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Understanding Screenwriting #9: Rachel Getting Married, Body of Lies, How I Met Your Mother, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #9: Rachel Getting Married, Body of Lies, How I Met Your Mother, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Rachel Getting Married; Body of Lies; Beverly Hills Chihuahua; How I Met Your Mother; Boston Legal; ER; Crash; Mad Men; First Middle Passage of TV Season, but first…

Fan Mail: Just a brief word on Randy’s comment about Mad Men’s “recontextualizing” of the Carousel projector. Most good shows and films do that all the time. It becomes apparent when you watch something a second time and see how well the filmmakers (yes, I would include directors here) have set elements up that pay off in later ways, such as adding to the meaning of a later scene. See below for some examples in this column’s items.

Rachel Getting Married (2008. Written by Jenny Lumet. 113 minutes): An unpleasant woman shows up for her sister’s wedding and causes all kinds of—wait a minute, didn’t we see this picture last year and wasn’t it called Margot at the Wedding? Well, this one has more music in it. Which is not necessarily a good thing.

The good news is that Lumet has created a terrific main character, Kym, who has been let out of rehab to go to the wedding. She is played by Anne Hathaway. Yes, the cute sweety of The Princess Diaries. But there is nothing sweet about her Kym, and Hathaway tears into the part the way Halle Berry and Charlize Theron tore into their de-glamorized roles in Monster’s Ball and Monster, respectively. Maybe they should have titled this one Monster at the Wedding. What is it anyway about ugly that brings out the most ferocious sides of beautiful actresses?

The first problem with the script is that Lumet does not know what to do with Kym after she has several disruptive scenes with her family. In the second half of the film I think we are supposed to believe that she has come to terms with her family, but that is not really worked out in scenes.

The second problem is that the other characterizations in the script are variable. Rachel, the sister getting married, is strong and has several good scenes with Kym, and Paul, their father, has some nice moments. But Sidney, the groom, is a complete blank, as are his parents. O.K., the film is about Rachel and her family, but Lumet could give the others at least a line or two to define them. Look at Sabrina Dhawan’s screenplay for Monsoon Wedding as an example of how to do it. Carol, the girls’ stepmom, is a nothing part, although since she is played by the great Anna Deavere Smith you keep expecting a great scene with her. There may have been one that got cut. Abby, the girls’ birth mother, is a tricky part, since it appears she walked out on the girls and her husband, as she seems to again here at the end. But Debra Winger is playing Abby, and she has always been one of the most present actresses on film, so she is miscast as someone who keeps fading away.

Because the characterizations are not as sharp as they need to be, scenes that might work don’t. At one point Paul and Sidney get into a discussion of how to load a dishwasher and have a contest to see whose way is faster. Since Paul has not been established as competitive and Sidney has not been established at all, the scene just sits there. According to interviews with Lumet, the scene was inspired by a real life incident in which her father and a friend of his got into that discussion. You know the scene was more interesting in real life when you realize her father is director Sidney Lumet and his friend was Bob Fosse.

Because the script runs out of steam in the last third, the director Jonathan Demme has loaded up the film with a variety of musicians. Watching the last third is like going to a movie and having a concert break out. The music takes us away from the story and the characters.

As does the camerawork. Demme, to give it a “home movie”/documentary feel, has overused a handheld camera. Two problems: first, the shaky-cam look is something that direct cinema filmmakers gave up on in the late sixties. Look at Albert Maysles’s camerawork in the 1969 documentary Salesman, where you can hardly tell it is handheld. Fiction film and television makers continued to use it (Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives and Homicide: Life on the Street), but it is simply annoying. They should have handed out Dramamine at screenings of Rodger Dodger in 2003. The second problem is that the shaky-cam distracts from the performances. In several shots in Rachel, I was so busy trying to find Hathaway’s face in the frame that I missed the emotion she was expressing.

Body of Lies (2008. Screenplay by William Monahan, based on the novel by David Ignatius. 128 minutes): The C.I.A. mucking about in the Middle East, dealing with terrorist and suave local security people—wait a minute, didn’t we see this picture last year and wasn’t it called The Kingdom? No, totally different. That was about the F.B.I. mucking about, etc. and this one is about the C.I.A..

Body of Lies starts out with a rousing scene: British police try to capture terrorists in their home, but one of the terrorists blows up himself, his family, his house, and several of the British police. Action movies these days tend to start off with BIG action sequences, and since this film is directed by Ridley Scott, who directed Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, you can bet he makes it very rousing. But then the story turns conventional: C.I.A. guy on the ground in the Middle East, Ferris, is trying to track down the biggest terrorist of them all. No, not bin Laden, but a fictional one. After all, you don’t spend several million dollars and a year or so of production on a real person who might be caught or killed while you are spending the time and money.

You can see why the C.I.A. wants to get this guy. On the basis of the first hour of the film, he is a lot more efficient than Al Qaeda has turned out to be. He pulls off as many terrorist attacks in Europe in a month than actual terrorists have pulled off in the last eight years. Since there are only a couple of minor mentions of Iraq, this may the first post-Iraq War movie. The focus is entirely on the terrorists, or at least this James Bond villain super-terrorist.

The first hour is mostly conventional stuff, with Ferris running around various countries. His boss at the C.I.A. is Ed Hoffman, whose first scene, briefing some unnamed politicians, suggests he and the film understand asymmetrical warfare: we are high tech and the terrorists are low tech, which means they can get the better of us by very simple means. The film only comes back to that in one of the best scenes in the second half: a character in the middle of the desert is kidnapped by people in four cars, who drive around him so much they create a dust cloud. Our cameras in a spy plane cannot see what happens in the dust, and the four cars drive off in different directions, leaving Hoffman and us to wonder which car the victim is in, and recontextualizing Hoffman’s first scene. If only the rest of the script was that smart and inventive.

I wrote in my last column about American Gangster, also directed by Ridley Scott, and mentioned how it spends way too much time setting up the story and not enough time developing the most interesting narrative elements. There is a similar problem here. About an hour into the picture Ferris comes up with a great idea (that would probably not work in real life, but this is the movies, so…): Set up a completely bogus terrorist ring that will bring the super-terrorist out to confront them. That is the story the picture should have been about. As it stands, it gets rushed into the third quarter of the film, and you can watch all the opportunities that story has just fly by, with Monahan not having the time to develop that story line properly.

Now what if they had told that story? It would have been a better film, but would it have made the film a commercial hit? Probably not, since there has been no indication at the box office in the last year or so that more than a small minority of the movie-going community wants to see films about the Middle East. Which is why Body of Lies, with its hotshot director and two BIG stars (Di Caprio and Crowe) was outgrossed in its first weekend by the second weekend of … Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua(2008. Screenplay by Analisa LaBianco and Jeff Bushell, story by Jeff Bushell. 91 minutes): Why do we go to see a movie?

I mentioned in US#3 that I had liked the trailers for Tropic Thunder, but then was put off by the scenes I saw on talk shows. The Beverly Hills Chihuahua trailer made it look like a silly movie, with what were probably the only good jokes in the film in the trailer. The reviews were generally awful. It was the top of the box office its first weekend, but that can be accounted for by people simply wanting to get away from all the bad financial news and the never-ending presidential campaign. But then it topped its second weekend. OK, the financial news was still bad, and the campaign was still never-ending, although they are rumors the latter will stop soon. Sometimes I’ll see a movie I hadn’t planned to because it turns out to be a big hit, but I was not yet convinced by this one. Then Drew Barrymore, who voices the title character, Chloe, showed up on Leno with a clip. It was not just jokes, but the movie seem to have developed … characters.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a silly movie. But it is not a stupid silly movie. It’s a smart silly movie. The characters, yes, even, or especially, the dogs are well drawn. Chloe is the pampered pet of cosmetics tycoon Vivian, who leaves her in the care of her scatterbrained niece Rachel, who manages to lose her on a trip to Mexico. Chloe is established as spoiled, but early on in the Mexico section he watches part of a Day of the Dead celebration and likes it. Well, yes, it would appeal to her love of the gaudy, but it also suggests she may be more open to another culture than her human owners. One problem with American indie films like Rachel Getting Married is that the characters are hermetically sealed in their own little universe and never get out of it. And when they do, as in Body of Lies, they screw up. Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a little cheerier than that.

Chloe is rescued by Delgado, another dog. He is Charlie Alnutt to her Rose Sayer. He is an ex-police dog with a secret and a very gruff manner. LaBianco and Bushell have written some good reactions for him, and good scenes with Chloe. One sharp scene, in a train yard, riffs on Brief Encounter, The Defiant Ones, and In the Line of Fire in the course of about a minute without being obvious about it. Delgado is such a strong character that an unspoken triangle develops between him, Chloe, and Papi, the dog belonging to Vivian’s landscaper who ends up in Mexico hunting for Chloe with Rachel. Papi is feisty and smart-mouthed, getting one of the best lines in the picture. When the Mexican police are reluctant to swing into action, he says, “We are Mexicans, not Mexican’ts.”

One complaint critics had was that the film was demeaning to Mexico and Mexicans. It isn’t. The film loves Mexico and Mexican culture. The Mexicans, both human and canine, are no sillier than the gringos, both human and canine, and some of them, like Delgado and Monte, are smarter. Monte is the chief of a Wild Bunch of Chihuahuas who rescue Chloe and Delgado, and instill pride in Chloe for being a Chihuahua. That sounds funny, and it is, because the word “Chihuahua” is essentially funny, but the scene is also touching. Having Plácido Domingo doing the voice helps. I will not tell you, by the way, who does the voice of Delgado. You could look it up, but see the film without knowing and see if you can guess. Amazing what an actor can do if he does not have to be seen.

OK, I will admit this is not a great movie, but it is a much better one than other critics have told you. It is yet another example, along with Chaplin and Eastwood where the public was way ahead of the critics.

How I Met Your Mother(2008. Episode “Intervention” written by Stephen Lloyd. 30 minutes): Every good show eventually has an episode everyone connected with it would just like to forget. This will be one of those.

Lily and Marshall are moving out of the apartment they share with Ted, who is also moving out. He is going to Jersey to live with Stella, who does not appear in this episode at all. The gang begins to have memories of interventions they have had for each other: an alcoholic friend, Lily’s fake English accent, Robin’s bad tan. None of these connect, nor are particularly funny in themselves. The discussion leads to the discovery that the gang had planned an intervention with Ted about his marrying Stella, but decided not to do it. His persuades them to have the intervention now. See the problem the showrunners have by jumping ahead at the beginning of the season? We are seeing something semi-re-created that we should have seen “live” when the idea came to the gang. Ted and Marshall decide to stay in the apartment, which makes sense only in keeping the cast in enough proximity they can continue to interact. Robin decides not to move to Japan. Then they all go to their bar and decide to go. Not exactly firm decision makers, are they? But they decide to meet back at the bar a year later. We jump ahead a year and they are back at the bar, but say they are going back up to their apartment. That’s a lot of dancing around just to keep everything the same.

And there is still no additional development of the Barney-loves-Robin storyline.

Boston Legal (2008. Episode “True Love” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes): Remember Phoebe from two weeks ago? The lawyer Alan Shore was once truly in love with? You don’t think a smart writer like David E. Kelley would let her get away, do you? She’s ba-a-a-ck.

She shows up in the middle of an Alan-Denny sleepover with the distressing news that her husband, “the best cardiologist in Boston,” as she tells Alan several times, has been arrested for murder. He agrees to take the case, although Denny, in one his more lucid moments, tells him to get out of it. Denny says that if he loses the case, he will embarrass himself in front of the woman he loves. If he wins, he will lose Phoebe. Alan continues on the case, of course. Phoebe tells Alan he still loves her, and that she loves him, but she is staying with her husband no matter the outcome.

In Act III (of the five acts Kelley uses; see what I told in US#6 about dividing up stories into however many acts you want?), Alan tells Phoebe he will not call her husband to the stand, since he is so cold and unsympathetic. He will call Phoebe, and he hopes that she will be more convincing to the jury than she is to him. What Kelley does is make us uncertain about Phoebe, but also about Alan, given Denny’s warning. Phoebe seems cold, but not as much as her husband. We don’t know what her motives are. All of this gives Ally Walker, who plays Phoebe, a lot to work with, which she does beautifully.

In Act IV, Phoebe tells the jury that her husband did leave the house the night of the murder, which she had been denying. She later tells Alan she was afraid of perjury. Is she lying? On the stand? To Alan? Alan talks to the husband, and then attacks Phoebe on the stand, asking her if she had had treatment for mental illness and had pulled a knife on her daughter. She denies this, but Alan plants the seed that she might have committed the murder.

Act V: the verdict is Not Guilty. Phoebe shows up in Alan’s office and admits she planned the defense, especially after he told her she was not convincing. She told her husband to tell Alan the “bad” things about her. The husband cannot be tried again because of double jeopardy, and there is no physical evidence linking her to the murder. She denied on the stand all the charges Alan made, which Alan presented in court, so she is technically not guilty of perjury. She and her husband get away free, and Alan is devastated, which we have not often seen in this show. In their final patio scene Denny tells Alan he knew she was guilty all along, but did not tell Alan. He had to find it out for himself.

This is not a typical Boston Legal episode. None of the law firm’s other characters show up, and we are focused only the one case. This gives Kelley and his cast a chance to get into the main characters with more depth than usual, as well as giving us a femme fatale in the great film noir tradition. Because of the time spent with her, we get the plot twists and turns as part of her character. And because she means so much to Alan, we get greater insight into him. By the end we actually feel sorry for him, not something that usually occurs on this show.

ER (2008. Episode “The Book of Abby” written by David Zabel. 60 minutes): How do you send off Abby Lockhart?

She has been a character on ER for ten years. She has gone from being a nurse to a doctor, had relapses as an alcoholic, dealt with a totally wacko mother, got pregnant and married, had marital difficulties, and who remembers what else? So you want to do right by her, and by Maura Tierney, the actress playing her. But this is the final season and there are going to be a lot of good-byes (they killed Pratt a few weeks before, and as I have said, nobody is safe).

The solution Zabel, who has been writing on the show since 2001, finds is to make it a typical day at County for her. We see her first in her apartment, which has been cleaned out, then coming to work, going to the locker with her nametag on it, and dealing immediately with a gunshot victim. She tells Neela that she does not want a big goodbye party, and Zabel manages to avoid one. Abby has to deal with the new Dr. Banfield, but even that is low key, although you could make the scene in which Banfield assumes Abby is new on the job into something bigger. It is more in keeping with the tone of the episode not to make it bigger.

Abby does take time to go up to surgery to watch Neela operate on the gunshot victim, and she comments on the new furniture in the observation room, a nice counterpoint to the drama. Abby goes with Sam to a hearing in which Sam may be disciplined. Abby tells off the administrators in a very conventional “on the nose” speech that tells us and them everything we already know about the ER and the people who work there. But her exit line, as she leaves the meeting, is great. She turns at the door and says, “Don’t make me come back here.”

Zabel has found another nice moment closer to the end. Abby takes the nametag over her locker and is about to leave with it when nurse Haleh says she cannot take it with her. Haleh then reveals a wall where the nametags of former doctors and nurses have been placed. We recognize many of the names. Nice detail. Nice finish for Abby and Tierney.

Crash (2008. “Episode One” written by Glenn Mazzara and Ted Mann & Randy Huggins. 52 minutes): And yes, it is based on or inspired by the 2005 film Crash, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco, story by Paul Haggis, but they somehow leave that out of the credits. One can see why.

Crash was one of the worst screenplays ever to win an Academy Award. Its view of race in Los Angeles was incredibly simplistic: everybody in LA is racist and all it takes to erupt in racist behavior is a slight shove. The view of race was that of the white, liberal, Westide of LA, NYMBY (Not in my back yard) crowd: there is a lot of racism out there and I am not guilty of it, but I may be and I certainly don’t want any of those Terminally Swarthy (in Joe Morgenstern’s great phrase) people coming to my neighborhood and robbing and killing me, raping my wife, forcing my kids to listen to rap and eat tacos and lowering property values.

Race in LA is a lot more complex and nuanced than the movie Crash captured. There are people who are obsessed with race, people who don’t think about it at all (and not just white people in this category), and people who think about it on certain occasions, just to name the major categories. Sometimes race is very much part of the public discussion (the first O.J. Simpson trial), sometimes not (the Lakers). Sometimes it is just an undercurrent, without rising to the level of public discussion. Race in LA is not as often seen in terms of the emotional violence as the movie Crash shows.

The focus of the television series has been shifted away from race as an issue, which is all to the good. The cast, at least as of the pilot, is multi-racial, although so far none of the recurring characters are Latino, which right away makes it unreal. What takes the place of race is a more general form of anger. Everybody ends up yelling at everybody else. Which is not LA. We tend to be very laid back, polite, and pleasant. Before we stick the knife in your back.

Obviously what the series needs is the sociological sophistication of Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Mad Men (2008. Episode “The Mountain King” written by Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith. 60 minutes): As I have mentioned before, one of the recurring themes in this series is the relationships between men and women, and Weiner and Veith pull off a beaut in this episode. Through a flashback, we find that Don has been approached by the widow of the “real” Don Draper. So we assume there will be legal and emotional complications. Guess again. She is the person he went to see after he skipped out on the convention in Los Angeles, and she lives in San Pedro, one of working class areas of the Los Angeles area. What we see is that our Don and Anna developed a relationship over the years. But not a romantic relationship. She is almost like a big sister to him, and freely gave him a “divorce” so that as Don Draper he can marry Betty. He is more open with Anna than he is with anybody else on the show. We learn a lot about Don (and her) in a series of beautifully written flashbacks. Perhaps what has been bothering Don the first two seasons, especially in his relationship with Betty, is that he does not have the warm relationship with anybody else that he has had with Anna.

The First Middle Passage of the 2008-2009 Television Season: Last season’s cliffhangers have been dealt with and shows are now being prepared for their November sweeps episodes. As we saw above, Phoebe is gone from Boston Legal and Abby has left ER. In Ugly Betty’s “Betty Suarez Land” they ended the Hilda and Troy romance and sent Alexis off to Europe, ending the storyline about her son. In CSI’s “The Happy Place” the CSIs are back investigating regular, i.e., weird, cases, with Sara leaving and Grissom thinking about what that means for him. Two and a Half Men still has not yet come to grips with Jake’s adolescence, and How I Met Your Mother’s “Shelter Island” episode broke up Ted and Stella and brought Robin back from Japan, while Barney has been reduced to merely wanting to sleep with Robin.

Meanwhile The Ex-List’s “Protect and Serve” (which still has Dianne Ruggiero’s name attached as executive producer, although not as the writer of this episode) has reduced the raunch element. Bella’s friend (and not her roommate, as I wrote in the last column) Vivian is now not talking about shaving her private parts. She is wearing a bikini at the beach, and her male high school students flirt with her, which leads to the school principal giving her a hard time. Bikinis for the CSI: Miami crowd, but God forbid anybody should talk about anything sexual. And Bella did not sleep with the ex-boyfriend she meets in this episode. God forbid a network series should have a really sexually active woman in the lead rather than as the kooky best friend.

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

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

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

3.5

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Relic
Photo: IFC Midnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

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

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

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

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

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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