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Understanding Screenwriting #86: Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve

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Understanding Screenwriting #86: Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve

Coming Up in This Column: Kawasaki’s Rose, Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve, Page Eight, Enlightened, but first…

Fan Mail: Glad to see from David Ehrenstein’s comments on US#85 that he finally thinks I am doing something right by getting into Preston Sturges’s work. David is right that Sturges’s “direction is part of the writing process.” See below how that happens on The Lady Eve.

Kawasaki’s Rose (2009. Written by Petr Jarchovský. 100 minutes.)

Wild Strawberries meets The Lives of Others: This film, which is finally getting an American release, gets off to what I found was an unsettling start. It is a Czech film about a psychiatrist who stood up to the Communist regime in the ‘70s, but the opening shots are of a very wide river that seems to open into the ocean. There are several ocean-going ships along the river and bridges large enough for them to pass under. Nice shots, but the Czech Republic is a land-locked country. Some nice rivers, but none go to the ocean. So where are we? What struck me about the river and the bridges is that the place looked awfully like Gothenberg in Sweden. I have never been there, but my wife’s grandfather was a well-known Swedish painter in the area. We have several prints of his paintings of the river and harbor on our walls.

But soon we are clearly in the Czech Republic. A television crew is interviewing the psychiatrist, Pavel Josek. He has been awarded the Memory of the Nation Medal for his stand against the Communists. The interview team includes his son-in-law Ludek and Ludek’s mistress Radka. Ludek has always resented Pavel, whom he feels looks down on him, which may or may not be the case. Ludek brings Radka to meet Lucie, Pavel’s daughter. Typical guy: he thinks he can work out some kind of arrangement with his wife and his mistress. So we are in family territory here, not unlike the set-up of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), where the professor is getting an award.

But at 35 minutes into the film, Ludeck shows up with Pavel’s file from the old days. Well, yes, Pavel was cleared of any hint of collaboration with the old regime. But this is the complete file. Does Ludek, who has betrayed Lucie, now betray the father-in-law he resents? Yes, and Ludek, who has seemed to be a major character in the film virtually disappears. Radka, who has seemed smarter and more ruthless than Ludek all along, starts finding people mentioned in the file. And who is Kafka? Not the novelist, but the interrogator who got Pavel to work for them. And what did Pavel do? He arranged for his now-wife Jana’s boyfriend at the time, an artist named Borek, to be hospitalized. Why? Because Pavel liked Jana before and she was now pregnant with Borek’s child. And just to make it more complicated, Borek did not want to marry Jana or have anything to do with the child. Yeah, the child is Lucie. Borek managed to escape the country, all hills and woods, and is living in…yep, you guessed it, Gothenberg, with its open waterways and the sea. Never has landscape seemed as political as it does in this film.

So we then get one of the most unnerving sequences I’ve seen in years: we intercut between Kafka, an aging version of the Stasi officer Weisler in The Lives of Others (2006), telling how he interrogates people and Borek being interviewed in Sweden about the same events. What is so dazzling about the sequence is Jarchovský has given Kafka a straightforward explanation of how you get people to talk. No waterboarding or torture, but just collecting information and using it against the person. It is a perfect lesson in how it’s done, but I hope to God that no present or future interrogators learn from. Well, maybe it’s OK if our side does it.

And we are still only halfway through the film. When Lucie finds out she takes her daughter to Sweden to meet Borek, her father and the girl’s grandfather. Layers of emotions begin to unfold among all the characters. Yes, there were betrayals, but going to Sweden worked out well for Borek. And Pavel’s betrayal of Borek appears to have made him more intent on resisting the Communists afterwards. Would he have done what he did later if he did not feel at least some guilt at what he had done?

Borek comes back to Sweden for the awarding of the medal to Pavel. We learn it was Borek who designed the award. The final scene is Borek and the family having dinner after the ceremony. Borek reads off a long list of names he could have called Pavel, but then says he is not going to use them. The end. Not quite. There is a coda afterwards with Kafka that is just as chilling as his earlier scene.

Petr Jarchovský has been writing screenplays since 1991, and this one was directed by Jan Hrebejk. They have collaborated on several films before, most notably Divided We Fall (2000) about love and betrayal during the German occupation. As I came out of Kawasaki’s Rose, I felt it was not quite up to Divided We Fall, but the more I think about it, the better I like it. Nothing like great writing about interesting, flawed characters in the real world.

Tower Heist (2011. Screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, story by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Ted Griffin. 104 minutes.)

Tower Heist

The broth is only lukewarm: And those are just the credited writers. According to a Los Angeles Times story in November there were at least four other writers who worked on it. The idea started over a decade ago when Eddie Murphy suggested doing an all-black version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001). The story evolved into a group of employees in a huge apartment building pulling off a heist, but since most buildings like that have multi-racial staffs, the idea of an all-black version got dropped. The other part of Murphy’s original idea, that people doing the robbery had no idea how to pull it off, remains, and Murphy’s character Slide is now a small-time crook who teaches them how.

As often happens with this much rewriting, the focus gets a little fuzzy. The picture takes an awfully long time to get going as the script establishes the characters and their situation. Arthur Shaw, a Madoff type who lives in the penthouse, had invested the employees’ savings and lost it all. The employees are convinced that he has some running away money stashed in his penthouse. Since most of the employees get fired, they have to find a way to not only break into Shaw’s penthouse, but the building itself. So we get a lot of exposition about the building in the first forty minutes, but more than we actually need. We only should get what we need to know as we watch the heist. Then when the heist starts, it is not as clear as it needs to be who is doing what and why. You know exactly where you are in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1954).

The script does provide some nice scenes, especially for Murphy. He tries to teach his “crew” how to pull this stuff off. He has a nice scene with Odessa, a flirtatious maid from the Caribbean with lock-picking skills. Odessa, by the way, is played by Gabourey Sidibe, a long, funny way from her Precious. And Murphy and Ben Stiller have a great scene in a car talking about their school days. Are you beginning to suspect that director Brett (“rehearsals are for f—s”) Ratner just let Murphy go in these scenes? Maybe, but it might be interesting to see what was in the script they were working from.

The big finish involves a car and several characters dangling off the side of the tower. Better than the tall building scenes in Feet First (1930, see US#85), but nowhere near those in Safety Last (1923).

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011. Written by Sean Durkin. 102 minutes.)

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Well, the setup is not bad: We are in a farm or commune of some kind. Everybody is doing chores. One young girl carefully packs up a few things, sneaks into the woods. And runs like hell. She eventually gets to sort-of civilization and calls her sister Lucy, whom she has not seen in years. The sister picks her up in her car and takes her to the nice, modern house on a lake she shares with her husband Ted. Lucy lets her sister, whom she calls Martha, stay as long as she likes to recover from…well, what? Here’s where the script begins to go downhill.

Martha doesn’t tell them anything about what happened to her. And Lucy is too polite to ask. So Martha mopes around the house. And swims nude in the lake when people can see her. Mopes some more. Learns how to drive Ted’s boat. Mopes some more. Meanwhile we get flashbacks of her at the commune, which we begin to learn is really a cult. The cult leader is Patrick, nicely played by John Hawkes as a quiet, seemingly nice fellow who decides Martha should be called Marcy May. We see some of the less pleasant activities of the cult, as in Patrick having sex with whomever he wants, but voices are seldom raised. Marcy May does go along on a robbery attempt that ends in murder, but we are not sure if that was what drove her to escape. There is essentially no build to any of the characters, no development or revelations, and no forward movement to the story. One could take most of the scenes in the middle of the film and shuffle them around in any order you like.

Finally, five minutes before the credits begin, after Martha has a fit at a party Lucy and Ted are giving, Lucy angrily asks Martha, “What the fuck happened to you?” Excuse me, five minutes before the credits? That moment should have been about five minutes into the film. The story should have been how Martha recovers, either with professional help or just by being at Lucy’s, but all we get is the moping.

Elizabeth Olsen has been getting raves for her performance as Martha etc., and not without justification. She is fascinating in the beginning, and she has a face that registers every emotion. The script does not support the performance in that it does not give her a variety of emotions to register. Olsen is a terrific actress, but even the best need a script they can work from.

Ah, one other minor point. Late in the cult flashbacks someone calls Martha/Marcy May “Marlene,” but we have no idea why. In answer to Lucy’s question, sloppy writing is what happened to her.

The Lady Eve (1941. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on the short story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe. 97 minutes.)

The Lady Eve

The Sturges Project, Take Three: First of all, if you are not aware of what I am up to with the Sturges Project, read the first two takes in US#85 to get some of the background. Or not, as you wish. You can catch up with me quick enough, especially if you are a Sturges fan.

When The Great McGinty was still shooting in early 1940, William Le Baron, the studio head, asked Sturges for a second project. Sturges decided on what became Christmas in July (1940), but one other project he considered was this one, which he took up after July. He had actually worked on the script for producer Albert Lewin in 1938. It was originally conceived as a star vehicle for Claudette Colbert, but after working with Barbara Stanwyck on Remember the Night (1940: See US#38), he told Stanwyck that he was going to write a great comedy for her. She said later, “I told him that I never get great comedies” (quoted in James Curtis’s Between Flops). It’s true, and given the work she does here and in Ball of Fire later the same year, it’s hard to understand why.

Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges was unable to find out where, if ever, Hoffe’s story had been published. It may just have been sold directly to Paramount. By Henderson’s account, it is an incredibly complicated piece about Kitty Ardelaire, the “one bad hat” in a British family who runs away with a horse dealer, has twin daughters, one of whom dies. Kitty continues telling her British family the dead daughter is alive so she can collect support checks from the family. Kitty and the surviving daughter Salome return to England, run a card game that is raided by the police. The family cuts off the money, but Kitty has Salome pretend to be the dead Sheba, who returns to the bosom of the family. Salome/Sheba marries a nice young man, but he takes up with a notorious woman. Then the man meets Salome in a club, thinking she is Salome, and the two of them go off with her mother to America. The only things in the story that survives into The Lady Eve are the parent/daughter card players, the women pretending to be somebody, and a steamship. There is a reason why it’s called adaptation, folks.

Henderson found in the files a treatment (he thought it might be just a synopsis, but it varies too much from the Hoffe story to be that) by Jeanne Bartlett. Henderson was not able to find anything out about Bartlett, but then he was working in the ‘80s before the IMDb. She was an actress and writer, who has story and/or screenplay credits on three films in the ‘40s. She acted in Werewolf of London in 1935 and wrote Man-Eater of Kumaon in 1948. Her treatment cut all the backstory of the family and started with the romance. Salome meets a stuffy British aristocrat and seduces him after he complains to a mutual friend of theirs that she is vulgar. He is in love with her, but appalled at his own taste. The gambling house is raided and Salome pretends to be her dead sister, attacking the aristocrat when he shows up for seducing her sister. He starts courting “Sheba” but ends up telling her it is Salome that he loves. He tells “Sheba” that he knew all along she was really Salome, but none of us believe it. Well, we are getting a bit closer to Eve. As Henderson points out, the focus shifted from the aristocrat being the sexual adventurer in Hoffe’s story, to the woman in Bartlett’s version. (You can believe that Bartlett went on to write The Man-Eater of Kumaon, although the man-eater in that one is a tiger, not Barbara Stanwyck.) For some reason that appealed to Sturges. The women in both McGinty and Christmas are much better behaved. Neither Catherine in McGinty nor Betty in Christmas are particularly sexual creatures. Both are supportive of the man in their lives, even if Betty does disagree with Johnny from time to time. The love stories in both those films are not the main plots.

One reason Sturges may have been ready to let her rip is that both McGinty and Christmas had B picture budgets, and without major stars. Dick Powell, who plays Jimmy in Christmas, was finished with his boy crooner days at Warners and not yet into his private eye phase. He gives a good performance, but it’s a minor star performance at best. Now that Sturges was moving up to A budgets he could demand stars. He fought for Stanwyck as Jean/Eve and agreed to let himself be loaned out to 20th Century-Fox for a film in exchange for Henry Fonda as Charles. Even if the negotiations had not been completed as he was writing the script, he knew he was writing star parts. And boy, did he ever. There is the usual Sturges stock company: Demarest as Mugsy, Charles’s valet; Al Bridge does wonders with his three or four lines as opposed to the great scene Sturges wrote for him in Christmas. There are also newcomers: Eugene Pallette in, alas, the only Sturges film he ever did, as Charles’s father; Eric Blore in the first of only two Sturges films he did, as a British con artist. But the secondary characters are just that, secondary to Stanwyck and Fonda.

You know you are in A movie territory when the main titles, which Sturges writes “will be in an airbrush rendition of the Garden of Eden complete with snake,” are replaced in the film with a delightfully animated main title sequence. He wrote elaborate main title ideas in McGinty and Christmas, but they were not used, presumably for budgetary reasons. Sturges’s descriptions as camera directions are much more simplified and are more like things to keep in mind. When he sets up Jean and her father, Colonel Harrington in the bar before she trips Charles, he writes, “i.e., I must be able to SHOOT PAST Jean AT Charles while she is looking at him, and Jean must able to trip him up as he passes.” The trip does not happen until late into the scene, but we do need to get a sense of the geographical layout.

Sturges’s pacing is a little slower than in Christmas, but that’s because he focuses on Stanwyck and Fonda. When they go back to her cabin after she has been scared by Emma, his snake (a nice rhythmical shift in the script: she’s been in charge from the first trip and before, but how he’s as much in charge as he ever gets), he “takes her in his arms and seats her on the chaise longue,” but Sturges does not say where he sits. In an inspired bit of direction, he has Charles sit on the floor so Jean is above him, hovering over him. She plays with his hair and head as they talk and he looks totally uncomfortable. Once the scene gets going, Sturges does three minutes and fifteen seconds of it in a single take. Having Stanwyck and Fonda, Sturges knows he can do that. We get here and throughout the film a much greater number of closeups than we did in the two previous films. Sturges knows the material and the actors are up to it. It also changes the tone of the material from the script to the film. The film, because we are so physically close to the two “lovers,” becomes more romantic than the script seems on reading it.

The skill of the two stars is, I think, one reason that Sturges cut a scene that would seem to be a crucial one. At the end of the boat trip, after Jean and her father have seduced and cheated Charles, he learns from Mugsy that they are con persons. He pretends to Jean that he has known all along, and she is upset because she thinks he conned her. As they are getting off the boat, Jean is telling her father how irritated she was that “we let that sucker get off Scott free.” Colonel Harrington pulls out the check that Charles wrote for his losses and that the Colonel appeared to tear up. He didn’t of course, and in the script Jean and her father go to a bank in New York to cash it. The teller is a little suspicious, but Charles is at the bank as well and tells him the check is good. The bank scene was shot, but cut in the editing (which is why there is a jump cut in the final scene of the film in her cabin: in the script she asks Charles “Why didn’t you take me in your arms that day in the bank…Why etc.” The words “in the bank” have been cut and you can see the slight jump if you know what to look for). I suspect that the previous “Scott free” scene was enough when the film was cut together because of the romanticism of the Jean/Charles scenes before it that Stanwyck and Fonda give their full force to.

Sturges the screenwriter has shaped two latter sequences in the film particularly well. Our first scene in the home of Charles’s father, Mr. Pike, shows the chaos of the house as it prepares for a party that night. Mr. Pike’s attempt to get breakfast in all of this gives the scene a structure so the scene is not the chaos the house is in. The scene is greatly condensed in the film, as is the second sequence. Jean shows up as the British aristocrat Lady Eve. Mugsy is the first to suspect, of course, and we follow her entrance into the house as Mugsy watches through the windows. I suspect both sequences were condensed because both are awfully late in the picture for all the filigree Sturges puts into the writing.

Jean gets her revenge on Charles by marrying him, then on the train on their honeymoon she tells him about all her, “Eve’s,” lovers. He gets off the train in the middle of nowhere. Now, are all those stories true? We don’t really know, but we suspect Jean if not Eve has had an active social life. So in standard Hollywood morality she should pay for her sins. But she doesn’t. She ends up back on a ship and meets Charles again, this time as Jean, and he is happy to see her. He did not want the wild Eve, he’s perfectly happy with the wild Jean. So much for American men wanting innocent, wholesome women. And Sturges is not done yet. She lures him into her cabin, although he insists he has no right to be there because he’s married. She replies, “But so am I, darling, so am I,” and closes the door. I assume that since they are actually married to each other, Sturges got this scene past the Production Code, but he was skating near the edge. Later, of course, he would go over the edge.

Page Eight (2011. Written by David Hare. 99 minutes.)

Page Eight

All together now: you write good parts, you get good actors: David Hare, one of the great contemporary British playwrights, wrote this intending it to be a feature film, but nobody would give him the money for a theatrical film. So he made it for British television, and it showed up recently on PBS and is now out on DVD. Even on a television budget he got a cast that includes Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Saskia Reeves, Felicity Jones, Ewen Bremner, Alice Krig, and Ralph Fiennes. And none of them are underemployed.

Hare is great at writing about British politics and culture, as in his 1978 play Plenty, adapted by Hare into a film in 1985. The play and film deal with post-World War II disillusionment among the spying classes. His 1990 play Racing Demons looked inside the current state of the Church of England. Page Eight takes into MI5, the Secret Service that protects Britain from spies and terrorists in Britain (MI6, its more glamorous cousin, sends spies into other countries). Benedict Baron (Gambon) comes into possession of a file he passes on to two of his subordinates, Johnny (Nighy) and Jill (Davis). They are to read it and be prepared to discuss it with MI5’s boss, the Home Secretary (Reeves). Johnny is the only one who reads it thoroughly and discovers on page eight a couple of lines that suggest that the Prime Minister (Finnes, great in one day’s work) knew, not just guessed as everybody else did, that the Americans had their hidden prisons where they tortured people. And the PM got information from the Yanks that he did not pass on to MI5. That’s really bad form.

Baron dies and Johnny tries to figure out what Baron wanted him to do with the information. Needless to say, there are betrayals of a variety of sorts as several MI5 types are perfectly willing for career reasons to kiss the PM’s ass. To confuse Johnny more, a woman in the neighboring apartment, Nancy (Weisz), is taking an interest in him and he can’t quite figure out why. So you have a collection of characters keeping secrets from each other, which gives the actors wonderful scenes to play. Hare also directed, which he does from time to time, and like Sturges in Eve he knows what he’s got, both with the scenes and the cast.

Obviously the PM is inspired at least in part by Tony Blair and his sucking up to the Yanks on the Iraq war, so you can see why Hare portrays him as an asshole. I guess I am not really surprised that Hare did not allow the PM to make a case for his actions by comparing himself to Winston Churchill in World War II. The Brits broke the German codes and had massive amounts of information on the enemy. Great. Except if you use too much of it, or in the wrong way, the Germans would have figured out their codes were broken and change them. The general policy was that the Brits would not take action on a piece of intelligence unless they had confirmation from a second source. But what happens when British lives are at stake and the Ultra decrypts are the only thing you have? Churchill had to make some tough, nasty decisions on that and Hare’s PM could have made the case that he was protecting the source of information on terrorists. Even so, it not only bad form, but not smart not to trust your own intelligence agency.

Enlightened (2011. Various episodes, all written by Mike White. 30 minutes each)

Enlightened

I’m still not sure: I have been putting off writing about this new HBO series because it is a little difficult to nail down. Most series make their franchise clear early on: doctors will save lives on medical shows; police will arrest bad guys on cop shows; defense lawyers will get them off on lawyer shows. In Enlightened, it’s a little trickier, but here that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Amy had a nervous breakdown and has gone off to a rehab center in Hawaii. She has done New Age stuff (sitting around the beach talking about her feelings) and has come back to the Inland Empire of California (east of Los Angeles) enlightened. She tries to get her job at a big company back, but her assistant has already taken that job. To keep Amy from filing a lawsuit against the company, she is assigned to a group doing what looks to be data entry in the basement. So is it a workplace comedy? Not really. Sometimes we are with that group and sometimes not. A recent interview with Mike White really did not clear up matters that much.

What I take to be the franchise of Enlightened is that White is showing how somebody who becomes “enlightened” has difficulties dealing with the realities of the world when those realities do not match hers. This has always struck me as a problem with a lot of rehab and self-esteem programs. Once you work out all your problems, how do you deal with the real world that may have a lot of ways at looking at life that are not yours. Twenty years ago my wife and I had dinner with a couple that had just recently gotten married. They both were in twelve step programs and had done all the “work,” but they really had no idea from that how to live with another person in a marriage. My wife and I gave them what advice we could. I am not sure we should take any credit for it, but they are still married, and quite happily too. But it took a lot of effort on their part. A former student of mine, Tony-award winner Tonya Pinkins, wrote a book a few years ago called Get Over Yourself, which was aimed at women. Tonya was showing them how to take charge of their lives and not let men, other women, society, etc define their lives. Good and useful book, but in an email to Tonya I asked her if her next book was going to be about how to get along with the rest of the world once you have gotten over yourself. She never replied and has not brought it up in the conversations we have had since.

So you can see, I am ready for a show that demonstrates how difficult taking over your own life can be, and that’s the sweet spot of Enlightened. Amy is convinced she is all right with the world, but she’s not. When she tries to talk to her ex-husband in the pilot, he accuses her of coming over with all that “self-help spiritual shit.” She calls her former boss, with whom she had an affair, telling him she is driving by his house. He comes out and tells her off. She accidentally hits his car with hers and reacts to it by asking, “Do you want my insurance?”

In “The Weekend” she and her ex-husband Levi go off on a group river-rafting trip on the Kern River. They enjoy the scenery, especially Amy in her New-Agey way. Then she discovers Levi has brought his stash of drugs along, and she throws them in the river. He is furious, makes a scene, and insists they leave the group to go into town where he scores some more.

In “Sandy,” Amy’s friend from rehab shows up for a visit. So far Amy has been dealing with people who don’t get where she is coming from, or maybe get it and just don’t want to be part of that world. Sandy is exactly like Amy, which could be bad writing, but it isn’t. Laura Dern has beautifully captured the emotional hairpin turns Amy makes, and Robin Wright gives a mirror image of that. It’s a great double act. So you think they would hit if off, but as close as they are, there are still personal differences that rub Amy the wrong way. Amy’s mom Helen, who doesn’t have much sympathy for the new Amy, has even less for Sandy. So Amy takes Sandy over to Levi’s, since he has a spare room. When Amy can’t contact them, she begins to think Sandy and Levi are getting it on. She goes to Levi’s and hears what she thinks are the sounds of sex, which matches an earlier scene when Helen thinks she hears Amy and Sandy having sex, but then sees they are just doing yoga. Amy opens the door and sees Sandy giving Levi a massage. Sandy has been talking to him all day and getting him to “open up.” After Sandy leaves the room, Levi says she is like a “Nazi interrogator.” Like Helen, Levi does not want to spend all day talking about his emotions. People like Amy and Sandy don’t realize that other people have their own lives to live and don’t necessarily want to live them the way Amy and Sandy live theirs. Amy is, as she would be in real life, an extremely annoying person, but then she’ll have a moment of enlightenment or bliss (on the river, for example) so you cannot completely hate her. I think, but I’m still not sure. Maybe I just need to get over myself.

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: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

3

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

3

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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