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Understanding Screenwriting #90: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Adventures of Tintin, Contraband, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #90: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Adventures of Tintin, Contraband, & More

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.)

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

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

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

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Jumanji: The Next Level
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Chinese Portrait
Photo: Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

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

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

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

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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