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Understanding Screenwriting #90: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Contraband, & More

The idea of a film about an unwed mother first came to Preston Sturges in 1937.

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Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
Photo: Focus Features

Coming Up in This Column: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Adventures of Tintin, Contraband, Frederica Sagor Mass: An Appreciation, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Rio Grande, but first…

Fan Mail: “outsidedog” wonders, quite legitimately, why I am wasting my time with the Downey/Richtie Sherlock Holmes movies, since I did not like the most recent one. The reason I went to see it was that I had seen the first one of the new bunch and liked it. I thought it was an interesting take on the idea of Holmes. As I said in the column, the new one gets very sloppy. Sometimes there are movies you see because you think they might have something and when they don’t, you give the sequels a miss. I had a hard time staying awake during The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and knew I would never last through the rest of them. I caught the first Matrix film (1999) and it just seemed silly to me, so I passed on the others. As I said, the reason I went to the new Holmes is that the first one had shown me enough to be interested in the second. I doubt if I will see a third one, if there is a third one.

I haven’t been following the new Sherlock Holmes television series, since I am not a fan of conventional mysteries. They seem awfully slow and talky. My wife is a big fan of mysteries, both novels and television shows, but we have never got into the new one. I am glad outsidedog is paying attention to the writing and I will take his word on its quality.

David Ehrenstein raised the question of how much director Frank Tashlin may have contributed to the script of Susan Slept Here (1954). Given how bland and dull the script is, and how very much a filmed play it is, I doubt if Tashlin did any rewriting. There is nothing in the script that one could call a Tashlin touch. If he did some work on the script, he did not help it at all. But then I guess he would not have been allowed to bring Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield into the film. Although they couldn’t have made it any worse and might have helped.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011. Screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughn, based on the novel by John le Carré. 127 minutes.)

If you have to tell this story in 127 minutes, this is the way to do it: The novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first major le Carré book I read, and it remains one of my favorites. The reason I read the novel in the first place was that I had seen the 1979 television miniseries adapted from it by Arthur Hopcraft. I still consider that one of the two or three best miniseries. Ever. So you can imagine that I approached this new film with some trepidation, even after the good reviews and recommendations from friends. I have one friend who’s already seen it three times, but that’s because she’s got the hots for Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Peter Guillam. I generally hate remakes of very good films; I believe it was Pauline Kael who made the great suggestion that they should instead remake the flops and get them right.

While the new version is not going to make me forget or love the miniseries any less, it’s a very good movie. Straughn, you may remember, was one of the writers on The Debt (2010; see US#80) and knows his way around this kind of material. O’Connor was his wife and occasional co-writer; she died after the script was completed and the film is dedicated to her. The Straughns have done a great job of condensing le Carré’s massive, complex novel into the running time of a normal film. It moves quickly, but doesn’t feel rushed, not the easiest of screenwriting tasks. The pace seemed slow in the opening minutes and I was afraid they were not going to bring it off, but they did. I was a bit amazed at how much they were able to eliminate in comparison to the miniseries and still have it make sense.

There are of course problems in telling the story at this length. One of the joys of the miniseries was the time Hopcraft spent on the interrogation scenes, especially the first one with Ricki Tarr. In the miniseries you get the weight of the time and effort involved in a great interrogation. A similar situation happens with Smiley’s talking to Connie Sachs, the fired librarian of the Circus. In the miniseries you get a sense that Smiley is spending a long, boozy afternoon with Connie as he picks her brain. In the film Smiley and Connie get to the heart of the matter quickly. The length of the film also means we do not even get to meet Smiley’s adulterous wife Ann, beautifully played in the miniseries by the great Siân Phillips. We also do not get to meet Karla, the top Russian spymaster, played in the miniseries by the equally great Patrick Stewart. But I do love the Straughns’ solution to dealing with Karla. What they give us is a great monologue by Smiley, probably the most he talks in the entire film, in which he describes the meeting with Karla. As a scene it is a nice counterpoint to all the scenes in the film where we do see people meeting.

We also do not get to know the five people in the Circus that Smiley and the late Control suspect of being the mole as well as we do in the miniseries, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The basic story of Tinker Tailor was inspired by the “Cambridge Five,” as their Russian spymasters called them. They had positions of varying degrees of power in various branches of British intelligence from the late ‘30s on, and the Brits only began to suspect something was up in the late ‘40s. Three of the Five defected to Moscow, two in the early ‘50s, one in the early ‘60s. At least one source on the Internet suggests that one of the Five had revealed to Moscow that David Cornwell was working for British intelligence. Cornwell left the intelligence service, took a pen name and began writing espionage novels as John le Carré. In the novel and miniseries of Tinker Tailer we get a lot of detail about the five suspects, and more discussion of why the traitor among them was seduced by Communism in the ‘30s. There is almost nothing of that in the film, and I suspect that is because at this late date the idea that smart men would have believed in Communism may not work for contemporary audiences.

There is another way the basic material has dated. Karla is considered a genius spymaster, smarter than anybody else in the business. Again, according to one Internet source (yes, I am getting into the epistemology of the Internet, but when better to do it than with the really epistemological world of intelligence gathering?), Karla was based on a specific Russian spymaster. Maybe so, but in the novel, miniseries, and film he is a superspy and infallible. The novel was written in the early ‘70s in the middle of the Cold War. The western spy services assumed the Soviet spy services were better than ours. We now know they weren’t. After the collapse of the Soviet regime, much, how shall we say, information in the KGB files found its way to the West, and boy, while we thought MI6 and the C.I.A. were a bunch of cock-ups, the Soviets had them all beat. For example, for two years in World War II, the KGB was convinced that the Cambridge Five had to be British plants because the information they were getting was too good. So now we find it a bit hard to believe that “Karla” was all that great at his job. (A lot of information about this comes from a fascinating book I recently finished wading through called Defend the Realm: An Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrews, the leading British historian of intelligence. A warning to you: it’s 850 pages and it is not a quick read.)

The Straughns have made a couple of amusing changes from the book and the miniseries. Smiley’s young assistant, Peter Guillam, is now gay, of which there was no evidence before, and Bill Haydon, one of the five suspects, appears to be bi-sexual. Since betrayals of every kind are part of the story, including sexual ones (Haydon had an affair with Ann), the differing sexual orientations add a nice texture to the film.

The film does have a wonderful ‘70s visual feel to it. I especially liked the technology the Circus people use. I half expected Harry Caul to come in and ask for his equipment back.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011. Screenplay by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, based on the comic book series The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé. 107 minutes.)

The Adventures of Tintin

Who is this guy?: My son-in-law, who grew up in Europe and elsewhere, loved the Tintin books when he was young, and he liked this movie. He read the books to my granddaughter when she was younger, and she liked the movie. He read them to my grandson, although not as often as to my granddaughter, and he sort-of liked the movie as an action movie. My daughter did not grow up on the Tintin books, although she may have picked up information about Tintin from her husband reading to the kids, and she was lukewarm about the movie. I was only vaguely aware of Tintin before it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to produce and Steven Spielberg was going to direct this movie. I did not like the movie at all. Through the second week in February the film brought in only $76 million in the United States, while it brought in $270 million overseas.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here? No, it’s not that Americans are cultural heathens. It is that this film works best for audiences who already know and love Tintin. The filmmakers assume that the audiences will recognize Tintin as an old friend. In the opening scene we see a sidewalk artist doing a sketch of a person whose face we do not see. When the sketch is done, the artist turns it to us and to the person. The sketch is the way Tintin looked in the original comic books. I can imagine audiences made up of Tintin lovers would let out the same kind of whoop that audiences for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) made when Luke, Han and the fuzzies showed up for the first time. The opening here works beautifully for Tintin fans and does not work at all for non-fans. One of the truisms of screenwriting is that the first ten minutes of your film are absolutely crucial in setting up the world of the film. In one sense, the opening ten minutes of this film does that: we are going to see a motion capture/part-animated film in which the camera can go anywhere and will. And the plot gets into gear almost immediately: Tintin buys a model ship that suddenly people are chasing him all over town for it. Plunging into action is nearly always a good way to start. See the opening of Star Wars (1977) or any James Bond film. But for me and the rest of the American audience, we are not as caught up in the action because we do not know who Tintin is. As the film rushes around the world, we feel left out. Yes, I know that I say a lot that it is better for the film to be ahead of the audience than the audience ahead of it, but I mean that in the sense of the story, not necessarily of the characters. In The Adventures of Tintin we more or less keep up with the story, but without involvement in the characters, which lessens our emotional involvement.

I know that much is being claimed these days for motion-capture technology, but I think it hurts this film. As good as Jamie Bell as Tintin and Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock may have been performing in front of a green screen, what we get in the film is a slightly-off duplicate of their performances, rather then the real thing. Yes, the techies have put some light reflections in the characters’ eyes, but they still seem dead. Or in Haddock’s case, drunk. I suppose it is part of the original material, but wanting us to find Haddock’s alcoholism funny is the most dated element of the film. I cringed at every burp.

In writing about last year’s Rango (see US#72) I said that co-writer and director Gore Verbinski “uses animation to do gags, get angles and camera movements he could not do with all the live action talent on the Pirates movies.” The script for The Adventures of Tintin allows Spielberg to go wild in a similar way. A chase by some of the baddies of Tintin on a motorcycle is reminiscent of any number of chase scenes in the Indiana Jones movies, except the camera moves in ways it cannot possibly do in real life. The same thing in a battle between two pirate ships attached at the masts…say, didn’t we see this already in Verbinski’s 2007 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End? We did, and even though Spielberg can push his camera through small spaces that Verbinski could not, that does not make the scene better. In Rango and the Pirates movies (OK, not the fourth one) we had characters involved that the filmmakers had taken the time to make us care about.

Contraband (2012. Screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, based on the screenplay for the film Reykjavik-Rotterdam by Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson. 110 minutes.)

Contraband

A real January movie: January used to be a dumping ground for potential award-bait movies that the studios realized did not have the stuff to compete. That has changed over the last few years, at least partly in reaction to the box office pull of Taken (2008) in January 2009. The studios may have figured out that the audiences desperately wanted some relief from all the big, pretentious, end-of-the-year films. A steady diet of prestige pictures will make you puke. So while one is catching up on all those (I have a few more to get to), a nice, fast, action-packed unpretentious film like this one is a joy. (As opposed to The Devil Inside, which opened a week before this one, and made a much bigger splash at the box office opening weekend, even though audiences gave it a Cinemascore rating of F.)

The setup is pure B picture. Chris, a retired smuggler, has a brother-in-law, Andy, who was trying to smuggle some drugs into his homeport of New Orleans, but had to drop it over the side when Customs intercepted his ship. Now the drug dealer Andy was working for wants his money back. At the begging of his wife, Chris agrees to help by getting back into the smuggling business for One Big Score. Now in a classic B picture, Chris would go to a Big Boss, who would have a deal all lined up for him. Here’s where this script is smarter than your average B picture. Chris is out of the game, but he still knows people. So he sets up his own job. His acquaintance in Panama prints counterfeit money and Chris agrees to get it into this country. And Chris knows ships and the shipping business, so he gets himself and his handpicked team on board as part of the ship’s crew. Great, except the Captain knows Chris, doesn’t trust him, and gives him a job shampooing carpets. Did I tell you Chris was smart? Keep an eye on the shampoo machine. One of the delights of the film is we keep finding out that Chris not only knows how to do this, but how to do that as well. And that, and that, and that.

In Panama, Chris goes to his contact, but can tell immediately the bills are not perfect. The contact says that Gonzalo, an ex-hood, is now the boss and won’t let him have the good stuff. Chris knows Gonzalo and goes to see him. Gonzalo will give the good bills for free if Chris and his boys will help them with a heist. But, but, Chris only has a small window of time to get back. He’ll just give Gonzalo the money he brought…which Andy has walked off with to buy some more drugs. So Chris has to help with the heist, which does not go well. Chris manages to get away with the counterfeit bills, in a van with a paint-splattered canvas in the back. Chris gets the van into a cargo container on the ship just in time. So we now have the counterfeit money, the drugs Andy bought, and a van with a paint-splattered canvas all in play. The writers, as smart as Chris, use all of them effectively to get to a very satisfying conclusion.

You know one of my mantras is that if you write good parts, you get good actors. That’s as true for a B picture like this as for any other. Chris is played by Mark Wahlberg, who co-produced, and it is the perfect part for him. Both Wahlberg and Chris are working-class smart and tough. Chris’s friend Sebastian is played by Ben Foster, taking a nice break from some of the bad guys he plays. Tim Briggs, the drug dealer, is played by Giovanni Ribisi in a dark change from his usual comedy roles. And Mexican heartthrob Diego Luna has a good time as the sleazy, wacko Gonzalo. The one bit of casting that’s a bit iffy is Kate Beckinsale as Chris’s wife. We can see why she wanted to do it, since it is different from her vampire warrior in the Underworld franchise. The newest of those was in theaters when this movie was released, so even if we have not seen it, we have seen the trailers of Beckinsale in her spandex beating the crap out of people. So her playing a damsel in distress here is maybe not so convincing through no fault of Beckinsale. And her character does something very smart: when one of the baddies invades her house she heads straight for the kitchen. Why? Because that’s where the knives are, silly.

There are also several nice twists, including a couple with the characters, and the other…well, if you blinked during the heist, you might not have realized that the paint-splattered canvas was torn out of a shipping frame in the middle of the heist. Or did I distract you by telling you to keep an eye on the carpet shampoo machine?

Fredrica Sagor Mass

Fredrica Sagor Mass: An Appreciation: Frederica Sagor Maas died on January 5th of this year. She was 111. Yes, that’s right. Which means she was old enough to have been a screenwriter in silent movies, which she was.

I first learned about Freddie, as she was generally called, in the late ‘90s. Kevin Brownlow, the great historian of silent film, passed on to me that he had come across her while researching Universal studios in the silent era. (Kevin is the only person I know who would visit the Grand Canyon and find not only the first film ever made there, but the guy who made it.) Kevin learned that Freddie was writing her memoirs, which I helped her get published. The book is called The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood, and it was published in 1999 by the University Press of Kentucky. It is just as sassy as Freddy was in person. Well, at the age of 99, you can write anything you want about the people you have dealt with. I and many writers who worked for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox admired Zanuck, but Freddie did not. In the ‘40s, she wrote a script she called Miss Pilgrim’s Progress. It was about the development of the typewriter in the late 19th-century, and how it provided job opportunities for young women they had not had before. It was serious, but with a light touch. By the time Zanuck finished with it, it was the 1947 Betty Grable musical The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Needless to say, that was not Freddie’s first choice for a title for her memoirs, but university press salespeople are exactly like Hollywood marketing people: the first thing they want to do is change the title.

Freddie wrote the 1925 hit The Plastic Age, which helped make Clara Bow a star, and then went under contract at MGM, where she hung around with Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. At least until she suggested to Shearer that maybe marrying the boss, Irving Thalberg, was not a good idea, since she was a nice Protestant girl and he was a mama’s boy with an Orthodox Jewish mother and a neurotic sister. Well, that was Freddie, telling it like it is.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944. Written by Preston Sturges. 98 minutes.)

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

The Sturges Project, Take Seven: The great film critic James Agee wrote of this film “the wildly factitious story makes comic virtues of every censor-dodging necessity. Thanks to those devices the Hays office has been either hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked or has been raped in its sleep.” The phrase about rape, which we now find completely tasteless, is the most quoted one. It is also inaccurate, as is the idea the Breen Office (the newer name at the time for the Hays Office) was hypnotized. In fact, Joseph Breen, as James Curtis reports in his Sturges biography, liked the script and supported Sturges.

The idea of a film about an unwed mother first came to Sturges in 1937, when he saw it as a serious drama, a modern Nativity story in which the pregnant woman is saved by a hermit. Sturges did not spend much time on it then and began to focus more on comedy screenplays. After the problems with The Great Moment (1944), Sturges may have decided to play it safe with an ordinary comedy, but there was nothing ordinary about Miracle. Betty Hutton was a young star on the lot whom Buddy De Sylva had brought to Hollywood after she was in one of his Broadway shows, Panama Hattie. She was an immediate success in musicals, since her raucous approach fit the mood of the early war years. She appointed herself as a groupie to Sturges and begged him to write a script for her. So Sturges began to develop a story about a high-spirited girl who gets drunk at a party with some soldiers and winds up pregnant. He wrote the first 116 pages of the screenplay and sent that off to Breen, indicating Sturges knew he was skating on thin ice and would have to work within the constraints of the industry censorship of the time. Usually the Breen office replied with a one to two page letter. The one to Paramount and Sturges was seven pages, and arrived at Paramount on October 21, 1942…the first day of shooting. So Sturges, who still did not have a complete script, was shooting during the day and rewriting at night. Breen said the pregnancy could be dealt with (especially since by mid-1942, there were an increasing number of girls getting knocked up by soldiers), but very cautiously. Sturges agreed that Trudy Kockenlocker would get married first, but he sets it up so that she has no idea who she married. In spite of the fact we now think the movie is about her pregnancy, most of the plotting deals with trying to figure out how to either locate the potential father, whose name she cannot remember, or how to get out of the marriage without him. Breen was also insistent that she not get pregnant while drunk, so Sturges has her conked on the head while she is dancing with a soldier. Breen also rightly foresaw that there might be more problems with the military than with his office, which later proved to be true.

Sturges has not only writing for Hutton, but for William Demarest as her father Officer Kockenlocker. If Hutton was explosive, Demarest was volcanic. For Norval, the boy who has longed loved Trudy, Sturges originally wanted…wait for it…Andy Devine. Well, you can imagine that voice in the part, and Devine was not yet as large around the middle as he became later. But De Sylva, thinking like a studio head, wanted Sturges to use Eddie Bracken. Sturges liked Bracken, but he learned that Bracken was upset with his co-starring roles in previous pictures with Hutton (De Sylva was putting together a couple with a track record). Bracken had thought that his was the starring role in those until he saw the film and discovered that several Betty Hutton musical numbers were thrown in. So Bracken was determined to upstage Hutton, not because he did not like her, but because he wanted to impress Paramount. OK, so now Sturges has the incendiary Hutton, the combustible Demarest (who clearly recognized this was the best part he had ever had), and the intentionally flammable Bracken. In his previous pictures Sturges had the wild character actors of his stock company (most of whom are back in this one) but there was usually one quieter actor to balance them, such as Fonda in Eve or McCrea in Travels or Palm Beach Story. Here he realized he had no one like that. Instead of writing in such a character, Struges went whole hog with the kind of energy his three stars would bring. There are fewer quieter moments in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek than in any other Sturges film, although Hutton does nice work in the few slower scenes Sturges gives her.

Joseph Breen was not only worried about the sexual issues as an industry censor, but he also recognized the potential “political censorship.” Because the war was on, theatrical films had to be cleared by the Office of War Information. The OWI did not read the script, but saw the completed cut of the film and had several objections. Which meant rewrites and reshoots. For example, in an early scene Officer Kockenlocker is directing traffic and in the first version the soldiers in jeeps were loud and obstreperous, causing Kockenlocker to lose his temper. In the reshoot, the soldiers were polite, especially the Military Policeman, but Kockenlocker is just as loud. This actually works better to establish his character. The OWI Pictorial Board (the entire board saw the film and had what one Paramount executive called a “vigorous discussion and argument”) insisted that shots of the soldiers drinking and getting drunk be cut. (Henderson in his Four More Screenplays has a nice section on Sturges and Paramount dealing with the OWI.) The OWI did not want any indication the soldiers had been drinking, so Sturges added a scene the morning after the parties of soldiers getting ready to leave. None of them are hung over, all of them are very cheerful, as the Sergeant (our old friend, former boxer Frank Moran) jokes about the lemonade they drank. That satisfied the OWI, but think about it for a minute; if they are not hung over and are happy, why are they happy? What happened to them last night? Well, there were all those girls…

The screenplay, or at least the version of it Henderson has in Four More Screenplays, has more material in it that was cut from the film than any of the other Sturges scripts Henderson has. I suspect that Sturges knew he was going to be constantly changing material for both censorship and artistic reasons. Curtis quotes Sturges as saying around this time, “If anyone should know how a scene should be played, it is the fellow who wrote it in the first place. Or so I once thought. I agreed with very few directors when I was merely writing. They argued tremendously, and sometimes they lost out. I look on them now as brave fellows who went down with their colors flying. I don’t, as a director, film a scene exactly as the writer—who was myself—wrote it.” We have seen that happen in previous Sturges films, and it is true here. Sturges’s widow, Sandy, who was not married to him at the time he made this film, says in one of the featurettes on the Miracle DVD that Sturges insisted the actors say the lines exactly as he wrote them. Get a copy of one of Henderson’s collection and follow along with the script and you will see how untrue that is.

There is another difference in the Miracle screenplay from the previous ones. The formatting is condensed. This is what led me to suspect that that it might not be a production script. But then Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is the same. Instead of the dialogue being done in the traditional way:

EMMY
If you don’t mind my mentioning it, Father, I think you have a mind like a swamp.

Sturges does it this way:

EMMY: If you don’t mind my mentioning it, Father, I think you have mind, etc.

Henderson does not discuss the change, but it may have been merely a wartime attempt at saving paper.

Since the Breen office was concerned about sex, and the War Department concerned about the behavior of soldiers, Sturges had some leeway in other areas. The lawyer Trudy and Norval consult is Mr. Johnson, the best part our old friend Al Bridge has had since his jewelry salesman Mr. Hillbeiner in Christmas in July (1940). Here is Johnson on marriage:

The responsibility of recording a marriage has always been up to the woman; if it weren’t for them marriage would have disappeared long since. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he is forced to. It is up to the woman to knock him down and hog-tie him and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner. Any time after that is too late.

That would be enough for most writers, but Sturges follows it up with Johnson saying:

Look: I practice the law. I am not only willing but anxious to sue anybody for anything any time, but they’ve got to be real people…with names and corpuses and meat on their bones…I can’t work with spooks. Your friend doesn’t need a lawyer, she needs a medium.

Reading the screenplay, it seems rather long and slow. It was long, but it was condensed, either in the writing or more likely in the editing. After Trudy and Norval go to the Justice of the Peace to have a fake marriage performed, there is a nearly six-page scene cut completely in which assorted cops and others arrest Norval. Sturges cuts from the JP to Norval and Trudy being brought to the Kockenlockers. Between the cutting and the energy that Hutton, Demarest, Bracken and the rest of Sturges’s stock company bring to the material, it plays like a house afire.

The release of Miracle was held up for all of 1943 with all the negotiations with the Breen Office and the War Department. It was finally released in January 1944, after Sturges had left Paramount as a result of disputes with De Sylva, who liked Miracle a lot less than Breen did. The picture became Sturges’s biggest financial success, and was the highest grossing film of 1944. The Great Moment was released in September 1944, and Hail the Conquering Hero, the last of his Paramount films, was released a month before. Sturges’s Golden Age was coming to a close.

Rio Grande (1950. Screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness, based on a Saturday Evening Post story “Mission with No Record” by James Warner Bellah. 105 minutes.)

Rio Grande

Movies get made for all kinds of reasons: In US#15, I gave you a quick look at my takes on the first two of the famous John Ford Cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). The scripts on both are sloppy. One of my birthday elves gave me DVDs of all three of the films (you cannot get them as a boxed set, since this one was released by Republic, and the other two by RKO), and I watched them all. I would not change any of my comments on the first two, although both are gorgeous to look at, and moving as well, given the limitations of the scripts.

John Ford did not set out to make a trilogy. After he completed the first two, he wanted to make The Quiet Man (1952), but none of the major studios would give him the money. He finally approached Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Pictures. Ford had the script by Frank Nugent, who had done the first two Cavalry films, and John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara committed to star. Yates was not stupid. He told Ford he would finance The Quiet Man if Ford would first do a western with those two stars. Ford agreed.

The first two films were both from short stories by James Warner Bellah, so they found another story by Bellah. Bellah’s story was about Colonel Massarne, whose son flunks out of West Point and shows up as an enlisted man in Massarne’s regiment. Massarne does not want to be accused of favoritism, so he ignores Jeff, who proves himself a hero. Bellah had served in both the first and second World Wars, and he had a great love of the military tradition of duty, honor, and country. He also had a love of the Old West. And he was a racist about Indians. In the first two Cavalry films, Frank Nugent, a former New York Times film critic, humanized the Indians. In Fort Apache, the Indians only kill Colonel Thursday and his troop, at least partly because Thursday had disrespected their chief. In Yellow Ribbon Nathan Brittles gets a nice scene in which the old Chief suggests he and Brittles are too old for war and should go off and chase buffalo. There is no such humanizing in Rio Grande.

The screenwriter of Rio Grande, James Kevin McGuinness, was a friend of Ford’s for years. He wrote on the scripts of four Ford films in the late ‘20s, and then went on to become a writer/producer at MGM. He was one of the promoters of the Screen Playwrights, a right wing answer to the Screen Writers Guild, and he was very active in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the late ‘40s. He was let out of his MGM contract in the late ‘40s, and the conservatives always thought he was the victim of a “liberal blacklist,” but he was in truth let go from MGM when they eliminated the old producer unit system. Ford gave him the Rio Grande job, and given his politics, you can understand why there are no humane Indians in the film. On the other hand, go back up above and look at the outline of Bellah’s story. See any part for Maureen O’Hara in it? Nope, so McGuinness created the relationship between Lt. Colonel Kirby Yorke (as Colonel Massarne is renamed) and his ex-wife Kathleen. McGuinness’s script has less of the glorification of the military than in the earlier two films, but a more nuanced view of romance. His script set up Ford, Wayne, and O’Hara beautifully for The Quiet Man. McGuinness died less than month after the release of Rio Grande, some say from a broken heart over being turned out from MGM.

(The details in this item are from Dan Ford’s Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Tag Gallagher’s John Ford: The Man and his Films, Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s John Wayne: American, and Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s The Hollywood Writers’ Wars.)

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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

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

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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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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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk

There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.

What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.

The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.

Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”

Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.

Film About a Father Who

An image from Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. © Lynne Sachs

The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.

The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.

There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.

Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.

The Kiosk

An image from Alexandra Pianelli’s The Kiosk. © Les Films de l’oeil sauvage

The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.

When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.

Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.

Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.

At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.

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Review: My Spy Is a Clumsy Mix of Comedy, Action, and Romance

Peter Segal’s film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack.

1.5

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My Spy
Photo: Amazon Studios

From Arnold Schwarzenneger in Kindergarten Cop to Dwayne Johnson in The Game Plan, pairing an oversized, hyper-masculine actor with a cute and precocious youngster has long been a staple of Hollywood family-friendly entertainment, as well as something of a rite of passage for action stars since the 1990s. And now, with My Spy, it’s Dave Bautista’s turn to ward off an array of villains with the help of a spunky, three-foot tall sidekick.

To its credit, Peter Segal’s film at least has the decency to cop to its derivativeness throughout, with several shots that cheekily poke fun at characters slow-walking away from explosions and one character calling out how a scene feels eerily similar to the famous fight scene near a propeller plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But these occasional self-referential nods prove to be only fleeting distractions from how antiquated and unimaginative My Spy is much of the time, and how clumsily it tends to its mixture of comedy, action, and romance.

The film’s mismatched duo consists of nine-year-old Sophie (Chloe Colman) and JJ (Bautista), a C.I.A. operative who’s spying on the girl and her mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), with the help of his tech officer, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). It’s all for a good reason, as Sophie’s Uncle Marquez (Greg Bryk) not only recently murdered her father, but is now caught up in some shady Russian dealings that have put Sophie and her mother in danger. But these more nefarious threats fade to the background as soon as the film starts to fixate on Sophie’s concerns about being the new girl at school, as well as her blackmailing of JJ, which results in the beefcake being uncomfortably forced into the role of surrogate father.

Given that JJ is still reeling from his prior overseas combat experience and Kate is coping with the fresh challenges of single motherhood and a time-consuming job, My Spy too readily foreshadows their later romantic entanglement. And while Bautista and Fitz-Henley share a charming, easy repartee, and Coleman has impressive comic timing for a child actor, the film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack. JJ’s efforts alone are split three ways, as he’s not only dealing with becoming a long-term father figure to Sophie and partner to Kate, both of whom force him to confront his trauma, but he’s also stuck with Bobbi, who hero-worships him and wants to learn all his tricks of the trade.

And that is to say nothing of the half-baked subplot involving the Russian crooks (Vieslav Krystyan and Jean-Michel Nadeau), or the gay couple (Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby) that appears to have stumbled in from the set of a ‘90s sitcom. Schaal’s unrestrained zaniness ensures that a few jokes land here and there, but My Spy is ultimately sunk by a reliance on clichéd character types—the emotionally distant vet, the overworked single mom, the isolated new kid at school—that leaves it feeling like several mildly amusing after-school specials were stitched together with a handful of action scenes tossed in for good measure.

Where to Watch My Spy:

Cast: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal, Greg Bryk, Ken Jeong, Nicola Correia-Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Dalton Danby Director: Peter Segal Screenwriter: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Audition Grapples with the Consequences of Oppressive Discipline

With great clarity, the film conveys how discipline can be directed both inward and outward.

3

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The Audition
Photo: Strand Releasing

A film about the oppressive discipline of classical musicianship, Ina Weisse’s The Audition recalls The Piano Teacher, only with the erotic grotesqueries dialed all the way down. Nina Hoss, like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s film, plays a middle-aged music teacher whose fragile sense of self becomes entwined with a new student. Here, though, the student isn’t a peer but a young high school violinist, Alexander (Ilja Monti), and her projections onto him, mercifully, are more about her own perceived failures than any shameful sexual hang-ups. Even if it takes us to some rather dark places, Weisse’s spin on the tortured psyche of a professional female musician is more humanistic than Haneke’s.

Weisse, a violinist herself, clearly knows the pressures of high-caliber musicianship. The film aptly opens with an audition in which we see the impassive administrators of a Berlin youth conservatory, including Anna (Hoss), evaluating young teens taking turns playing orchestral instruments on stage. Although each of them has prepared multiple pieces to play, the judges consistently cut them off moments through their first piece—an unforgiving intimidation tactic that introduces us to the film’s portrait of music education as a regime of oppression.

Anna’s cold exterior is momentarily broken by Alexander’s audition, which, however much his performance of a difficult piece by Édouard Lalo moves her, fails to fully impress her colleagues. Gradually we learn that Alexander’s visible nervousness is part of what draws her to him, as Anna suffers from a nervous condition that led her to retire from an orchestra and become an instructor, and continues to manifest itself in a daily inability to make decisions, as in an early scene in which she repeatedly changes orders and then tables when out to dinner with her husband, Philippe (Simon Abkarian). “Whenever I play, I’m thinking of how I’ll fail,” she later confesses to Christian (Jens Albinus), a colleague with whom she’s having an affair.

Anna takes Alexander on as her student, to prepare him for their school’s intermediate exam—also referred to in the dialogue as an audition. The film’s German title, Das Vorspiel, has two meanings—“audition” and “prologue”—and most of Weisse and Daphne Carizani’s screenplay, in fact, could be seen as a kind of prologue, centered around the series of rehearsals preceding Alexander’s big performance for the conservatory, tracking their gradual devolution into punishing routines. Anna begins directing her own self-punishing thoughts onto the vulnerable young boy, at one point forcibly clipping his fingernails.

The filmmakers let us into Anna’s life through compact scenes that often open in media res, or end abruptly in the midst of a character’s movement. It’s a subtle way of communicating the anxiety encroaching on the order of Anna’s world. Glimpses of Philippe, a luthier who runs a shop below their apartment, handling her with kids’ gloves, and of her son Jonas’s (Serafin Mishiev) neutral responses to her presence, come to be emplaced within the atmosphere of alienation that Anna’s unraveling sense of discipline has produced. Anna, of course, knows that her insecurities themselves actually lie at the root of the problems in her life—a neurotic feedback loop of inner despair that Hoss captures wordlessly in her performance as a woman who puts on an increasingly fractured stone face for the outside world.

Discipline can be directed both inward and outward, as personal rigor or as interpersonal punitiveness. Anna has been raised in a culture of self-discipline, as a line from her father (Thomas Thieme) intimates. “Your mother always saw her illness as a lack of discipline,” he reminds Anna, a recollection that neatly sums up the cultural and possible genetic roots of her issues. The Audition is about the relation between those inward and outward senses of discipline, as the strict self-control that Anna has internalized cracks, turns outward in imperious, borderline violent behavior, and eventually shatters.

It all builds toward a tragic conclusion that may have better served the narrative by letting the consequences of Anna’s unglamorous breakdown remain as understated as Hoss’s captivating performance. Nevertheless, The Audition captures with clarity an irony at the base of accomplished musical expression: the conflict between interiority and imposed technique, which can be fraught with repressed frustration and resentment.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mischiev, Thomas Thieme Director: Ina Weisse Screenwriter: Ina Weisse, Daphne Carizani Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: As Political Satire, Irresistible Too Often Pulls Its Punches

Jon Stewart’s amiable satire tries to show that you can make light political comedy in the Trump era.

2.5

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Irresistible
Photo: Focus Features

Is it possible to make a light political satire in the Trump era? Jon Stewart’s amiable and occasionally quite funny Irresistible makes a credible, if not fully successful, effort to do just that. While not all of the film’s punches land, its low-key confidence in its characters, snappy dialogue, and disinterest in pandering to heartland stereotypes (positive or negative) makes for a decently thoughtful, but not exactly groundbreaking, comedy.

After a scene-setting and soul-depressing 2016 election audio montage, the film proper begins in the economically depressed small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Jack (Chris Cooper), a local farmer, makes an impromptu speech at a council meeting in which he rails against Republican Mayor Braun’s (Brent Sexton) move to demand IDs for town services. Called “Hero Marine Stands Up for Immigrants” on YouTube, the speech is shown to Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a star Democratic consultant who’s looking for a way to get himself and his party out of their post-election depression. Calling Jack a guy who makes “Joe the Plumber look like Dukakis in mom jeans,” Gary seizes on him as a vessel for winning back the heartland.

Acclimating to life in flyover country is a rough transition for this creature of the Beltway. But while Stewart’s screenplay tries to mine some yuks out of a very familiar fish-out-of-water scenario—in one scene, Gary turns the radio from the country station to “Fresh Air” and sighs in relief—it focuses more on Gary’s desperate need to turn Jack into a polished and gleaming West Wing hero capable of rallying a demoralized political infrastructure. The stakes get ramped up quickly, particularly once the Republicans realize what Gary is up to and turn this rinky-dink mayoral race into a multi-million-dollar referendum on the nation.

Carell’s knack for playing small-minded, explosively anger-prone, and relentlessly clueless men supplies most of Irresistible’s laughs early on. Fortunately, just when the appeal of the cringe comedy threatens to wear off, Gary’s nemesis appears in the form of a soulless GOP operative, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, playing the role as a gleeful mercenary). The mixture of her cynical appetite for battle (“Twenty bucks says I do better with fear than you do with shame”), Gary’s frustrated desire for a win, and a strong dose of sexual tension gives their scenes a nearly Preston Sturges-like vibe at times.

Too often, though, the film seems to be pulling its punches. The satire is so heavily focused on the D.C. consultants crashing around the sleepy town of Deerlaken that it seems to forget the actual political differences that brought them there in the first place. Even though the reason for that is ultimately explained in a not entirely satisfactory third-act twist, it leaves a good part of this ostensibly political story feeling somewhat light on substance.

Irresistible will likely be criticized for not taking a harsher tone in the face of incipient fascism, and there’s some merit to that critique. The film’s both-sidesism is particularly noticeable in one scene where Faith rolls out her Koch brothers-esque billionaire backers, only to have Gary present his own billionaire liberal backer, Elton Chambers (Bill Irwin clowning as an animated-corpse-like octogenarian held upright by a mechanical exoskeleton). But this feels less like Stewart ducking the issue than taking the longer view.

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay.

Cast: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, Will Sasso, C.J. Wilson, Brent Sexton, Debra Messing, Bill Irwin Director: Jon Stewart Screenwriter: Jon Stewart Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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The Best Films of 2020 (So Far)

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or both.

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The Best Films of 2020 So Far
Photo: Grasshopper Film

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or—most likely—both. The long-predicted collapse of the movie theater as an institution may be underway, though drive-ins seem to be having a moment. Brett and Drew T. Pierce’s low-rent spooker The Wretched led the domestic box office for seven weeks starting in early May, Trolls World Tour became the first studio success story of the year, and June’s biggest release wasn’t a mega-budget superhero movie, but a Spike Lee joint on Netflix.

Nobody could have seen 2020 coming, but reflecting on the best movies of the first half of the year, it’s clear that unrest was already in the air. Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You tracks the devastating, cascading effects of a gig economy on its workers—whose fates became immediately uncertain when a health crisis locked down the economy. In The Cordillera of Dreams, behind the mountain range that ensconces Chile, documentarian Patricio Guzmán finds the suppressed record of popular uprisings against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship—images of militarized police forces attacking unarmed protestors that look unnervingly familiar. Dramas about women’s experience in Trump’s America, like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kitty Green’s The Assistant, may end up being cinematic landmarks of fourth-wave feminism.

Of course, given our acute sense of living in an historical moment, perhaps we’ve been particularly drawn to films that reflect history and history-making, and apt to filter our interpretations through our consciousness of the tumult outside our windows. Even Andrew Patterson’s enigmatic 1950s-set The Vast of Night, whose Twilight Zone-esque story—which is advanced largely through conversations on various telecommunications networks—about an unseen menace threatening a small town, feels tied to 2020 in ways that the filmmakers likely did not intend. In the final analysis, cinema can’t help but reflect our world, because—even in the absence of theaters—it remains an inextricable part of it. Pat Brown


The Assistant

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

With The Assistant, Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in a film mogul’s Tribeca offices, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing its resonance. This is a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae, and it’s designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as the young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), at its center. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the mogul is only evoked via male pronouns. Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere, and after a while it becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable. Chuck Bowen


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



The Cordillera of Dreams

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

Patricio Guzmán understands the totemic power of the long strip of Andean mountains that runs between Chile and Argentina, effectively severing the former from the rest of the world. But the ruefulness in his voice also gets at something else: that this wall of rock and earth is also a mausoleum. Throughout interviews with writers and sculptors, among others, Guzmán accords to the Cordillera a level of importance that’s nothing short of reverential. And just at the point where it feels you can take no more of his metaphorical heavy lifting, the documentary gives way to an extended survey of the ravages and legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, including the doctrine of neoliberalism that’s brought Chile to its knees in the present day. If The Cordillera of Dreams leaves us on a razor’s edge between hope and futility, that’s by design. Guzmán knows that the day when those looking for the disappeared are themselves lost to time is an inevitability, and it will be as tragic as the day when there are no more images left to depict the story of that search. But the documentary advances the belief that, until then, we will be stronger for exhorting ourselves to reflection and atonement. Ed Gonzalez



Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Da 5 Bloods is a mix of genre film and political essay, and it exudes, especially early on, a lurid, confrontational electricity that’s often been so exhilarating in prior Spike Lee joints. Regarding a Ho Chi Minh City that, with its active nightlife and proliferation of fast food establishments, might be mistaken for a contemporary American city, Eddie (Norm Lewis) says that “they didn’t need us, they should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel and we would’ve defeated the VC in one week.” The sly implication is that, one way or another, America got its hands on Vietnam. Minutes later, the Rambo and Missing in Action movies are familiarly criticized for offering a white-man savior fantasy of “winning” the war, while Otis (Clarke Peters) reminds us of a true hero, African-American soldier Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade for his platoon, a picture of whom Lee briefly and movingly cuts to. These pop-cultural references make us privy to how war is committed and then sold back to us as an often-exclusionary fantasy—a double dip of atrocity. Bowen



First Cow

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

If it’s true, as Balzac had it, that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, then perhaps behind every minor prosperity lies a misdemeanor. In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, that petty offense is the theft of some cow’s milk, which gentle-hearted chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendly yet opportunistic companion, King Lu (Orion Lee), use to build a successful enterprise selling delicious fried honey biscuits in a small, not-quite-established town in 1820s Oregon. Like most of Reichardt’s work, the film is a deceptively diminutive affair, an intimate, almost fabulistic story told with the warmth and delicacy of a children’s picture book. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s images honor the verdant lushness of the Pacific Northwest, making us feel as if we’re seeing its Edenic beauty through the soulful brown eyes of Eve, the titular bovine who’s been brought to this new land by her owner (Toby Jones) as an ostentatious display of his own wealth. But the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a constant reminder that Cookie and King’s lives (not to mention Eve’s) are ultimately constrained by forces greater than themselves. Even here, at the far distant edges of civilization, the film pensively suggests, the machinery of industrial capitalism is tragically inescapable. Keith Watson



Fourteen

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

The dominant theme of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), former grade-school friends who’ve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where they’ve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple. Through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology, Sallitt cultivates a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Jo’s chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. One of the last times we see Jo, she’s walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersection—perhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit that’s at once painful and transformative. Carson Lund



The Grand Bizarre

The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism. The Grand Bizarre is a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century. Watson



Heimat Is a Space in Time

Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)

Documentary cinema’s most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures. Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund

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