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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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The 25 Best Films of 2019

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.

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The 25 Best Films of 2019
Photo: Netflix

This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.

More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.

Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen

Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.


The Gospel of Eureka

25. The Gospel of Eureka

In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray


Chinese Portrait

24. Chinese Portrait

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene


The Competition

23. The Competition

Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene


Ad Astra

22. Ad Astra

Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown


Climax

21. Climax

Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen

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Slant’s Best Films of 2019: The Runners-Up and Individual Ballots

These are the films that just missed making it onto our list of the best films of 2019, and our contributors’ individual ballots.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From Chuck Bowen’s introduction to Slant Magazine’s Top 25 Films of 2019: “This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.” Click here to read the feature and see if your favorite films of the year made our list. And see below for a list of the films that just missed making it onto our list, followed by our contributors’ individual ballots.


The Runners-Up:

26. The Plagiarists
27. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
28. The Lighthouse
29. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
30. End of the Century
31. Ray & Liz
32. The Wild Pear Tree
33. Honeyland
34. In My Room
35. Agnès by Varda
36. Her Smell
37. Dragged Across Concrete
38. The Image Book
39. Diane
40. Asako I & II
41. I Lost My Body
42. Gemini Man
43. Shadow
44. In Fabric
45. Us
46. The Mountain
47. Our Time
48. Little Women
49. The Dead Don’t Die
50. Diamantino


The Ballots:


Chuck Bowen

1. The Irishman
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Her Smell
4. The Beach Bum
5. Diane
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Marriage Story
8. Pain and Glory
9. Climax
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: High Flying Bird, One Child Nation, American Factory, The Souvenir, Grass, Ray & Liz, Dragged Agaainst Concrete, Uncut Gems, The Gospel of Eureka, Ash Is Purest White

Pat Brown

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. Uncut Gems
3. Peterloo
4. Marriage Story
5. Midsommar
6. The Gospel of Eureka
7. The Farewell
8. The Souvenir
9. Transit
10. Ad Astra

Honorable Mention: Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Irishman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ash Is Purest White, John Wick 3: Parabellum, The Beach Bum, Knives Out, Luce, Synonyms, Us

Jake Cole

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Irishman
4. High Life
5. La Flor
6. The Souvenir
7. An Elephant Sitting Still
8. Parasite
9. Transit
10. Black Mother

Honorable Mention: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Ad Astra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Pain & Glory, A Hidden Life, Asako I & II, The Wild Pear Tree, Little Women, End of the Century, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Clayton Dillard

1. Uncut Gems
2. Climax
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. High Life
6. Ash is Purest White
7. Pain & Glory
8. In My Room
9. Gemini Man
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Atlantics, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, Diamantino, Marriage Story, Ray & Liz, The Silence of Others, Under the Silver Lake

Ed Gonzalez

1. Transit
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
4. Black Mother
5. Ad Astra
6. Peterloo
7. The Competition
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Irishman
10. Climax

Honorable Mention: The Souvenir, An Elephant Sitting Still, Parasite, Asako I & II, End of the Century, Marriage Story, The Gospel of Eureka, The Beach Bum, Dragged Across Concrete, The Plagiarists

Christopher Gray

1. Transit
2. Atlantics
3. Parasite
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Us
8. End of the Century
9. Ash is Purest White
10. Dark Waters

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Asako I & II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, An Elephant Sitting Still, La Flor, Gemini Man, The Irishman, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems

Wes Greene

1. Uncut Gems
2. Marriage Story
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. Transit
6. A Hidden Life
7. In My Room
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. End of the Century
10. Ash Is Purest White

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Diane, An Elephant Sitting Still, Her Smell, The Image Book, Parasite, Peterloo, The Plagiarists, The Souvenir, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

Oleg Ivanov

1. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
2. The Lighthouse
3. A Hidden Life
4. To Dust
5. Shadow
6. In Fabric
7. Pain & Glory
8. Aniara
9. Parasite
10. Rolling Thunder Revue

Honorable Mention: The Mountain, Diamantino, Rezo, The Wild Pear Tree, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Her Smell, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, Leto, The Silence of Others

Joshua Minsoo Kim

1. The Plagiarists
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Chinese Portrait
4. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
5. Uncut Gems
6. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Parasite
8. Suburban Birds
9. Black Mother
10. Marriage Story

Honorable Mention: Atlantics, Grass, Honeyland, The Irishman, The Lighthouse, Non-Fiction, Our Time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ray & Liz, Varda by Agnes

Carson Lund

1. Transit
2. The Irishman
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
6. The Plagiarists
7. The Mountain
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Beach Bum
10. Dragged Across Concrete

Honorable Mention: The Hottest August, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, Atlantics, Empty Metal, Uncut Gems, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ad Astra, High Life, Our Time

Sam C. Mac

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. Waves
4. Chinese Portrait
5. The Beach Bum
6. Uncut Gems
7. Asako I & II
8. The Gospel of Eureka
9. A Hidden Life
10. Pasolini

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Grass, 3 Faces, Peterloo, Our Time, Transit, The Plagiarists, Shadow, In Fabric, Suburban Birds

Niles Schwartz

1. The Irishman
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. Pain & Glory
6. Peterloo
7. Atlantics
8. Climax
9. The Dead Don’t Die
10. Transit

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Black Mother, Diane, Dragged Across Concrete, High Flying Bird, Marriage Story, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rolling Thunder Revue, Uncut Gems

Diego Semerene

1. Agnès by Varda
2. The Wild Pear Tree
3. I Lost My Body
4. Ash is Purest White
5. The Competition
6. Chinese Portrait
7. Parasite
8. Sauvage
9. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, 3 Faces, Atlantics, What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Knife + Heart, Non-Fiction, Celebration, The Image Book, Black Mother, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Derek Smith

1. Uncut Gems
2. La Flor
3. Transit
4. The Souvenir
5. Parasite
6. Atlantics
7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
10. The Beach Bum

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Ash is the Purest White, Black Mother, Diamantino, A Hidden Life, High Life, Honeyland, The Hottest August, The Irishman, Marriage Story

Keith Uhlich

1. Peterloo
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
3. La Flor
4. The Irishman
5. Pain & Glory
6. Domino
7. The Gospel of Eureka
8. Chained for Life
9. Under the Silver Lake
10. Atlantics

Honorable Mention: The Dead Don’t Die, The Farewell, Gemini Man, A Hidden Life, High Flying Bird, Knives Out, In Fabric, Our Time, Shadow, Transit

Keith Watson

1. Parasite
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Image Book
4. The Lighthouse
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. High Life
7. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. The Irishman
9. The Gospel of Eureka
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Ash Is Purest White, Chinese Portrait, Climax, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Hustlers, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Mountain, Our Time, Los Reyes, The Souvenir

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Review: Seberg Is an Ill-Defined Ode to an Icon of the French New Wave

Throughout, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of Jean Seberg’s history.

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Seberg
Photo: Amazon Studios

During her return to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Jean Seberg became a visible supporter of the Black Panther Party. This put her on the watch list of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and, hounded by their surveillance and muckraking, she would die of an apparent suicide in 1979. It’s a tragic story, but on its face, it’s not material for a political thriller, even if Benedict Andrews’s Seberg tries halfheartedly to make it one.

In transforming Seberg’s life into a plot-heavy narrative of secrets, intrigue, and betrayals, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of her history. And, along the way, they do something of a disservice to the actress’s memory by stopping short of depicting her tragic end—concluding the film, of all places, at the end of a redemptive arc for Jack Solomon, an F.B.I. agent played by Jack O’Connell.

Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as a basically honest but somewhat impulsive woman whose fragility is almost always apparent, given the unsteady gazes and fidgety movements that are Stewart’s trademarks as an actor. It’s a performance that lacks a certain specificity. Even if Seberg suffered from doubts, she could put on a certain small-town Midwestern solidness, as is apparent in interviews from the ‘60s. Stewart’s indifferent imitation of the real Seberg’s diction-coach-inflected Midwestern accent also sticks out for its inconsistency, constantly pulling the viewer out of 1968 and muddling our sense of who this woman is meant to be.

But if Stewart’s Seberg is vaguely drawn, she’s a Rembrandt portrait in comparison to the cardboard F.B.I. agent that Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse construct as the secondary main character. The film constantly intercuts between Seberg’s activism and bid for Hollywood stardom and Solomon’s surveillance of and growing sympathy for her. A decent, milquetoast G-man, Solomon essentially exists here to recuperate the image of the F.B.I., even as he’s portrayed as being in charge of the campaign against Seberg. While his hypermasculine colleagues trade racist jokes and exploit their male privilege—patently illustrated in an extraneous scene in which his partner, Carl (Vince Vaughn), essentially commits domestic abuse over dinner—Solomon is set up as the idealized model of an F.B.I. agent, a consummate professional interested only in uncovering crimes.

Admittedly, some of the more interesting parts of Seberg come from Solomon’s research: As he watches iconic moments from the actress’s career, recreated by Stewart, he begins to assemble a portrait of a woman damaged by both Hollywood’s and the federal government’s efforts to control her life. In scenes that might have had more impact if either character had more definition, Seberg imprints herself on Solomon through black-and-white footage and surveillance tapes, and, at times, Seberg gestures toward a Hollywoodized version of The Lives of Others. Eventually, Solomon begins informing on himself, making anonymous phone calls to Seberg to tell her she’s under watch. But Solomon is too conveniently good, too isolated from the reactionary “boy’s club” culture of the F.B.I., for his transformation to carry much weight. Furthermore, this fabricated character functions to glom a handy moral redemption onto a story that would not appear to have many good feels readily available to it.

In fact, there’s much here that feels too convenient. For one, the filmmakers downplay the radicalness of supporting the Black Panther Party and their allies in 1968. The story is told from a perspective in which lending such support is almost transparently the right thing to do, even if it flies in the face of Hoover’s F.B.I. This is admirable, in a sense, but it gives us little impression of the tumult and uncertainty of American society in the late ‘60s. For a film about a period of unrest and the icon at the center of Godard’s aesthetically groundbreaking Breathless, it’s also markedly conventional. Andrews plays it safe with his framing and storytelling, not capturing much of a sense of atmosphere in his depiction of a society and a Hollywood institution undergoing waves of turmoil and reorganization.

Furthermore, the filmmakers’ choices regarding narrative focus are telling: Solomon’s half of the story drives the most important pieces of the plot—since it’s the surveillance that ruins Seberg’s relationships and fractures her sanity. Meanwhile, her lover, the black radical Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and his wife (Zazie Beetz) are turned into functionaries of the main white characters. Surely these historical figures, too, experienced mental anguish at the hands of the F.B.I.’s surveillance apparatus, but their oppression, when discussed here, becomes mere background to Seberg’s breakdown. Once again, black liberation becomes white people’s story, as Seberg’s connection with a movement composed principally of black people is subordinated to the film’s gratuitous interest in planting a good man in the F.B.I. Unable to imagine and unwilling to explore what oppression truly feels like, it contents itself with saying the right things and centering white people as the sole agents of history.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Gabriel Sky Director: Benedict Andrews Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black Christmas Takes a Simplistic Stab at the Battle of the Sexes

Sophia Takal’s remake elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics.

1.5

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Black Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror classic Black Christmas depends, for effect, on the terrifying unknowability of its killer, and delights in a twisted web of psychosexual tensions. As a proto-slasher film set in a sorority house, it’s also surprisingly celebratory of female agency and empowerment, particularly through its normalized depiction of women discussing abortion a mere five years after Canada officially legalized the procedure. Sophia Takal’s remake, however, elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics, transforming what was once a terrifyingly ambiguous male threat upon unsuspecting women into an explicit and hackneyed embodiment of the patriarchy itself in the form of a fraternity of hooded, Skull and Bones-esque alpha males.

Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe obviously aim to update Black Christmas for the Me Too era, but they settle for hollow wish fulfillment rather than meaningful social critique. When Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the most politically active of the core group of sorority girls in the film, steps up to a group of emphatically evil frat boys—“You messed with the wrong sisters!”—it’s apparent that the filmmakers are less interested in actually dissecting the precepts and effects of college rape culture and the patriarchal dominance still coursing through our institutions of higher learning than they are in clumsily upending that male authority with increasingly pedantic signposts of “don’t tread on me” girl power.

It’s a shame because Takal exhibits a deep sensitivity toward her main protagonist, Riley (Imogen Poots), which is particularly evident in the film’s depiction of the young woman’s trauma from being drugged and raped three years ago by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of DKO, Hawthorne College’s most prestigious fraternity. It’s both moving and amusing to see Riley, after years of not being believed, and several of her sorority sisters perform a clever twist on “Up on the Housetop” at DKO’s Christmas party, for the way it calls out rape culture and deliberately embarrasses Brian upon his return to campus. But following this scene, Black Christmas’s condemnation of toxic masculinity is dulled as it goes about painting both its male and female characters in broader and broader strokes.

Carey Elwes’s misogynist Professor Gelson, who’d be twirling his mustache if he had one, is a virtual clone of acclaimed psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he’s surrounded by a fleet of interchangeable, cartoonishly villainous dudebros involved in some shady dealings at DKO that shift from the harmlessly cliché to the patently absurd. The women of this remake don’t exactly fare much better, as they’re constantly lauded for their strength and loyalty—most ridiculously in a lengthy digression during which the sorority sisters are compared to ants—yet with the exception of Riley, they never rise above their paper-thin conceptions.

The filmmakers’ overly simplistic depiction of good and evil is mitigated to some degree by the presence of Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the awkward white-knight character whose compassion and respect for Riley serves as a much-needed, though muted, contrast to the rampant machismo and fragility that defines so many of the film’s other male characters. But as the large horde of black-masked and hooded men spread across campus, slaughtering sorority girls with reckless abandon, Black Christmas builds to a strained confrontation between the sexes that doesn’t fall into any sort of gray area when it comes to its depiction of male-female conflict. Instead, the film hammers home the same simplistic, however valid, points about male sovereignty on college campuses that it’s already made at least a dozen times.

With this third act’s introduction of supernatural elements linked to a mysteriously powerful black liquid that leaks from within the college founder’s bust, Black Christmas goes completely off the rails, setting up an action set piece that makes the “Marvel Women assemble” moment from Avengers: Endgame seem slyly deployed by comparison. Takal is gleeful in her depiction of the patriarchy getting its comeuppance, but her expression of female empowerment is misguided for succumbing to revenge fantasy, suggesting that the path toward equality lies in the very same forms of violence that men have enacted upon women for centuries.

Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madelaine Adams, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre Director: Sophia Takal Screenwriter: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode

The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.

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Jumanji: The Next Level
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.

Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.

Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).

The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.

Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”

But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.

Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time

The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.

3.5

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Chinese Portrait
Photo: Cinema Guild

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.

The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.

The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.

Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.

The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.

Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.

Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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