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Understanding Screenwriting #88: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, The Palm Beach Story, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #88: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, The Palm Beach Story, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, Like Crazy, The Palm Beach Story, Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, but first…

Fan Mail: “stammitti90” wondered, as others have, about the title of the column being “Understanding Screenwriting,” since he thinks the column is just film reviews with a few references to screenwriters. There are of course more than a few references. Compare how many times I mention the writers in my reviews to any other reviewer. Or how much I talk about the script in my comments on Hugo in that column as opposed to how much David Ehrenstein talks about Scorsese in his comments on the item. Too often people writing about screenwriting seem to forget that screenwriting is part of the process of filmmaking. Rather than a generic (Three Acts, Hero’s Journey, et al) column about screenwriting, I am trying to give you a nuanced look at how the screenwriting elements of a film are part of the collaborative process of filmmaking. You will see an example of that below in the discussion about the script and Charlize Theron’s performance in Young Adult.

David E. was getting on me for “dissing” the visuals in Hugo, but the one time I mentioned the visuals it was to praise them for giving us reactions of Hugo watching the people in the station. I am not sure I agree with David that I have a “terribly literal idea of what cinematic narrative consists of,” unless by that I want the film to make sense in an interesting way. It can do that with dialogue and/or visuals, as I indicated a little farther down in that column in my comments on Sullivan’s Travels. By the way, David, thanks for the story on Vidal quoting Robert Grieg’s speech from Travels. It tickles my mind to think of Vidal doing that speech.

Young Adult (2011. Written by Diablo Cody. 94 minutes.)

Petting the dog: Hollywood studio development executives always insist that characters have to be “likable” and usually ask for a scene early in the script that shows it. This is known in the trade as the “petting the dog” scene, after the old silent film convention that the hero comes into town and pets the dog, while the villain comes in and kicks the dog. You even see it in documentary films. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will has two of the most brilliant cuts in her career: she cuts from Hitler in a car looking up to a pussycat looking down out of a window, and then cuts back to Hitler turning back from looking up. Uncle Adolph loves the pussycat and the pussycat loves Uncle Adolph. Needless to say, screenwriters resent this. When David Benioff was writing Troy (2004), he kept getting notes from Warners that Achilles had to be more likable. Benioff later told David S. Cohen, “He’s not likable. You’re not going to have a pet-the-dog scene with Achilles. It is something I had to resist.”

Mavis Gary, the main character in Young Adult, has a dog. It’s one of those little obnoxious types. She puts it out on the patio to eat its food. She stuffs it into her purse to take on her trip back to her hometown. She leaves it in the hotel room with only a plastic diaper to poop in. But she never, never, ever pets it. Thank you, Diablo Cody.

Mavis is not a likable person. She writes Young Adult novels under a pseudonym. Her apartment is a mess. She drinks too much. And she dates a boring guy whom she is not afraid to show us, if not him, how boring he is, even if he is about to go off to do good deeds overseas. And that’s just before the credits. Then she really gets going. Getting an email that her old high school flame Buddy and his wife Beth have had their first child, Mavis goes back to her hometown determined to break up Buddy and Beth and get back together with Buddy because, well, she thinks they were always meant to be together. Ouch, she is delusional as well.

This is the character we are supposed to follow through a movie? Yes. And we do. Why? Because when Mavis is on-screen, stuff happens. And that above all is what you really need in a main character in a film. Not being a fan of southern belles, I would not like Scarlett O’Hara in real life, but by God, when she’s on-screen, you can’t not watch her. Mavis is like that, only more so, and Cody makes it work. When Mavis arrives back home, the first person she runs into is Matt Freehauf. They were in high school together, but she does not recognize him until she sees his crutch. Ah, he’s the “Hate Crime Guy,” who was beat up by a bunch of jocks who thought he was gay. Oh, we are going to have a sentimental gay best friend for her. Nope, not only is he not gay, he is just as sharp-tongued as she is, and not afraid to call her on her bullshit. Hardly a best friend, but we like them together because they bounce off each other in funny ways. She meets Buddy and they have a drink, not in a dark make-out bar, but in a well-lighted sports bar. He is clueless about what she is back in town for. Her cover story is that she is handling some real estate deal, which leads us to suspect her parents are dead, since she is staying in a motel. Guess who drives up to her on the street a little later in the picture? Her mom. Mom and Dad are still both alive and well. Mavis is upset they still have a picture of her wedding (not to Buddy), given that the marriage failed, but Mom remembers it was a very nice wedding. Typical clueless parental units, and we can see why Cody does not have Mavis spend more time with them.

Buddy invites Mavis to see Beth play in a rock band called Nipple Compression, a group Beth and other mothers formed to get them out of the house. One of the other mothers says to a third, on seeing Mavis, “Psycho Prom Queen Bitch,” and we believe her. Beth, on the other hand, is a charming character who works with emotionally stunted kids. And she and Buddy are very happy. Mavis is not convinced. Buddy invites her to the baby-naming ceremony at their house. One of the great running bits is watching Mavis prepare for each meeting with Buddy: different nail polish for each event, different clothes. I bet a male writer would have not have come up with those details. So Mavis goes to the ceremony, and we are on the edge of our seats, because we know it’s going to be a train wreck, a term several critics have used to describe Mavis. She gets Buddy in a room alone and tells him that she knows he feels the way she does. He doesn’t. Farther out on the edge of our seats because we know no good will come of that. And we are right. Mavis makes a total fool of herself in the front yard, with all the people she knows standing there. We find out here that Mavis had been pregnant by Buddy (he knew) and had a miscarriage. We also find out that it was not Buddy who insisted she come to the ceremony, it was Beth. She felt sorry for Mavis, about the worst thing you can say to Mavis.

So Mavis stomps off and goes to see Matt. And they have sex. But, but, she’s gorgeous and he’s…well, fat and crippled. And he told her earlier that not only did the beating hurt his leg, but also his genitals so he can only piss or come sideways. That’s a great detail, but unfortunately Cody never figures out a way to make that pay off in the scene, as we now get it, of Matt and Mavis. So what about when they wake up in the morning and talk about it? Well, they don’t. Mavis wakes up first and is sneaking out of the house when she is caught by Matt’s sister Sandra. We met Sandra earlier and she is one of many people, like Matt, who idolized Mavis not only when she was in high school but later when she went off to the big city (Minneapolis) and became a famous author. Well, she’s not famous but still, Sandra and Matt are the sort of people who never got out of town and idolize those who do. At this point that’s enough for Mavis. There are still people who admire her, but she has learned no lessons, had no “Aww!” moment.

More than The United States of Tara (see US #43), this is the riskiest script Cody has ever done. If the balance is not perfect, she’ll lose us. She doesn’t lose us. She also has the advantage of having Charlize Theron as Mavis. Theron told David Letterman that the director, Jason Reitman, had said he wanted only her for the part because he could see Mavis in her. Theron said she was not sure that was a compliment, but the role is certainly within her range, and I think a trickier role and performance than her award winning part in Monster (2003). We cringe at what Mavis does, but she is so interesting to watch that we like her as well, at least a little bit. And the film takes advantage of Theron’s beauty, although often we see her in day-old makeup. Like Matt and Sandra, we sort of want to see her get what she wants because she is physically gorgeous. It is a peculiarity of movies, and real life as well, that we assume that good-looking people are good. We really know that is not true, but we still pretend that it is, at least in the movies.

Here is another way the script is risky. The film doesn’t have a sentimental bone in its body about small towns or high school. Of what other American film can you say that? Mavis’s hometown is no Bedford Falls. There are some nice people there (Beth, Mavis’s clueless parents) and some not so nice (Matt), but it is not the American dream. Mavis is, like way too many Americans, sentimental about high school, but the film is not. The series of Young Adult novels Mavis is writing is set in the fictional high school Waverly Place. At first this just seems like a mildly interesting detail. Midway through the film we (and I think Mavis) discover from a bookstore clerk that the series is being cancelled. So the book she is writing throughout the film is the final book in the series, and Mavis’s voiceovers from the book near the end match the “end” of her high school life with Buddy. Nice subtle writing.

A Dangerous Method (2011. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure and the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr. 99 minutes.)

A Dangerous Method

Come lie down on my couch, little girl: This is almost as risky a script as Cody’s for Young Adult. It’s 1902 and Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who is mad as a hatter, is brought to the young doctor Carl Jung. He decides she is a perfect case of what Sigmund Freud has called The Talking Cure, or what we now call psychoanalysis. Jung has great success treating her, but then he starts sleeping with her, even though he knows he shouldn’t. He vows to stop, and doesn’t. He and Freud meet for the first time about the case, and then come to disagree, since Freud is insistent only on dealing with the sexual elements, while Jung wants to look at wider issues. By the end of the film Sabina has become an analyst and Jung is about to have a nervous breakdown.

You want to count all the different ways Hampton could screw this one up? The Talking Cure is exactly what it says, talk, talk, talk, which is why it is often so boring on screen (and on stage as well). We are dealing with two of the towering figures of the 20th century and how do you show them as humans, not gods? How do the sexual scenes avoid gross exploitation? How do all the discussions of theoretical differences between Freud and Jung keep us from falling asleep? Hampton, whose script for Chéri (2009, see US #30) I did not care for, gets it all right this time.

My guess is that Hampton did what Milos Forman had Peter Shaffer do when Shaffer adapted his play Amadeus for the 1984 film. Forman told Shaffer not to adapt the play, but to figure out how to tell the same story on film. Hampton had a head start on thinking of this as a film. According to an article in the January 3, 2012 Los Angeles Times, Hampton first got interested in Sabina’s story in the ‘90s when he read A Secret Symmetry, a book by Aldo Corotenuto. Shortly thereafter Julia Roberts’s company sent him John Kerr’s book, and Hampton says, “I jumped at the chance of using is as the basis for a screenplay.” The screenplay was never produced, and Hampton decided to turn it into a stage play. The movie does not feel like an adapted play. Hampton opens with the film with Sabina being driven in a carriage to Jung’s clinic. It makes for a wonderfully cinematic opening: wide-open spaces, charging horses, and a mad Sabina. Some reviews have thought Keira Knightley is too over the top in these opening scenes, but the woman is mad, and Knightley makes her not just conventionally mad, but disturbingly so. We see that Jung has his work cut out for him. Hampton breaks up the therapy sequences so some are in the clinic and some are out on walks in the countryside, including a beautiful one on an old bridge. In screen time the therapy goes quickly so we don’t get bogged down in it. Jung here is very straight-laced, but we can see why he is attracted to her, first as a patient, then as an assistant, and finally as a sexual partner wildly different from his equally straight-laced wife. Hampton, Knightley, Michael Fassbender (Fassbender is having the male equivalent to Jessica Chastain’s year), and director David Cronenberg focus on these characters in these situations. I am not a big fan of Cronenberg’s gross-out movies, but I love his subtler ones, like this and 2005’s A History of Violence. Both here and in Violence there is always the possibility of violence, which makes it more shocking when it does come.

And then we come to meet Freud. Hampton has done a beautiful job of making Jung and Freud different. You would not think Freud would be a part for Viggo Mortensen, who we tend to think of as a more physical actor, but he inhabits the role in a variety of subtle ways, and we believe Jung when he describes Freud as seductive. To paraphrase the real Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a great prop. Hampton gives us just enough of the intellectual differences between the two men that their conflict works as drama. I suspect Hampton’s having done this first as a play and seen what works with an audience helped him develop a sense of how many of the details of the Jung-Freud debates as well as Sabina’s cure he needed. That also means understanding how much he did not need.

Hampton’s final two scenes are two of the best. Years after her treatment, Sabina comes to visit Jung and his wife. The first scene is with Sabina, now pregnant by her husband, and Jung’s wife Emma. Emma has been a good, conventional wife, supporting Jung financially with her own inheritance, and giving Jung several children, including finally a son. But now she knows that Jung is in a difficult mental state and Sabina is probably the only one who can help him. Hampton gives the history of Emma and Sabina (Emma knew about the affair) in a short, simple scene. Then we get Sabina talking to Jung. It is 1913 and he has had a disturbing—and very Jungian—dream of water coming down through the mountains, turning red with blood and filled with dead bodies. We know, and Jung suspects, that it is the coming World War I. Freud’s approach is not much help here. The end titles tell us that Jung had a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter before going on to do his greatest work. Both these two final scenes are gorgeously photographed by the great Peter Suschitsky, the first scene on a large lawn and the second by a beautiful lake. Again, Hampton understands what you can do with film that you cannot do on stage.

I had written the first drafts of this item thinking that I had not seen the play. I remembered hearing about it, but neither the reviews nor the film itself reminded me of anything I had seen. Then Charles McNulty, the theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article on adaptations from the stage and mentioned it had played at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2004. Huh? My wife and I have had season tickets for the Taper for years, but I had no recollection of seeing the play. I checked out our calendar and my diary, and dug out the program. I had seen it. Usually in a case like that, particularly when I can look at the program, some details of the production pop back into my mind. Nothing this time, which almost never happens to me, since I tend to have a fairly good memory for movies and plays. I wrote in my diary for that night that it was “an OK play, which we liked better than the LAT reviewer did.” Obviously Hampton has made it a lot more vivid in his screenplay than he did in his stage play.

Like Crazy (2011. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones. 90 minutes.)

Like Crazy

There is a reason why films are written, people: Felicity Jones, who plays Anna, a British girl who falls in love with the American Jacob in this film, described to the Los Angeles Times (December 1st) how the scripting process worked on this film:

“There was a “scriptment”—I think we should see if we can get this word into the dictionary. It’s a cross between a script and a treatment. It’s more like a short story. It has a very clear idea of what the characters are. It has elements of each scene and what was to happen. We have very clear objectives for every scene, but then you as an actor have to find a way of doing it that’s as naturalistic and believable as possible.”

The whole idea behind this approach is that the actors, understanding the characters, will come up with fresh and interesting material. That’s the theory, but as this film so relentless proves, the practice is often a mess. The actors are more or less making it up as they go along, and in this case, there is virtually no inspiration in anything they do or say. Maybe it’s just that I have been listening to a lot of Preston Sturges scripts lately, but the dialogue in this film is flat, and not even pointed enough to call it “on the nose.” There is one good line: Jacob’s second girlfriend brings him breakfast in bed, then starts eating the bacon on the tray. She says, “I don’t share bacon,” which immediately makes her the brightest and most watchable person in the film.

So what we get is scene after scene of Anna and Jacob looking dreamily at each other or else looking miserable at not being with each other. Felicity Jones (Anna) and Anton Yelchin (Jacob) have shown elsewhere they are good actors, but “scriptment” gives them nothing to play in terms of character. She romantically overstays her visa when she is first in Los Angeles, and this keeps her from coming back to him. Her visa problems make her seem more than a little unsympathetic. Yeah, yeah, I know it was a romantic gesture to stay, but there is not that thick a line between romantic and stupid. The few other characters in the film are not particularly well-developed either, stranding such normally good actors as Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead, and Finola Hughes. Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone (2010) at least gets the one good line mentioned above, but she’s been hired for her cuteness rather than her acting chops.

The inspiration for the film was a long-distance relationship Doremus had, but the film is very sloppy about the details of a relationship like that. I have been in three, two that did not work out, and one that did, which is why my wife and I went to see the film. All of us involved in those relationships did not moon about in jerky-cam closeups. We tired to make it work; sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. The film is simply not very specific about what they do, what their attitudes are, how those attitudes shape their actions. You let actors improvise and too often, as happens here, they will go for some generic line or emotion. The actors are usually much better at improvising if they start from a strong script. In Juno (2007) Allison Janney improvised only one line. When Juno says Bren, her stepmother, does not really know her, Janney’s Bren shoots back, “I know enough.” A great line, and a great Bren line, and it came from Janney working from the script.

You really need a writer to shape the material. Really, you do.

The Palm Beach Story (1942. Written by Preston Sturges. 88 minutes.)

The Palm Beach Story

The Sturges Project, Take Five: Sturges expected that Sullivan’s Travels (1941) might not do as well as his previous films, since it had more serious elements to it. He was right, and he had already decided to try to alternate comedies with films with at least a hint of seriousness. So with this film he set out to do a film based on a theory he had, that a woman could go far on beauty alone. He was also going to examine marriage, as indicated by his original title: Is Marriage Necessary? Needless to say, the Breen office, the official censorship organization of the film industry, shot down that title. Sturges shifted to Is That Bad? before changing it to The Palm Beach Story. (The background information is, as before, from James Curtis’s biography Between Flops.)

Brian Henderson, in Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (his first volume, Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges was understandably well enough received to provoke a second volume), discovered that Sturges had trouble getting the script going, unlike some of his earlier ones. Sturges thought of Gerry, the wife, as kind of a female John Sullivan and wanted her to go on the road and have adventures as Sullivan did. The question was, what motivated her? Maybe she simply wanted to see how far she could go on her beauty. But Sturges also thought she might be doing all this to help her husband, Tom, who has an invention (an airport made out of suspended wires) he is having trouble getting investors for. And if she is doing that, does Tom go along with her? In other words, is he pimping his wife out? Needless to say, the Breen office frowned on that, and they were not alone. Sturges pretty much figured out that Tom is not complicit, and the few lines that survived in the script that suggested he might be got dropped, either in the shooting or the editing.

Sturges started by making notes for early scenes between Tom and Gerry, and you will find no better look at the difference between talent and craft than in Henderson’s discussion of those scenes. Henderson includes lots of dialogue from those scenes, and the Sturges talent for dialogue is all there. But the scenes would not work as they needed to in the film. Sturges very carefully crafted the opening twenty minutes or so of the film over a period of several weeks in September-October 1941. Gerry is leaving Tom, even though she still loves him, sort of, since she does not think she’s really the wife for him. She’s the one who considers getting some rich man to help with Tom’s project. She is encouraged to flee by the Wienie King, an old man who is considering renting their apartment, since they are being kicked out. He thinks she should enjoy life while she’s still young.

Once she gets going, she decides to go to Palm Beach to get a divorce. She ends up on the train with one of Sturges’s greatest creations, the Ale and Quail Club, a group of middle-aged men drinking and shooting, sometimes on the train, on their way to Florida. Sturges whipped off the Ale and Quail Club scenes very quickly, although he was concerned that they might be a digression. Which they are. They appear 26 minutes into the film and are left on the tracks at 43 minutes, and we never see or hear from them again. You could cut them out of the picture entirely. Fortunately Sturges was smart enough not to do that. True, you don’t need them, but sometimes stuff you come up with is so good you can’t not use it.

Sturges knew he was writing Tom for Joel McCrea, and reading Tom’s lines in the script, you hear McCrea, more so than you do in the script for Sullivan’s Travels. He is upright, a little stuffy, and most helpfully a little jealous of Gerry. Gerry is Claudette Colbert, one of the great screwball leading ladies of the ‘30s. She plays beautifully the contradictions in Gerry’s character that survive from Sturges’s working over the material. Sturges also knew he was writing the role of the starchy millionaire John D. Hackensacker III for Rudy Vallée. Vallée had been a hugely popular crooner in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but never attained true star status in movies. Sturges saw him in a B musical and thought he was funny, especially when he was not trying to be. Paramount was horrified when Sturges insisted on hiring him, but the studio was so pleased with the result they signed him to a contract, and he continued acting in films for years. Including many of Sturges’s. Sturges was so taken with Vallée that his early notes for the script simply refer to the character as Vallée. Vallée is starchy in the film, but he is also enormously likable. His rich sister is played by Mary Astor, and she never quite got the vocal lightness Sturges wanted.

Gerry meets John D. on the train, and he takes her to Palm Beach, where Tom has already arrived by plane. Gerry introduces Tom as her brother, which immediately interests the Princess, John D.’s sister. Who is going to end up with whom? In the earlier drafts of the script, there is a sequence where it turns out that Tom and Gerry each have a twin sibling, whom they might have married, but ended up with each other. The sequence explaining this was condensed to a montage that Sturges puts under the main titles. Most first-time viewers are completely baffled by the title sequence, and it may take you several viewings to figure out who may be who. In the final draft of the script, Sturges cuts from the discovery that there are the twins to a double wedding: Tom and Gerry standing on the sidelines watching John D. marrying Gerry’s twin and the Princess marrying Tom’s twin.

When the picture was released Bosley Crowther, the lead critic for the New York Times for over twenty years, called it “generally slow and garrulous.” I think what he was responding to was the opening twenty minutes of the film. Sturges had spent a lot of time working out the details of what puts Gerry on the road, and it is a little more serious than most romantic comedies of the time. Sturges as a director shoots the ten minutes of scenes of Tom and Gerry discussing their marriage mostly in rather loose two-shots. Sometimes he does a lot in a single take, but the material is not quite strong enough support that. The ten minutes before those scenes include the first Wienie King scene, and he is certainly garrulous, but in an entertaining way. You should also keep in mind that Crowther had an absolute tin ear for dialogue. Twenty years after this picture, he described Robert Bolt’s dialogue for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as “surprisingly lusterless.”

The Ale and Quail members are all from Sturges’s stock company: William Demarest (Paramount used him to introduce the trailer for the film, which makes you think it was only about the Ale and Quail Club), Robert Warwick (Le Brand in Sullivan’s Travels), Jimmy Conlin, Robert Greig, et al. Yes, the scene is a digression, but we don’t mind for reasons mentioned above. The Club is often the only thing people remember from the film, and it has influenced screenwriters ever since. Look at the community council in Ron Shelton’s screenplay for the 1986 film The Best of Times.

Vallée gives everything Sturges wanted, and Astor is not bad, but the script is Tom and Gerry’s story and McCrea and Colbert manage to be both funny and serious. Sturges was, again, writing great star parts. The film is more serious about looking at marriage than most people realize. Gerry does not leave Tom because he, or she, has been unfaithful, but for more complicated reasons, and McCrea and Colbert, especially the latter, put across those emotional moments. Sturges privileges those moments in his direction. Just as The Lady Eve (1941) becomes a more romantic film than the script because of the stars involved, The Palm Beach Story becomes more dramatic.

But Sturges also gives us a great ending with the twins, and here is one of those (rare) examples where the filmed scene is better than the script. The script just shows them all standing up at the altar, with no particular reactions to what is going on. In the film Tom and Gerry’s twins are absolutely baffled as how this situation came to be. It is much funnier that way. Sturges ends the film the same way he ended the title sequence: with a set of titles that says, first “And they lived happily ever after,” followed by “But did they?” See, I told you it was an examination of marriage.

Ivanhoe (1952. Screenplay by Noel Langley (and Marguerite Roberts, uncredited), adaptation by Æneas MacKenzie, from the novel by Sir Walter Scott. 106 minutes.)

Ivanhoe

Not the RKO film noir version: When Dore Schary was head of production at RKO in the mid-‘40s, he thought about a film version of Scott’s novel. Fortunately he did not make it then, or else it probably would have been in black-and-white, shot on the backlot, starring a neurotic Robert Ryan as Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe. When Schary moved to MGM in the late ‘40s, he knew he had found the studio for the film. The first screenwriter he approached was Æneas MacKenzie, who had written historical films at Warners. He tried to convince Schary to change the story. Scott had been attacked by Thackery, among others, for his anti-Semitism. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe is trying to get King Richard-the-Lionheart out of a European prison, and to get the ransom he goes to Isaac of York, a Jewish moneylender, who raises the money. MacKenzie’s objection was not that a Jew was a moneylender, one of the few professions open to Jews in King Richard’s time, but that Ivanhoe sort of falls in love with his daughter Rachel. When push comes to shove at the end, he dumps the adoring Rachel and ends up with his shiksa girlfriend, Lady Rowena. MacKenzie wanted to change the ending to have Ivanhoe and Rachel together, but Schary said no. (The background is from Schary’s memoir Heyday.)

MacKenzie still gets a credit on the film for adaptation, but the heavy lifting got done by Noel Langley, whose best-known credit is The Wizard of Oz (1939). (I haven’t found any indication of what Roberts did on the script.) Aside from some slow spots, it is a solid script, with a great jousting sequence, an equally great siege on a castle, and a nice final duel. MGM decided to shoot it in England and Scotland to use up the MGM English grosses that were frozen by the government after World War II. Smart move, especially since the got British cinematographer F.A. Young (that’s Freddie Young to you and me) to shoot it. Robert Taylor is a stodgy but acceptable Ivanhoe, and he is surrounded by a lot of great British character actors. The picture was huge hit and lead to some follow-ups, one of which we’ll talk about below.

But MacKenzie was proved right. MGM cast the attractive and talented Joan Fontaine as the Lady Rowena. But Rachel is played by the heart-stoppingly beautiful 20-year old Elizabeth Taylor. Photographed by Freddie Young. Even anti-Semites thought Ivanhoe made the wrong choice.

Quentin Durward (1955. Screenplay by Robert Ardrey, adaptation by George Froeschel, from the novel by Sir Walter Scott. 103 minutes.)

Quentin Durward

The later, funny one: The success of Ivanhoe led MGM to do a couple of follow-up swashbucklers. This is one I had never seen, so even though it is generally thought of as not that good, I decided to give it shot when it popped up on a night of Sir Walter Scott adaptations on TCM. It turns out to be much more interesting than its reputation suggests. A lot of the same people are involved, including Robert Taylor in the title role and, alas, Richard Thorpe, directing. The cinematographer this time is Christopher Challis, who’s not bad, but he’s no Freddie Young. The difference is that the screenplay is by Robert Ardrey, who unlike Noel Langley and apparently Sir Walter, had a sense of humor.

Scott begins the novel, set in 15th-century France, with an impoverished Scottish swashbuckler going to France to join his equally impoverished uncle, who is a mercenary for one of the political divisions in France. Ardrey gives us a much better opening scene. The uncle, Lord Crawford, is alive, rich, and not as young as he used to be. He is played by Ernest Thesiger twenty years after he was Doctor Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. He is trying to arrange a marriage with the much younger Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy. She has sent him a small, idealized portrait of herself, and he is returning the favor by having commissioned a large, highly romanticized painting of himself thirty years younger. Quentin comments on this and it’s obvious the uncle knows exactly what he is doing. Uncle is sending Quentin to France to meet Isabelle, take her measure, and plead his case. Quentin notes that he is a chivalrous man when the times of chivalry have long passed, a theme that Ardrey brings up often. The scene sets a nice light tone for the rest of the film, which is a little quicker on its feet than Ivanhoe. We don’t think of Robert Taylor as having a light touch, and he doesn’t, but he gets the rueful quality of knowing he is a man out of time.

Well, you can see where this is going. Quentin goes to France, has a meet cute with Isabelle, and naturally falls in love. She’s not the heart-stoppingly beautiful 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, but the next best thing: the heart-stoppingly beautiful and wickedly funny 28-year-old Kay Kendall. Kendall would be more than up to the demands of where Ardrey is taking the script, but Richard Thorpe has no idea how to use Kendall. One review said Kendall was too modern for the part, but Ardrey’s view is something of a modern view. Thorpe just doesn’t get it and the Quentin-Isabelle scenes don’t zing as they should. There are some more British characters giving value for the money. We get a lot of plotting with the French factions, and we get a great duel between Quentin and the baddie while both of them are swinging on the bell ropes in a bell tower. Needless to say, all ends well.

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: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment

It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.

3.5

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.

Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.

The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.

Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.

Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.

Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.

While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.

Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.

Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family

The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

2.5

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Relic
Photo: IFC Midnight

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.

Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.

Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.

The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.

But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

2

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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