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



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)


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: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma.




Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.




Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.




What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.




Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.




Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.




Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.




47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.




Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival

At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.




Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.

The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.

From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.

Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.

Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.



Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson

Altered States

100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.

Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)

A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson

Flash Gordon

98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson

The Invisible Man

97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith

The Brother from Another Planet

96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)

A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson

Days of Eclipse

95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith

Voyage to the End of the Universe

94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)

While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene

The Thing from Another World

93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager

The World’s End

92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager

Liquid Sky

91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez

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