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Understanding Screenwriting #89: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, My Week with Marilyn, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #89: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, My Week with Marilyn, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The Descendants, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, My Week with Marilyn, Love & Other Drugs, The Great Moment, Susan Slept Here, but first…

Fan Mail: In talking about the final shot of the wedding of the twins in The Palm Beach Story, David Ehrenstein dragged out his favorite Fritz Lang quote about how it’s “because in the script it’s written and on the screen it’s pictures. Motion pictures they call it.” That does not exactly apply here. Sturges set up the wedding in the script and he could well have written in the reactions of the “other twins.” He didn’t, but he added them as a director, developing what he had written. And it’s not in this case “motion pictures,” because you can see their reactions in a still. The point I am making with a lot of the Sturges Project is the relationship between script and film is a lot more complicated than we normally think. David in his quotes about Sturges’s working method from Ruth Olay demonstrates that.

I may have given David the impression that it was my opinion that Mary Astor was not good in Palm Beach, but that was Sturges’s feeling. I think she is terrific. Sturges wanted her voice higher than her normal range and was disappointed when she couldn’t do it. But who wants a soprano Mary Astor?

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011. Screenplay by Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. 133 minutes.)

Harold Lloyd in Burn Notice meets Covert Affairs: I always liked the way the M:I television series managed to squeeze two hours of story material into one hour, which really made you run to keep up. On the other hand, the theatrical films have been a very mixed bag. Mission: Impossible (1996; screenplay by David Koepp and Robert Towne, story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian) was a mess. They had a great IMF team at the beginning, which they killed off, and the film became focused on Ethan Hunt rather than a team. There was supposed to be a romance between Hunt and Claire Phelps, but all those scenes got cut so when Jim Phelps accuses Hunt of having the affair we are totally lost. Mission: Impossible II (2000; screenplay by Robert Towne, story by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga) had the amusing idea of rewriting Notorious (1946; written by Ben Hecht), with Hunt pimping out Nyah Nordoff-Hall to Sean Ambrose to get whatever the Maguffin was in that film. As much as I love Robert Towne, Hecht is the winner in that contest. Also, M:I II introduced and proceeded to beat to death the business of everybody wearing facemasks to hide their identities. Mission:Impossible III (2006; written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams) was the best one so far. Hunt is retired and married but he gets “pulled back in” to try to protect one of his protégés while trying to hide from his wife what he really does. He also has to deal with the series’s best villain, an arms dealer played to the hilt by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hunt is working with a team this time, and the mixture of action and character probably come from J.J. Abrams’ work in television. (See US#77 for my comments on Abrams in the item on his Super 8.)

M:I IV (for brevity’s sake) may even be better than III, although I think I prefer III. Here Hunt’s in a maximum security Russian prison and an IMF team is trying to break him out. One of the team is killed before they start; another, Jane Carter, is a woman Hunt has never met; and the only one Hunt knows is Benji Dunn, a computer geek we met in III. The team gets him out, even though he insists on bringing out another prisoner with him, which turns out to be useful so much later on we may have forgotten about him. OK, so Hunt is out and thrown right away into a new mission, getting stuff out of the Kremlin. The stuff is not only not there, but the Kremlin blows up as the team just escapes. So we know we are not in the land of low budgets. Because of the political damage, the Secretary (of what? Defense? State? Housing and Urban Development?) has to shut down the IMF. So Hunt, sort of like Michael Westen, is burned. What the television series Burn Notice does is make up for a television budget (although they do blow up a number of cars on that show) by having Michael being very inventive on how to operate on no budget. Not quite the case here, as the team, on its own, has to make do with stuff in what I suppose you could call a Safe Boxcar as opposed to a Safe House. Like the toys Q provides Bond, the contents of the boxcar, or at least all they can carry, are exactly what they need.

Like Covert Affairs, we now get into some globe hopping, which has always been part of the appeal of the Bond movies as well; the M:I TV series shot mostly on backlots and Southern California locations. So we are off to Dubai, which can only mean one thing: Ethan Hunt is going to scramble around the outside of the upper floors of the world’s tallest building. It’s Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923) in IMAX. It is as spectacular a sequence as it is supposed to be; director Brad Bird’s previous life in animation serves him well, but the writers deserve some credit too. Hunt is not doing this just to show off, but to get into a room he cannot get into any other way. Like Lloyd in Safety Last, and unlike Lloyd in Feet First (1930; see US#85), Hunt has a goal. And don’t make it easy for your characters to reach that goal. In this case Hunt has gloves that can attach to the side of the building. What’s the worst that can happen (without killing off Hunt, that is)? The battery dies on one of the gloves. It is a beautifully directed scene, but it is also beautifully written. And it happens surprisingly early in the film. So how do you top it?

The next sequence has the team setting up a double scam on the person selling the launch codes and the person buying them. Carter pretends to be the seller and works the buyers over in one room while Hunt pretends to be the buyer in another room with the seller. I mentioned Notorious earlier and if you look at it in comparison to today’s action films, there is in fact very little action, but incredible suspense. The writers here have followed the great action scene with a great suspense scene, with attention to detail in both. Look at how they use the same goggles in the two scenes.

And then we are off to Mumbai to get another set of codes that will stop the bad guy (not quite up to Hoffman’s arms dealer in III) from using his codes to set off a nuclear launch. (This film has a bit of You Only Live Twice [1967] as well.) Like he did with Nyah in II, Hunt pimps out Carter to seduce a media mogul. We are surprised at her appearance. Up until now Paula Patton has played Carter as a straight-ahead kick-ass IMF agent. Now she shows up in a very slinky dress, complete with push-up bra to give her cleavage out to here, and a good half-ton of eye shadow. Needless to say, she gets what she wants, and then has what I suspect in the writing and shooting was a funnier scene than it ended up. Carter is in a car being recklessly driven (do the IMF people drive any other way?) by Hunt. She is trying to change out of her seductress outfit into her “work clothes.” Have you ever tried to get out of a slinky dress and a push-up bra in a speeding car? For the scene to work, we would have to see Hunt’s reactions to this. We don’t exactly, since Tom Cruise is playing Hunt very one-note, jaw clenched all the way through. His athletics are impressive, but emotionally he is a block of cement. That’s not true of the other members of the team: Patton as Carter, Simon Pegg as Benji, and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt. Often the best of the quiet scenes are between those three, so much so you may cringe when Hunt shows up. This is a particular problem in the final scene, after they have saved the world (and the film begins to drag in the last half hour as the chases and fights go on forever). We see Hunt’s wife from M:I III, who is supposed to be dead. She and Hunt exchange pleasant smiles. If we had been more emotionally involved with Hunt in this film, we might have found it more moving. Still, Tom Cruise swinging around the world’s tallest building is not chopped liver.

The Descendants (2011. Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. 115 minutes.)

The Descendants

A major disappointment: I’m a big fan of Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), and Sideways (2004). At his best he has a dry, off-beat freshness about his characters. So I was greatly anticipating this one, especially since it has been 7 years since he last wrote and directed a feature. He has been producing a lot, and the script by Faxon and Rash came to him as a possible project for him to produce. He eventually decided to direct it and did a pass on the script himself. I’d hate to think what it was like before he got his hands on it.

This script has one of the worst opening ten minutes I have heard in years. Over some shots of Matt King looking sad, we get a voiceover narration that goes on and on and on, explaining his situation: his wife is in a coma from a boating accident, he has no idea how to parent his two daughters, and as the head of the King family trust, he must decide within a week or so whether to sell off 25,000 acres of gorgeous Hawaiian land to developers. Guys, there are a whole lot of much more interesting ways to get that information across. Or if you are going to do this way, include at least some of the dry humor that Hemmings gives Matt in the book. On the first page he is thinking that the upcoming meeting with his wife’s doctor is like a romantic first date: what do you wear, what lines do you practice saying?

In the first half hour or more, everything that happens to Matt is bad, which makes the film very one-note. The wife is in the hospital. Scottie, his youngest daughter, has started acting out in school. Matt’s cousins are divided as whether he should sell the family land or not, and are putting pressure on him both ways. He goes to the Big Island to pick up Alexandra, his 17 year old daughter, from the school she is in. She’s generally obnoxious and we learn she’s had a drinking problem and has been going out with older guys. I would have thought that Payne, of all writers, could have picked up the novel’s dry counterpoint to all that misery. It’s a long way into the opening of the film before they bring on someone who might help. Alexandra insists on bringing her friend Sid to stay with them. She tells Matt she will be less of a bitch with him there. Sid is a typical teenage guy: insensitive, tactless, and we don’t get enough of him to help the film.

And then to make matters worse for Matt, Alexandra tells him that his wife was being unfaithful to him. In football terms this is known as piling on, and you get penalized some yardage for that. At least here, it gives Matt something to do: he wants to track down the guy she was sleeping with. No, not to beat the crap out of him, but to tell him that the wife does not have too much longer to live, and he had better see her if he wants to say goodbye to her. He’s serious about that. I think we are supposed to laugh at this the way we laugh at some of the characters in About Schmidt and Sideways, but the humor is not there in the script. Matt is still looking longsuffering, and we get a lot more closeups of George Clooney than we need, the way we did the closeups of Brad Pitt in Moneyball. Payne as writer and director is not taking advantage of Clooney’s slyness for rhythmical balance.

They discover that the wife’s lover has gone off to Kauai and they follow him there. In a nice scene in a hotel between Matt and Sid, we learn that Sid has only recently lost his father. If we had learned that sooner, the writers could have used it a lot better. The foursome discovers the house he and his wife are staying in is owned by one of the King cousins, and worse, Brian, the lover, is in league with the developers who want to buy the land. And still Matt does not just punch him out. We do get a few interesting scenes. Matt and Alexandra show up on Brian’s front porch and Alexandra distracts Julie, Brian’s wife, while Matt talks to Brian. The Matt-Brian scene comes close to what we expect from Payne.

Matt also gets a scene with Cousin Hugh, the only one of the family who is at all well defined as a character. We could have done with him earlier and in more scenes, but the one we have with him is nice. As is the scene a few days later at the hospital. Julie, not Brian, shows up with flowers for the wife. Brian had confessed the affair to her after Matt left, and she felt they owed it to the wife. Julie may also have felt she owed it to Matt. He baffled her when he left her house by kissing her full on the lips. The Matt-Julie scene in the hospital is the best scene in the film, at least partially because here is someone who understands and is sympathetic with Matt. And the writers are restrained enough so the two don’t fall into the nearest empty hospital bed.

Matt does the right thing and does not sell the land. He begins to think about ways to save it in its natural state, although why this had not occurred to him before is not clear. The film is very good at showing the way the real Hawaii looks (suburbs, narrow roads), so that when we do get to see the land, we are impressed with its natural beauty.

In the final scene Matt and his two kids sit on the couch together and watch television. I think we are supposed to feel he is a better father now, but it is more that the kids have come to appreciate him. I suppose at this point Matt will take what he can get.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011. Written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 129 minutes.)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Unbalanced: You may remember that both my grandson and I liked the first film of what may be a new franchise, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. The re-imagining of Holmes as an action hero did not do too much damage to the character, since as one of the writers pointed out, Conan Doyle frequently mentions but does not show Holmes’s physical skills. So naturally my grandson and I went off to see the new one, along with my granddaughter, who had also liked the first one. When we came out of this one, we all agreed that this one was not quite up to Sherlock Holmes. First, we all thought that it is not as funny. That can kill you in this kind of picture.

We also all agreed that this one is not as fresh as the first one. The idea of rethinking Holmes was a new way of telling the stories, but we know that going into this one. The writers are a new team; the only one of the several writers on the original involved here is Lionel Wigram, but only as a producer. They have not developed that view of Holmes beyond what was established the first time around. There are some good action sequences (I particularly liked the one in the munitions factory), but none of them are as inventive as the previous film’s. In the first film, they thought about having Holmes chase that film’s villain all over Europe, but decided to stick to Victorian England. Here we do go zipping around the Continent, but the writers don’t do as much with it as they could. There is a nice castle on a mountain, but they have not used it very inventively. The writers of the first film struck a nice balance between the action scenes and Holmes thinking through the clues. Here there is more emphasis on the action, so much so that the thinking scenes seem tacked on.

The writers also spend a lot of time on the bromance elements of Holmes and Watson, so much so it gets rather heavy going in places. We get it, now move on. Rachel McAdams is back briefly, very briefly, as Irene Adler, and she is better here than in the first one, possibly because she has less to do. Kelly Reilly is back as Watson’s wife, and now they are just using makeup to cover up her freckles, but she does turn out to be a crack codebreaker just when they need one. I suppose that is a fair trade. Holmes and Watson are also involved with a gypsy fortuneteller, Madame Simza. She generally just tags along, and it is a real waste of Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander. How’s about they throw the real Salander in to deal with Holmes? I’d pay to see that.

The arch-villain here is Professor James Moriarty, the predecessor to every arch-villain who came after Conan Doyle. As good as Jared Harris is in the role, he is not given very much to do. Harris gives good attitude, but a little of that goes a long way. Maybe they should have made Moriarity an action villain like they made Holmes an action hero.

My Week with Marilyn (2011. Screenplay by Adrian Hodges, based on the diaries of Colin Clark. 99 minutes.)

My Week with Marilyn

Lord Larry’s revenge: That’s the way the credits read: based on Clark’s diaries. Elsewhere it’s been said that the script is based on his two books, My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. I suspect the credits read the way they do because several people have called into question the accuracy of Clark’s books. If you are saying something is from a person’s diaries, we are more likely to take it at face value. In this case, you shouldn’t. The film, the books, and the diaries deal with a young Colin Clark working as a third assistant director on the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Laurence Olivier directed himself and Marilyn Monroe. As Clark tells it, he was not only Marilyn’s caretaker, but also her sort-of lover. This creates a problem I always have with movies based on first person accounts. For example, Out of Africa (1985) is based on Karen Blixen’s version of her romance with Denys Finch Hatton (although the IMDb lists two books by others as source material for the film). I for one would really love to have heard Denys’s version of this crazy Danish woman he was schtupping between flying and hunting big game.

The film is clearly set up as a showcase for the actress playing Marilyn, but the script does not go deep enough or sharply enough into her. Michelle Williams has received critical acclaim for her performance. I was not so taken with her. Technically she gets a lot right: the look, the body movement, etc. Check out the credits for the long list of technical advisers Williams had. Unfortunately, Williams does not pop off the screen as Marilyn does. Given the way the film is structured, that’s lethal. But here is the irony: Marilyn stole The Prince and the Showgirl from Olivier, and Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Olivier steals this picture. He gets all the good lines and good reactions. The other supporting actors are also wonderful, except for Eddie Redmayne, who plays Colin Clark. He just stands around looking goofy in the presence of Marilyn. I suspect this is historically accurate, and he is hardly the first man to have that reaction to Marilyn Monroe, but it makes for a dull character.

Love & Other Drugs (2010. Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy. 112 minutes.)

Love & Other Drugs

What is this movie about?: I missed this one when it was in theaters. It popped up recently on HBO and I gave it a shot. It’s a classic example of a movie being “developed” in all the wrong ways. The book it’s based on is a memoir by Reidy of his time as a Viagra salesman in its early days. In the book, he has a large number of quickie affairs. The rights were picked up by Charles Randolph, a writer and producer who is best known as one of the writers for the 2005 film The Interpreter, which also suffered in the development process. Randolph did a loose adaptation called Pharma and one of the big changes he made in the story was to give Jamie, the main character, a real love interest. Well, I suppose it does give a structure to the material, but it makes it more conventional. Why would we want to watch conventional love scenes when you can show us the process by which Big Pharma peddles its wares? And Jamie having a variety of sexual encounters really would have more to do with the impact of Viagra than a single affair.

(The background on the script development is from Peter Clines article in the November/December 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting. A couple of sad notes here. Creative Screenwriting has, they hope temporarily, stopped publishing as a magazine. Given all the useful stuff I and others have found in it, we all wish the publisher Bill Donovan can get it up and running again. The second sad note is that its chief competitor Script Magazine has been sold off by Final Draft to F&W Media. F&W has also stopped publication of Script, but at least for now is continuing it as a website. You can check it out at www.scriptmag.com. I suspect the economy in general played a big part in closing down the published editions of the two magazines, and I’m sorry to see them both go. It’s not as if more general publications have taken up the slack with stories on screenwriters and screenwriting.)

The Pharma script eventually got to Zwick and Herskovitz, best known for their thirtysomething television series, but who have also done at a lot of good work since, both in films and television. They were interested in the love affair and began to develop that. They also began developing supporting characters, including a younger brother for Jamie named Josh. Josh dropped out of school, but became a multimillionaire by creating a medical software company. His girlfriend has dumped him and he moves in with Jamie, which leads, supposedly, to hilarity as he is constantly interrupting Jamie and Maggie when they are about to have sex.

So what we end up with is a script that spends way too much time on the romance, especially in the first hour of the film. We get some of the sales efforts of Jamie, but Viagra is not introduced until well into the picture. Maggie has Parkinson’s, so we get an anti-medical convention that is sort of a self-help group for sufferers of Parkinson’s. Late in the picture, we get a doctor who has been a secondary character giving a long speech on the difficulties of running his practice and dealing with Big Pharma and insurance companies. Sturges might have brought that off, but these guys don’t. In other words, the final film does not seem to know what it is about.

So it is not surprising that when it came time to sell the film to the public, the emphasis was on the fact that the two major stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, actually did some of their scenes…gasp…nude. The article on the film in the November 26th, 2010 Entertainment Weekly was only about the nude scenes. As attractive as both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are, the love scenes get rather boring, especially when nothing else is happening. Better they kept their clothes on and see how sexy they could be that way. But that would have required that Zwick, who also directed, have a better feel for how to make sensuality work on-screen. He’s not alone. There are not a lot of male American directors who can do that.

The Great Moment (1944. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on the book Triumph Over Pain by René Fülöp-Miller. 83 minutes.)

The Great Moment

The Sturges Project, Take Six: The Great Moment is the black sheep of the Sturges family. You may have vaguely heard of it, but you most likely have not seen it. And for good reason. It is a mess. And that is not all Buddy DeSilva’s fault.

Fülöp-Miller’s book was published in English in 1938. It tells the full, complicated story of the development of the use of anesthesia in medicine in the 19th Century. Now that’s a barrel of laughs. The book was controversial, and one of the controversies was over Fülöp-Miller’s claim that the use of ether as an anesthetic was really the discovery of a non-descript Boston dentist named William Morton in the 1840s. Europeans had long accepted Morton’s claim, but in America it was widely disputed at the time, with all kinds of medical hustlers coming out of the woodwork and claiming it was their idea. Paramount bought the film rights to the book, seeing it as a possible project for director Henry Hathaway and Gary Cooper. The studio was undoubtedly thinking of it as a typical ‘30s Great Man biography. See US#52 for my discussion of two of the best known films of the genre, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Since Morton was a more down-to-earth figure, one could see Paramount thinking of Cooper. Unfortunately Hathaway and Cooper left the studio. Nobody else at the studio had any interest in the project. Until Preston Sturges picked it up. (The background here is, as before, from James Curtis’s biography Between Flops and Brian Henderson’s Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges.)

Nobody quite knows why Sturges took a liking to the material in 1939. He certainly saw the connections to his 1933 screenplay The Power and the Glory, with right turning out wrong, and Curtis suspects he liked the idea of the ingratitude shown Morton by his peers. Never underestimate the appeal of a martyred character to a screenwriter who has not yet had his chance to direct. Sturges worked on the screenplay off and on during 1939, even as he was preparing to direct The Great McGinty. He may have been hoping it would be his second film as a director. Early on in the writing, Sturges decided on a rather odd structure. Most biographical films start with the hero’s humble beginnings, follow him through his trials with all the stupid people who resist his ideas, and then end with his moment of triumph and fame. Sturges starts just after Morton’s death when Eben Frost, Morton’s assistant, comes to visit Morton’s widow. The two take us into flashbacks, but not of the early days. The flashbacks start with Morton’s triumph suggesting that ether, which he uses as a dentist, can be used in regular surgery. Then the flashbacks tell of all the problems he had afterwards: people claiming to have discovered it first, his inability to get a patent on it, and finally his death. At this point we are half-way through the script, and the flashbacks now take up his early days as he stumbles into his discovery, ending the film when he agrees to tell the medical establishment what his secret ingredient is, since they will not use it without knowing.

What was Sturges thinking? We know he saw a thematic connection with The Power and the Glory, and that may have led him to think of a structural connection, using the same kind of multiple flashbacks. Because Sturges was interested in the story of how badly Morton was treated later, he might have wanted to get that message out first so we would feel more sympathy with Morton. Or it may have been that he knew that material was the most serious in the film, which he might have hoped would put the audience in the proper mood, helping them get through some of the comedy sequences as Morton stumbles toward his discovery. By the end of December 1939, he put away the three drafts of the script he had written and did not come back to them until early 1942. We know he had been thinking he would alternate between flat-out comedy and slightly more serious films, so he may have resurrected the script as one of the serious ones. But things had changed at Paramount.

His films had been critical successes, but with the exception of The Lady Eve (1941) they had not been huge successes at the box office. There was no one at the studio who remembered buying the book, and no one but Sturges to root for it. And Buddy DeSylva thought it was repulsive. I mentioned in writing about Sullivan’s Travels (1942) that “the new executives” at Paramount liked it when they first saw it. William LeBaron, Sturges’s protector at Paramount, left the studio in February 1941, and he was replaced as head of production by songwriter, writer and producer B.G. “Buddy” DeSylva. I put in the link to DeSylva’s IMDb page so you can see he was not a slacker. You would have thought he and Sturges would get along, and they appeared to, at least for a while. But Triumph Over Pain drove them apart. DeSylva hated the project, and Sturges did not help matters. Sturges kept insisting the written foreword (all biographical pictures have to have a written foreword; it’s the law) include a zinger against statues of generals on horseback. In 1942? In the middle of the war? Sturges also kept fighting to keep the title Triumph Over Pain, which nobody else wanted.

The production went reasonably well, but when the film was completed and shown at a sneak preview, the results were mixed, to say the least. DeSylva took the film away from Sturges and recut it. It did not help. The film was a flop.

Thanks to Brian Henderson, we have a pretty good idea what was cut from the film: most of the first half hour or more. Sturges’s script and film started out with a sequence of a young boy being taken into surgery in the present day, and we learn it will not hurt because of anesthesia. This was cut completely. We do get Eben Frost getting one of Morton’s medals out of hock and bringing it to Mrs. Morton, but their scene is condensed. A long flashback of Morton and his wife preparing for bed is cut completely. In it Morton says he decided to tell the doctors that his treatment was simply ether, but DeSylva felt that that gave away the ending of the film and was cut. A sly scene in which Morton approaches a military colonel about his invention was cut, so we don’t get the colonel looking over his drawer of other inventions, mostly deadly. The flashbacks begin in the film with Morton getting a letter to come to Washington, but a very Sturges scene of Morton meeting President Pierce has been condensed to the point of all plot and no texture. The opening twenty minutes of the film goes so fast we can hardly figure out what is going on.

Once we get into the flashbacks leading up to the discovery, the film follows the script more closely, and naturally flows better. But Sturges undercuts himself. He wrote to a friend after the film was finished that “although I put in as much fun as I could, the story of Morton is still serious, thrilling, and a little sad.” Some of the comedy scenes, such as the President Pierce scene, or an early one with Jackson, a sort of mentor/rival of Morton’s, are good character comedy, but many of the scenes are out-and-out slapstick (Eben Frost’s first visit to Morton, where he jumps out the window) and work against the seriousness of the material rather than as a counterpoint. Sturges had written some nice dialogue humor into his script for the 1938 historical film If I Were King, which works better in connection with the story than the slapstick does in The Great Moment.

Even Struges’s friends had trouble with the film. When he completed his cut, he showed it to cinematographer John Seitz, who had not photographed the film. Seitz’s reaction was, “Why did you end the picture on the second act?” I don’t think Seitz was simply objecting to the putting the serious section first, but that the ending seems rather abrupt. Morton has his “great moment,” giving his idea to all mankind, the end. The script and the film both need another scene or two, including at least one to indicate how Morton was finally, years after his death, got his proper due for his work.

If we had Sturges’s cut, would it work? Probably not, although it certainly would have played better than DeSylva’s cut. But the seriousness and comedy never jell in the version we have, especially since Sturges as director pushes the slapstick to a higher level than he should for this picture. I am not sure audiences in 1942, given that they had been used to the typical Hollywood historical biographies, would have accepted the particular mixture Struges gives us. And Sturges may have known that. After The Great Moment, he wrote The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which was shot in 1942 but held for release because of censorship problems until 1944. Sturges then wrote Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) which DeSylva also recut. Eventually when DeSylva essentially gave Sturges a choice of recutting either Great Moment or Hero, Sturges picked, wisely, Hero. He may have accepted that Great Moment was a lost cause. In spite of what film editors tell you, a film cannot be “saved” in the editing room if there is no there there to be saved.

Susan Slept Here (1954. Screenplay by Alex Gottlieb, based on the play by Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb. 98 minutes.)

Susan Slept Here

Let me save you from this one: Elaine Lennon, an Irish friend of mine, suggested I take a look at this one, since it is about a screenwriter, and we don’t get a lot of those. Since it takes place at Christmas, TCM ran it in December and I watched it. I am still speaking to Elaine.

Mark Christopher is indeed a screenwriter. He even won an Oscar, and it is his Oscar that narrates the movie. A lot could be done with that, but nothing is, probably because the script is based on a stage play and everything is explained by all the characters in more detail than we need. Since Billy Wilder had Sunset Boulevard narrated by a—spoiler alert—dead man, you can imagine what he could have done with a talking Oscar. We do see Mark watching one of his bad old movies on television and he lip-syncs to the dialogue, but that’s about it. The story gets going when two police detectives bring him a juvenile delinquent for Christmas. He had told them he was thinking about doing a script about a delinquent and would like to talk to one. They thought of him when they picked up this kid, since if they don’t palm the kid off on Mark, the kid will have to go to detention over Christmas. Shades of Preston Sturges’s script for Remember the Night (1940; see US#38). And the 17-year-old delinquent is a girl. My mouth waters at what Diablo Cody could do with that. But Gottlieb was well into middle age, and had not a clue what a teenage delinquent girl was like. Keep in mind this was made the year before The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. And it gets worse. The girl is played by Debbie Reynolds, the least delinquent girl in movies ever.

Unlike Christopher Hampton on A Dangerous Method (see US#88), Gottlieb did not open up the play. We spent most of the 98 minutes in Mark’s apartment; one reason Elaine likes the movie in a guilty pleasure sort of way is that she loves what she calls his “Palm Springs moderne” ‘50s apartment. The few times we go outside, it is for nothing that is not discussed in the film.

By the middle of the film everybody has pretty much forgotten that Susan is a delinquent. Mark never talks to her about her life in any sort of way that suggests he is thinking about writing about it. The film simply turns into a romance between her and the 35 year old writer, played by the 49-year-old Dick Powell. Cre-e-e-e-py.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.

Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.

In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.

At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.

The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.

It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”

Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization

The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.

Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.

In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.

The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.

León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León, Michael J. White Screenwriter: Melina León Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora

The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.

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Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.

Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.

But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.

Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.

Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.

Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”

It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.

If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.

Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020

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Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen

Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

2.5

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Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.

Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.

As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.

The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.

Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.

There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny

The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.

3

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.

Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.

While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.

A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.

The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.

Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia

The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.

For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.

From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.

This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.

Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.

Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.

Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.

Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.

We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time

Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.

1.5

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Summerland
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.

We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.

From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.

The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.

By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: The Fight Is a Humanizing Look at the ACLU’s Fight for Civil Rights

The film justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

2.5

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The Fight

Wearing its allegiances on its sleeve, Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg’s snappy The Fight often succeeds at making the travails of civil rights lawyers in the Trump era visually and emotionally engaging. It follows five lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they shuttle between New York, Washington D.C., and the Southwest, spearheading efforts to counter numerous assaults on the rights of immigrants, women, and transgender people. The film might be described with equal accuracy as a humanizing look behind the headlines or as a particularly slick ACLU fundraising video.

After evoking American liberals’ most concentrated moment of collective trauma by playing audio from Trump’s inauguration over the production company logos, the film jumps into a prologue showing ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt obtaining a stay on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” After this (later overturned) legal win, Gelernt becomes the lead on the ACLU’s lawsuits over child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, while colleagues Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, and the team of Lee Block and Chase Strangio work on abortion rights for detained migrants, the notorious “citizenship question” proposed for the 2020 census, and trans rights in the military.

Lawyering and court proceedings become fast-paced and heroic in the filmmakers’ depiction of the crusading attorneys. Film crews follow them as they file briefs, struggle to balance family and work life, cope with surprising rulings, and—in a moment of unrehearsed farce—do battle with Microsoft Word’s imperfect dictation feature. Some behind-the-scenes moments have a rehearsed, reality-TV quality to them, like Block and Strangio’s stilted discussion of why Block should take the lead on the trans rights case, even though Strangio is the only trans lawyer at the organization—a decision that had clearly already been made before the cameras started rolling. On the whole, however, the documentary achieves the narrative flow it strives for, presenting its somewhat nerdy heroes rising to face the left’s most infamous bêtes noirs—like when Amiri presents a case before a pre-Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh.

A limitation on the film’s project is that the sexiest part of a civil rights attorney’s job—delivering soaring speeches about right and wrong to impassive figures dressed in the black robes of authority—isn’t accessible to cameras. Federal courts allow audio but not video recording, so for the latter the filmmakers substitute minimally animated illustrations, inspired by courtroom sketches but rendered in much more stylized fashion—expressively shaded and, for some reason, dominated by autumnal hues.

The animated sequences emblematize the film’s main fault: how it emphasizes easy visual appeal at the expense of a more interrogative approach. The title sequence is a fast-paced montage of news footage sliding in and out of shifting panels that subdivide the screen. It’s a motif that’s repeated throughout the film, and resembles the opening credits of Parks and Recreation, as if consciously channeling the Obama-era optimism of liberal millennials’ beloved sitcom. Following a theme, then, the first third of The Fight also introduces us to the ACLU’s New York offices as an energetic, offbeat space: Among the generally youthful staff, the middle-aged and out-of-the-loop Gelernt, his iPhone perpetually on the brink of battery death, comes off here as a more competent version of Parks and Rec’s Jerry Gergich.

Despite how often the film tries to be consumable at the expense of being thorough, at The Fight’s best moments, it both humanizes figures who only appear in the news stories as one-dimensional side notes and provides deeper context for viral footage that has defined the Trump era, like that of migrant children being reunited with their parents. And while the whole has been engineered to not overtax viewers with details of legal labor, it also contains illuminating tidbits of courtroom strategy—like when Block and Strangio page through candidates for the perfect plaintiff to represent in a class-action suit, or when Ho describes the oblique angle at which one must approach arguments around government officials’ racial bias. There’s a more complex documentary on the legal front in the struggle against authoritarianism waiting to be made, but The Fight’s lionization of the ACLU justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

Director: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 96 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Flesh and Blood at 35: Medieval Ironies

By all accounts, this should have been Paul Verhoeven’s Vera Cruz.

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Flesh and Blood
Photo: Orion Pictures

Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood is styled on screen as Flesh + Blood, as though the filmmaker were consciously working out an algorithm to account for his artistic sensibilities. By all accounts, this should have been his Vera Cruz: a down-and-dirty medieval romp that adumbrates the fallout of former partners in carnage parting ways and turning on each other. But the burdens of helming a logistically convoluted international co-production, wrangling a diverse and opinionated cast, and running the gauntlet of studio interference in the central storyline inevitably took their toll. What resulted is a solid actioner with flashes of brilliance. Outrageous in its unabashed blend of ultraviolence and profanation, Flesh and Blood stands as another testament to its director’s determination not to push the envelope, but rather to fail to recognize the envelope’s very existence in the first place.

In other words, Flesh and Blood is the anti-Ladyhawke, that other Middle Ages-set epic starring Rutger Hauer to come out in 1985. In place of the latter’s lush romanticism, complete with tortured shape-shifting lovers separated by a churchman’s curse, and a helpful little burglar played by Ferris Bueller, we’re treated over the course of the film to the more dubious spectacle of a gang rape and a catapult flinging plague-ridden dog carcass into a besieged stronghold. “Pretty strong meat there,” as the sniffling film critic in “Sam Peckinpah’s ’Salad Days,’” one of Monty Python’s funniest sketches, would have observed. However compromised the central conceit, moments of brazen effrontery help Flesh and Blood effectively shatter the staid sheen of chivalry studiously cultivated by many a medieval film.

Then, too, there’s Verhoeven’s cheeky appropriation of religious iconography for more sanguinary martial purposes. Early on, the sword-for-hire Martin (Hauer) unearths a statue of St. Martin of Tours, a saint with a sword, which the mercenary band of brothers’ resident cardinal (Ronald Lacey) promptly declares a sign from God above. Throughout Flesh and Blood, they will use this relic as a tool for divination to guide their way (with questionable results). Late in the film, Verhoeven brilliantly frames a shot with the saint in the background and Martin, a veritable double in the flesh, whetting his sword in the foreground. Needless to say, Martin’s proclivities are far from sanctified (witness the aforementioned sexual assault).

Beyond the portentous irony contained in these saintly invocations, Verhoeven doubtless has a larger point: Throughout history, relics and iconography have been used as armaments in battles between cultures and religions. They have a double meaning, seemingly proclaiming: “Not only is your god my devil, but my god has sanctioned, through martial figures like Martin of Tours, the deployment of all-too-earthly means by which to prove it.” In the end, the film’s greatest irony, and the often-pedestrian narrative’s most brilliant stroke, isn’t to decide in favor or against Martin. He’s of a piece with his nature, and he leaves the story as he entered it: unchanged and unbowed by the carnage he’s both witness to and agent of.

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