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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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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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