner party that included the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Gaby, as he was known to his friends, told the story of a creature in Mexico that stole young women unless there was a sacrifice to him. Everybody laughed, even though Gaby said he had pictures of it. One person who paid attention to the story was William Alland, who played Thompson the reporter in Citizen Kane (1941). A decade later Alland was a producer at Universal. There had just been a successful re-release of the 1933 version of King Kong, and Alland jotted down an idea for a rip-off in which Figueroa’s beast takes a blonde woman. The story and script were developed, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon was released in 1954 in 3D.

Fortunately sanity prevailed, and instead of a blonde, they cast a beautiful brunette contract player at Universal named Julie Adams. Her swimming scenes, in a stunning white bathing suit, have enthralled young boys of all ages ever since. (The copies of the swimsuit made for the film have all been lost, or else they would be worth a fortune on EBay.) Adams later said that over her long career she “could act her heart out and still only be remembered” for Creature. She never became a big star, but she has worked steadily in film, television and on the stage, and is still going strong in her eighties. She has also written her memoirs, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections from the Black Lagoon. So in late October, the Larry Edmunds Bookshop and the American Cinemateque had a tribute/book signing at the Egyptian Theatre. I talked to her briefly as I was getting my copy of her book signed. I mentioned I had enjoyed a lot of her work over the years from Bend of the River to Murder, She Wrote. She looked a bit startled and said she hoped I had managed to stay awake through some of them. She is just as charming and down-to-earth off-screen as she is on. The evening included screenings of both Creature and her earlier film Bend of the River. Creature was even shown in 3D! And much as I generally hate contemporary 3D, the underwater shots in Creature are great at giving you a sense of the space involved.

The story of Creature is about as simple as they come: scientists discover a piece of a skeleton that suggests a creature and mount a full-scale (well, as full-scale as you can get on a B picture budget and not going off the Universal backlot) expedition. The Creature kills people and becomes entranced by Kay (Adams) swimming. Part of the Creature’s appeal to young men is that he is in the long line of ugly guys with the hots for beautiful women. See for example, in their many forms, Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, King Kong, and three-quarters of the horny teenager movies of the ‘80s. The extras and those down the cast list die and the top-billed actors live, and we don’t know if the Creature is dead at the end. He wasn’t and ended up doing two sequels, but none of them had the appeal of the first one. Mainly because they didn’t have Adams and her swimstuit. And, at the risk of destroying all your illusions, Adams’s swimming double, Ginger Stanley. All the underwater shots were done in Florida with Stanley, and any shots done with Kay’s head above water were done at Universal with Adams.

Bend of the River is a much better picture, a terrific western shot in Technicolor in Oregon. The screenplay is by Borden Chase, who a few years before had written the story and co-written the screenplay for the classic 1948 Red River. Red River, as nearly everybody knows, is Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) on a cattle drive. I don’t know how much of this is from the novel that Chase worked from on Bend, but in the second half it turns into another variation on Mutiny on the Bounty, this time with a wagon train on its way to deliver supplies to some settlers. Adams is the daughter of the leader of the settlers and ends up driving one of the wagons on the trek. It is a stuntman who doubles her taking the wagon across a river. But it’s her in the closeups.

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: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Wade Muller’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, that work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a languid opening drone shot of the skyline of Al Ghouta, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool and distanced perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging

Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.

1.5

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The Addams Family
Photo: United Artists Releasing

The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.

With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.

In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.

In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.

3

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Mister America
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.

Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.

The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.

The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”

An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.

Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.

All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.

That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.

Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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