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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

Coming Up in This Column: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, Hell on Wheels, The Closer, but first…

Fan Mail: Happy New Year, and welcome to pigs flying and Hell freezing over: David Ehrenstein actually had complimentary things to say about stuff in this column TWO columns in a row.

And thanks to “Keith” for clearing up where the “Marlene” in Martha Marcy May Marlene came from. I can now sleep better at night.

J. Edgar (2011. Written by Dustin Lance Black. 137 minutes.)

On the one hand…: Writing about Dustin Lance Black’s script for Milk (2008; see US#14) I gave Black a hard time for the lack of characterization for most people in the film. It was an example of the “characters” in a documentary, in this case the 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk, being more interesting than his fictionalized versions. I am glad to see the awards, including the Oscar, that he won for that script did not prevent him from trying to improve his work. The characterizations in this script are terrific, from his version of J. Edgar Hoover down to the smaller parts. This gives us a wide range of great character scenes. We see Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) in a couple of doozies. Throughout the film we get great scenes between Hoover and his second-in-command Clyde Tolson. I particularly liked two Tolson scenes. In the first Tolson kisses J. Edgar and the latter reacts violently. It could easily have become camp, but Black, DiCaprio, Armie Hammer (as Tolson), and director Clint Eastwood keep it from getting out of hand. The second is late in the picture when an aging Tolson “corrects” Hoover’s recollections and we see what really happened in multiple previous scenes. Those scenes were flashbacks as J. Edgar is dictating his memoirs.

One reason the first of those two Tolson scenes works so well is that Black deals with Hoover’s possible homosexual feelings in wonderfully subtle ways. It would have been way too easy to make him a simple closet case, but Black goes into why Hoover had trouble admitting to any homosexual feelings. Black gets that across by giving us a sense of the attitudes of the time and how they affected individuals. I pinged on the script of Milk for often being politically “on the nose,” but that is definitely not the case here, or at least not culturally “on the nose.” The film spends most of its time in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘60s, so we do get a sense of how things changed over that period of time. In the ‘20s and ‘30s Hoover is almost an heroic figure as he establishes the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We see him fight for fingerprinting and other scientific crime-fighting techniques that old-timers put down, but we also see him be very picky about the personal details of his agents. Television writers I talked to about working on the ‘60s series The F.B.I. told me that Hoover was still that way. At one point a writer wanted to give Inspector Erskine a cold, but Hoover insisted F.B.I. agents did not get colds. Although there were still very few black agents in the Bureau in the late ‘60s, Hoover was agreeable to having a black agent on the show, probably to make the Bureau more modern than it was at the time.

Since Hoover ran the Bureau for fifty years, there is a lot that is left out, enough to make another film. We get nothing from the ‘40s (capturing Nazi spies) or the ‘50s (searching for Communists). I missed those periods, but Black is probably smart not in include them in an already long film. By dropping them, he may give us a better sense of the changes in attitudes between the early and later years. If you are jumping from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, the visual changes alone will help shift our minds a bit before anybody says or does anything.

On the other hand, as much as I like a lot of this film, it is in one way a complete mess. Black is constantly cutting back and forth from time periods and it is hard to adjust to, even given the visual clues. He will give you a great scene, say one between Hoover and his mom, then cut to some different time period. He will get us involved in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, then not pay it off until we have time-jumped several times. We are constantly losing the emotional threads, which takes us out of the picture. I admire Clint Eastwood a lot as a director, but handling this kind of time-jumping has never been his strong suit. You can see what I mean in Bird (1988) and Hereafter (2010).

Hugo (2011. Screenplay by John Logan, inspired by the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. 126 minutes.)

Hugo

Lumpy: We sweep into a Paris train station in the 1930s and meet Hugo, a boy of about ten who lurks in the upper reaches of the station. His uncle used to keep the clocks running, but when he disappeared, Hugo continued the job, unbeknownst to anybody in the station. So he spies on the other people in the station, which gives us good visuals: the people who work there and Hugo’s reactions to them. OK, fine, but the film takes forever to establish all that. Hugo loses a notebook he cherishes, and Georges, the old man running a newstand, refuses to give it back. Hugo will not tell him what’s in the book. And doesn’t tell him. And doesn’t tell him. It is 45 minutes into the film before we find out about the automaton that Hugo is repairing, based on his dead father’s notes in the notebook. Georges tells Hugo he burned the notebook, but Georges’s ward, Isabelle, gives it back to Hugo and they become buddies. It is an hour into the film before we find out that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, the great pioneering French filmmaker. Through Tabbard, a French film scholar, we get a flashback of a visit Tabbard made to Méliès’s studio as a boy. It is beautiful recreation of the studio, but Tabbard is a minor character, so we wonder, why are we getting his flashback? Especially since later Hugo and Isabelle persuade Georges to tell them about his work, and we see essentially the same material. It would have been much more dramatic if we saw it through Hugo and Isabelle’s eyes as Georges tells us all about it.

It has also taken us half an hour to get from finding out who Georges is to getting his version. Like so much in the film, it could go quicker, a lot quicker. Much as I love, film historian that I am, the recreations of Méliès’s studio and work, there is almost too much of them, since it takes us away from Hugo. The movie shifts from being Hugo’s movie to Georges’s movie. I know the filmmakers love old films, and as much as I love luxuriating in the material about Méliès, it throws the film a bit out of whack. And as a film historian, I also noticed some historical glitches. Méliès’s career did not end because World War I changed audience attitudes, as the film states, but because Méliès kept making the same kinds of films over and over and over again. His 1912 film A Voyage to the North Pole is hardly different from his classic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. He simply did not grow with his audiences. Now there’s a lesson for filmmakers.

Two other minor details. Some critics have complained that the character of the Station Inspector seems like a slapstick intrusion, but to me he fit nicely into the film, and I think the director did a very nice job getting Sacha Baron Cohen to give a nuanced performance. The other detail: Hugo is in 3D, and because the director (Martin Scorsese) and his cinematographer (Robert Richardson) know film as well as any two guys around, the use of 3D to give us a sense of the space of the station is brilliant. Psst, don’t tell Marty I said that. He’ll think I am going soft in my old age, although based on some evidence below, I may be.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941. Written by Preston Sturges. 90 minutes.)

Sullivan's Travels

The Sturges Project, Take Four: After the success of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July (both 1940), Sturges was afraid he was due for a flop with The Lady Eve (1941), but it turned out to be a big hit as well. Zanuck had loaned Henry Fonda for Paramount for Eve in return for Sturges coming to Fox to make a film. Sturges passed another of his trunk items, Song of Joy, to Zanuck, who thought it was second rate and guessed that it had come out of the trunk. The Zanuck-Sturges collaboration would have to wait. According to Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, Song of Joy was something of a meta-cinema satire on Hollywood, with Sturges constantly pulling the rug out from under us as to which movie we are watching. That appears to be the only element that he brought over to Sullivan’s Travels. According to Sturges’s biographer James Curtis (in Between Flops), Sturges intended to make fun of directors whom he felt were getting too much into sending messages. Curtis does not indicate which directors Sturges had in mind, but there were plenty around. Capra is name-checked in the film, and Sullivan’s first name John may be a reference to John Ford. Sullivan’s middle name is Lloyd, which may be a reference to Sturges’s Paramount stable mate, Frank Lloyd. Sturges started writing Sullivan’s Travels in February 1941 and he started shooting in early May. Henderson points out that there are fewer changes from draft to draft in Travels than there are in earlier Sturges screenplays. Partly that was because it was not based on previous scripts, and partly it was because Sturges was getting more confident. He may also have been getting sloppier.

Henderson mentions there are a number of logical holes in the script. We start with a clip from a melodrama that supposed to be about the conflict of labor and capital, but in the office scene that follows it is never made clear whether this is a film somebody else made, or whether it is the one Sullivan wants to make. It appears to be the former, and it also appears that Sullivan wants to make a film of a book, but he hardly mentions it in the office scene. Henderson also seems a bit huffy about the mixture of seriousness and slapstick in the film. As I was reading his essay I was bothered by his comments, since Travels is one of my favorite Sturges films. Then I read the screenplay. It simply did not live up to the film.

Oh my God! What happened? Partly it may have been that Henderson’s essay turned me hypercritical, and I began to find other inconsistencies, e.g., why in the chain gang sequences is the Trusty carrying around a newspaper that must be at least a couple of weeks old? The classic opening scene in the studio office seemed as good as I remembered it, but then the script becomes, as Henderson noted, uneven. You could defend the script against that on the grounds that it is a picaresque tale, but in the script I found a lack of connections. I had an even bigger problem when Sullivan meets The Girl. I always got on my screenwriting students for not giving their characters, especially the majors ones, names, and here is the great Preston Sturges doing just that. There did not seem to be much going on between Sullivan and The Girl in terms of what we will watch, and I was never clear in the script what she was after. She does not seem sexually interested in Sullivan, and she is very casual about his being a big director who might give her aspiring actress a break.

It may also have been that I am simply getting old and not as perceptive about screenplays as I used to be. I have always prided myself on being able to spot what is playable in a script and what isn’t. I have been wrong before, of course, as in looking at a middle draft of the screenplay of Jaws (1975) and thinking the shark jumping up on the boat and eating Quint would be totally ridiculous on film. Or, it occurred to me that this may be one of those very rare cases (see the notes in US#65 on Casanova Brown [1944] for an example) where the film is better than the script.

As you can imagine, I then sat down to watch the film with a combination of dread and hopeful anticipation. The film gets off to a rousing start with the clip from the drama. It does not look like anything else we have seen in Sturges. It’s visually darker, for one thing. Sturges’s cameraman on The Great McGinty was William Mellor, who had a distinguished career shooting such films as Giant (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), but had been very condescending to Sturges. The cameraman on Christmas in July and The Lady Eve was Victor Millner, who had shot films for De Mille (The Crusades [1935] and The Plainsman [1936]), but also shot 1932’s Trouble in Paradise for Lubtisch. Milner obviously learned how to fill the screen from De Mille. In the De Mille films he fills the screen with props and set decoration; in the Sturges films he fills them with Sturges’s stock company of character actors. Milner was unavailable for Travels and was replaced by John Seitz, whom we talked about a little bit in the comments on The Badlanders in US#58. He could handle the mixture of light and dark Sturges wanted in the film, and he makes this scene dark but still with the energetic action Sturges stages. It may not look like a Sturges scene, but it feels like one. That’s not the last time we will see that in this picture.

Seitz was also not above goading Sturges. As they got ready to shoot the studio office scene, Sturges was considering the various angles he might use and Seitz said, “I dare you to do it all in one take.” Sturges replied, “Well, I have never refused a dare in my life.” Sturges had written the role of Sullivan specifically for Joel McCrea, who insisted that nobody wrote scripts for him; they wrote scripts for Gary Cooper and any that Cooper turned down went to McCrea. McCrea had only had limited stage experience and most movie actors were not required to do long takes. But he was game, after Sturges assured him that if it didn’t work they could cut it up into smaller segments. So they shot it in a four-minute take, which is what you see in the picture. Like the Bildocker-Parker scene in Christmas (see US#85) the result is a scene that could only be in a movie written and directed by Sturges. McCrea’s Sullivan is a slightly pompous guy whom McCrea gives a likeable quality to. He is arguing to be allowed to make a serious picture. Sturges has given him not one but two studio executives to fight. Why two? One would make the scene more focused. But two makes it more lively as they double team Sullivan, so the dialogue goes back and forth in a zingier way. And Sturges has made LeBrand (probably named after his studio patron William Le Baron) and Hadrian not unsympathetic. They are not above comparing their hardscrabble backgrounds with Sullivan’s privileged life. And here’s the real reason you have two of them: after Sullivan leaves, LeBrand and Hadrian call each other for lying through their teeth about their poor younger days. McCrea may have not had much stage experience, but he recognized great dialogue when he read it. He said of Sturges’s scripts, “He wrote dialogue I could just look at once and do.” In this scene the writing is wonderfully poetic, with recurring phrases, like LeBrand’s insistence on having “a little sex” in Sullivan’s movie. Next time you watch the scene, count the number of times the phrase comes up, and who says it and how. Well, I was relieved that scene worked on film at least. The first two scenes also reminded me of the varied visual styles of the three opening scenes of Citizen Kane, which was just going into release in May 1941 when Sturges started shooting. Kane probably did not influence the script, but it may have made Sturges and Seitz realize you how many varieties of visual looks you could have within the same film.

Next we see Sullivan preparing to go out as a hobo with only ten cents in his pocket. His Butler, played by Robert Greig, who appeared in three Sturges films, objects to treating poverty as simply something to be studied. It is one of those smart off-the-wall speeches that Struges wrote better than anybody, and Sturges gives it its due by shooting Greig in closeup. Sullivan is then on the road and we get the slapstick scene with the “land yacht,” the trailer the studio has following him. It seems a little too frantic, but the script and the film have established that we are going to see everything in this film. Struges does not stage it as well as some other directors might. Then, in the script, Sullivan is picked up by Mr. Carson, who asks him about his travels. Carson turns out to be the local sheriff and threatens to throw him in jail for vagrancy. The scene was cut from the picture, perhaps for length, but it may have been too much foreshadowing of the hobo scenes later on. It may also have been cut because it was too similar to the scene with the truck driver who gives Tom Joad a ride at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Both Carson and the trucker notice that Tom and Sullivan’s hands are not working man hands.

The film goes from Sullivan escaping the land yacht directly to the scenes with Miz Zeffie and her sister Usula. In the script the sequence seems like just a picaresque diversion, but the scene in which the three of them are watching a movie is developed with a little more detail in the film than in the script. It becomes the forerunner of the famous movie scene at the end of the film. Sullivan escapes the sister in another slapstick scene and ends up…back in Hollywood, which becomes a nice running gag in the film as well as a unifying element in the film. The movie scene and the returning to Hollywood work on screen as connective material.

He goes into a diner and meets The Girl. Sturges had passed over a lot of other female stars to go with Veronica Lake. He had seen her in the rushes of I Wanted Wings (1941) and liked how she read her lines in a way that dominated the scene. She stole that picture when it was released. And she was perfect for the part of The Girl. And here, my children, is why Preston Sturges is PRESTON STURGES and Brian Henderson and Tom Stempel aren’t. Lake was known in her later starring parts, such as in This Gun For Hire (1942), for her sexual insolence. What Sturges saw was that he could have her use that insolence in a non-sexual way. Yes, it’s in the lines, but Sturges’s understanding of how she could deliver those lines makes it play on film. As a writer and director, you have to understand the dynamics between the lines and the performer. The lines are not bad, but you have to have been Sturges to know how they needed to be read. The script is good, but subtle in a way we do not expect in Sturges. And that kind of subtlety is tricky for a reader, even one as experienced as I am, to get. The Girl is constantly challenging Sullivan, and he and we never know what she is going to say to him. Sturges and McCrea didn’t know either. Lake had already begun to develop a terrible reputation, and she showed why on this production. She was late and hardly ever knew her lines. By the time she got them after several takes, McCrea, who was better on the early takes, was worn out. Lake is the reason the film went over schedule and over budget. She is also one of the many reasons the picture works. When McCrea was offered the lead in her 1942 film I Married a Witch, he turned it down, saying, according to Robert Osborne, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”

So Sullivan and The Girl go on adventures, always ending up back in Hollywood. When they hop aboard a freight, the picture begins to darken, visually and emotionally. At one point Sturges and Seitz have a long montage of Sullivan and The Girl walking through the slums of a big city. After all the non-stop dialogue, it is strikingly visual. The print quality of Travels on the boxed set is not top drawer, and I suspect, given their reputation, the stand-alone DVD of Travels from the Criterion Collection is probably better, but I can assure you that neither one can hold a candle to a great 35mm print. Once at LACC we rented a 35mm print from Universal and ended up getting a brand new one, fresh out of the lab, without a mark on it. My projectionist and I sat there slack-jawed at the brilliance of Seitz’s cinematography. His ability to combine of light and dark provide another method of holding the film together.

Henderson points out that Sturges, in his direction, does not give us a close-up of the hobo who steals Sullivan’s shoes so that we will recognize him later. But I think Sturges is, once again, ahead of Henderson and me. Sturges understands that we do not have to see that it is the same guy. We can assume that it was, or, given that this is a picaresque tale, we may think the shoes have changed hands several times before they show up on the bum who is killed.

Sullivan ends up on a chain gang, and who is The “Mr,” the man in charge? Our old friend Al Bridge, here not in a comic part as we have seen him, but as a real hard-ass. And he is just as good in this as he was in those parts. And because we “know” from previous Sturges films that he can be funny, Sturges has him laughing the loudest as the chain gang watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in the black church. Jimmy Conlin, the shortest actor in the Sturges stock company (he appears in all eight of the films we will be discussing), gets one of his biggest roles of The Trusty, who has a wonderful scene, shot all in shadows, as he tells Sullivan how to survive, a scene that would not be out of place in any drama of the period.

Watching the Mickey Mouse cartoon is, along with the first scene in the studio office, the best known in Travels. Sturges wrote in the screenplay that on the screen “…we see a silent comedy, possibly Chaplin in The Gold Rush, possibly a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler.” He settled on the Mickey Mouse cartoon. I think Sturges’s direction, and or editing, is a little off in this scene, since he has the audience laughing a lot quicker than we do, but the message is so great we don’t mind too much. When Sturges started writing the script, he had no idea what Sullivan would discover on his travels. Sturges took away everything from Sullivan and discovered that the one thing he still had was his ability to laugh.

So naturally he ends up back in Hollywood and no longer wants to make Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This now irritates the studio people because his adventures have produced great publicity for it. In his final speech, Sullivan says, “…there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh…did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much…but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan…”

When Sullivan’s Travels was completed, the new executives at Paramount liked it, but realized with its tonal shifts it would be a difficult film to sell. So the poster consisted of a drawing of Veronica Lake with her by-now-famous peek-a-boo hairdo, which never really appears in the film. Joel McCrea is nowhere to be found, and the ad line is “Veronica Lake is on the take.” That would have been perfect if the film was The Lady Eve, but it’s not. Audiences who went expecting Eve redux were disappointed and the business never picked up. Pop quiz: how would you sell Sullivan’s Travels to an audience in 1941?

Hell on Wheels (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Hell on Wheels

You’d think…: By now you know I love westerns. And you know I love train movies. For all my reservations about John Ford’s 1924 classic The Iron Horse, I’ve seen it several times. You know from US#30 how I feel about De Mille’s 1939 Union Pacific, but I am probably not yet finished watching it, either. So this new series should have been right up my alley. It is set in the Post Civil War era and like the Ford and De Mille films deals with the Union Pacific building its westward link of the Transcontinental Railroad. I will even buy that the plains of Alberta, Canada, where it is shot, can more or less pass for the American plans of Iowa and Nebraska. But the writing is sorely lacking.

The “Pilot,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, the show’s creators, begins with a man going into church in Washington D.C. He goes into a confessional, but he does not confess. So the man on the other side takes out a gun and shoots him. No, the Catholic Church did not develop a stricter no-confession policy in the 1860s. The shooter is Cullen Bohanan, an ex-Confederate soldier who is hunting down the Union soldiers who killed his wife. He squints under his wide-brimmed hat and seldom smiles, so we are maybe in Outlaw Josey Wales territory. But Cullen is simply not that interesting a character (not a patch on Josey) and Anson Mount, who plays him, does not give us any look into his soul. Cullen joins the railroad to look for the other killers, like The Iron Horse’s Davy Brandon, who is searching for the man who killed his father. Since he had slaves before the war, he is put in charge of the black laborers, including Elam, who does not have much of a characterization either. Durant, the boss of the railroad is a standard corrupt businessman, but not particularly distinctive. The only interesting character in the pilot is Johnson, the yard boss. He is given a very rich performance, better than the script deserves, by Ted Levine, more recently known as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. Johnson knows the whereabouts of the men Cullen is looking for, but just before he can tell Cullen where the men are, Elam kills him. I almost gave up on the show at that instant. Killing off your most interesting character, guys? Jeez.

I went back for two more episodes. The second was “Immoral Mathematics,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, which spends its first 33 minutes with Cullen imprisoned in a boxcar. Oh, like that’s really visual. He makes his escape and ultimately convinces Durant to let him take over Johnson’s job. Cullen’s nemesis in this episode is the Swede, a large man, dressed in black, who is Durant’s enforcer. He is the most interesting character in this episode, so I figured he would not last out the episode. He did. The third was “A New Birth of Freedom,” written by John Shibau. Cullen has found Johnson’s papers, which leads him to thinking he knows where one of his wife’s killers is. So he rides out to find him. Wait a minute. He has just been given the new job of yard boss, and already he’s leaving the yard for several days? And Durant does not fire his ass? Cullen finds Lily, the widow of the railroad surveyor, who was killed by a group of Indians John Ford would have rejected as politically incorrect. Lily has been wandering around in the wilderness, wounded, but smart enough to know that if she ever gets back to the railroad, the tube she holds onto with his late husband’s maps will be a nice bargaining chip. They make it back to the camp just as there is a funeral for her husband and his associates. Wow, a funeral at a railroad camp out on the Great Plains. You and I don’t have to think too hard to imagine what Ford or Stevens or Hawks or Mann or Boetticher or Peckinpah or even H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone (see US#28) could have done with that. Here we get a couple of speeches in a tent. I’m leavin’ Cheyenne, pardners, and lighting out for the Territory.

The Closer (2011. “You Have the Right to Remain Jolly” episode written by James Duff & Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes.)

The Closer

Ho, ho, ho: The Closer has been mostly a dramatic show (Detective Brenda Leigh Johnson and her team solve crimes), and the comic moments come mostly from the great set of supporting characters in Brenda’s team. This episode does deal a bit with the Federal case against her, but it mostly focuses on a much lighter murder case. Buzz, the team’s videographer, and his visiting sister Casey, are at a Santa theme park they used to go to as kids. Santa, in a new twist, is to arrive flying through the sky on a zipline. Somebody has tampered with the equipment, and while he does hit the chimney, it is only to splat against it. There are immediately suspects: the dead Santa Randy was married, but fooling around with one or more of the Elves. His wife and the Elves get into a fight as Brenda and her team arrive. The male members of the team are very taken by Casey, and we get recurring bits of them trying to cozy up to her during the case.

The owner of the park is Santa Jack. He smokes, drinks, and during one drunken talk, alas before he has been Mirandized, almost confesses to fixing the equipment. Is this a perfect part for Fred Willard or not? That’s who they got, and he’s terrific. Buzz is very disappointed to have his Christmas ideals about Santa broken, although Casey, the smarter of the two, is not surprised. It turns out Santa Jack’s niece was trying to kill Jack so she could take over the park and sell it to developers. She goes to jail, and Jack sells the park anyway.

In a one-hour procedural, there is not time for as many Christmas jokes as there are in this year’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but some are wonderful. Willard works his Santa beard as well as Joe Pesci works his hairpiece in JFK (1991). And stay through to the closing tag in which Casey, a TV weatherperson in Seattle, goes through her usual “We’re keeping track of the weather for Santa” bit, and then reacts differently when the camera goes off.

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: Shooting the Mafia Is a Sketchy Tribute to an Iconic Photographer

At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.

2.5

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Shooting the Mafia
Photo: Cohen Media Group

At the center of director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making. The documentary tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia, who captured the brutality of the Cosa Nostra’s stranglehold over Sicily from the 1970s through the 2000s. Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. In one of the film’s juiciest moments, Battaglia, now an 80-something legend, tells of how she’d pretend to sneeze to muffle the sound of a camera. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. Children’s brains are seen splattered against street curbs, old women’s faces frozen in shock, cars upturned, and buildings caved in from explosions. Showing us these pictures, Longinotto illustrates Battaglia’s talent for aestheticizing tragedy, but without sentimentalizing the callousness of violence. The photographer’s compositions are beautiful wails of despair as well as acts of resistance.

Throughout Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto doesn’t entirely realize her one masterful formal conceit. The filmmaker contrasts Battaglia’s pictures with archival news footage of the crime scenes, in effect contrasting a closer approximation of “reality” with still art. In movement and in color, the crime scenes are hideous and offer true testament to the monstrousness of the Cosa Nostra, but as black-and-white stills, they’re imbued with Battaglia’s empathy and need to find grace notes in atrocity. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each. This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry.

Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion. Battaglia’s photographs, and the risk she took going against the Cosa Nostra, are innately impressive. The sexism that she faced, especially as, reportedly, the first female Italian photographer, is obviously of paramount importance to her story, though Longinotto spends nearly a third of Shooting the Mafia’s 94-minute running time on Battaglia’s life as a girl and eventual coming of age after she rebelled against her husband. And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her.

In Shooting the Mafia, we learn that Battaglia married as a teenager and had a family because that’s what you did in the 1940s and ‘50s. From the ‘60s onward, Battaglia lived a sexually and artistically open life, primarily in Palermo, becoming a journalist and a photographer, fraternizing with her younger collaborators. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress. The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. In fact, Longinotto is so eager to celebrate her hero that she also glides past thornier portions of Battaglia’s life, such as the effect that her liberation might’ve had on the children she seems to have left behind. (Her husband is a non-entity.)

The film comes to life whenever it returns to Battaglia’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness. Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Those wide, smug eyes come to haunt the film, especially in an interview clip where Leggio flippantly speaks of crushing “mollusks” and “homosexuals” who come after him, he says, to prove their manhood. The most memorable image in Shooting the Mafia that isn’t shot by Battaglia is news footage of mob men in cages in court while they await hearing. They look unmistakably like wild animals, and they affirm Battaglia’s daring with graphic conviction.

Director: Kim Longinotto Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

3

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

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

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

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

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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

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

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

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

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

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


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

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


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

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


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

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


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

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

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