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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, Crazy Horse, Miss Bala, Safe House, Some Print Items, The Power and the Glory, Hail the Conquering Hero, but first…

Fan Mail: “mindbodylightsound” took me to task for some errors about Tinker Tailor. He has obviously seen the miniseries more recently than I have and/or he has a better memory than I do. I have been meaning to look at it again for several years and now I have to. I also love “mindbodylightsound’s” subtle reading of LeCarré’s themes of “malleable identity,” and the idea that “the service was full of people who lie for a living because their own lives were lies.” That’s the best one-line take on that aspect of LeCarré I’ve read.

Now for some comments on David Ehrenstein’s comments. Tinker Tailor is about MI6 rather than MI5. For those of you who don’t follow British Intelligence, MI6 is sort of the equivalent of the C.I.A., and MI5 is sort of the equivalent of the F.B.I.. MI5 and MI6 collaborate a least a little bit better than the C.I.A. and F.B.I..

An Englishman Abroad, a 1983 made-for-television movie, stars actress Coral Browne as herself, meeting Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five, in Moscow where Burgess was not so happily living after his defection. As David says, it is enormously entertaining.
David says, “On the Sturges front it seems obvious to me that separating the great man’s writing from his directing is well-nigh impossible.” Difficult yes, but not impossible. Yes, when the writer is directing it is particularly difficult, unless you have access to the writer-director’s mind 24/7. It is a little easier when the writer and director are two different people, as we have been demonstrating in this column for nearly four years now. One of the reasons I took on the Sturges Project was to deal with that combination of writer-director in one person. If you look over the Sturges items, you will see I am trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to nail down his contributions in both crafts. But in any film, especially good ones like the ones we have talked about, the writing and direction flow together, as David says in his discussion of Sturges’s use of Bracken and Hutton.
As for David’s friend Ignatz Ratskiwatscki, I lost track of him after he and his longtime companion George Kaplan moved to the country of Slavatania and set up their gynecology clinic.

The Artist (2011. Scenario and dialogue by Michel Hazanavicius. 100 minutes.)

I enjoyed it, but less and less as it went along: This is one of those films, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), that was on my radar for a long time before I saw it. It first got my attention when it played at Cannes last spring, and it has been collecting awards and nominations and great reviews ever since. It has even produced a backlash, as most highly acclaimed films do sooner or later. Fortunately, unlike Uncle Boonmee (see US#72 for my comments on that one), The Artist is a much better script and picture. It starts out great but, alas, eventually slows down.

Hazanavicius is attempting to make a silent film that will play to a talkies audience, not just silent film history buffs. So his first writing problem is: how do you bring a modern audience into a silent film? His solutions are ingenious. First he begins with an actual (within the context of the film) silent movie. So we know we are in a silent movie world. Then in the film-within-a-film the character played by George, our main character, is being tortured and says, in titles, that he will not talk. We see people backstage at this premiere screening, and there is a big sign on the wall that says “Silence backstage.” You would think all that would do the job, and for most audiences it did, but there are reports that some audience members in Liverpool, England, wanted their money back because there were “no words” in the movie. Who would have thought Liverpool was a hotbed of pro-screenwriter, pro-dialogue sentiment?

Hazanavicius then continues the light touch. Poppy Miller, a would-be actress, bumps into George outside the theater, and he is charming to her. We know for sure now that we are in a romantic comedy. Eventually Poppy gets a part in one of George’s films, and there is a beautifully written and directed scene in which we watch the two of them go through several takes of a shot, each time ruining it either by laughing or by realizing they are attracted to each other. Then Hazanavicius takes a big chance that goes wrong: he turns the film into a silent drama. Folks, there are reasons silent comedies play better now than silent dramas do. Comedy is unreal (unless your life is full of people who are naturally funny), which fits the unreality of silent film better. Drama is more real and seems more artificial in silence. Drama usually needs more titles to explain what’s going, which disrupt the flow of the film. If you watch as many silent films as I have, you will notice that the later ones are pushing at the restraints of silent film. By 1927-28, both audiences and filmmakers were ready for sound films, which is why the transition happened then and not years before.

So we begin to lose the charm of the first half of the film, and the drama goes on and on and on. Do we really need two suicide attempts by George as his career crashes with the introduction of sound? You could wrap up this story a lot quicker, and in much more entertaining ways.

As a film historian I loved the recreation of silent Hollywood, but I kept having quibbles. A title announces it is now 1929; I suspect we are in 1929 so they can drag in the Wall Street Crash to hurt George’s career. We see (but don’t hear) a sound test of George’s one-time co-star Constance, nicely played, especially in this scene, by Missi Pyle. But that’s awfully late for sound tests. There is no discussion of possible part silent/part sound films, which were common in the first year or two of sound. George simply refuses to make a sound film, and the silent film he produces flops. We can see, although it is not discussed in the film, that the film probably bombed because it was the same old melodrama. We don’t get the discussion because one of the limitations of silent film is that it cannot deal with complex issues and ideas. Silent drama can deal with spectacle (Intolerance [1916]), fantasy (The Thief of Bagdad [1924]), and emotional intensity (The Last Laugh [1924]), but ideas require dialogue. Try to imagine Dr. Strangelove (1964) as a silent film. The studio head tells George that the audiences want new faces, but the studio is promoting Polly, who if the montage is to be believed, is already a rising star. There was some thinking in Hollywood about getting stage actors, but very quickly the studios learned that audiences wanted to hear their old favorites talk. The legend that every, or even most, silent film stars had their careers destroyed is nonsense. Ronald Colman, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Laurel & Hardy, and Garbo all made the transition very nicely, as did the silent directors and screenwriters. The particular studio head seems determined to get rid of George, although we do not really see why.

Quibbles aside, there are wonderful things in the film, starting with the lead performance by Jean Dujardin, whom I have been a fan of since his and Hazanavicius’s 2006 OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a great spoof of the Bond films. Dujardin’s co-star in that is Bérénice Bejo, who is even better here. I also admire the way Hazanavicius as a director has had the cast act in a real silent film style. That’s not the flamboyant, hammy way people think they acted in silent films, but with great subtlety and precision. It’s a detail that Mel Brooks missed completely in his 1976 Silent Movie. For an excellent discussion of acting in silent film in relation to The Artist, read David Denby’s “Critic at Large” essay in the February 27th issue of The New Yorker.

War Horse (2011. Screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. 146 minutes.)

War Horse

I’m not positive, but I don’t think the horses are intended to be gay: Lee Hall’s previous credits include Billy Elliot (2000) and Toast (2010, which I showed a certain fondness for in US#84). Curtis’s credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Love Actually (2003). In other words, both writers know how to write characters. So I am at a loss to explain why the characterization in this film is so bland and standard issue. Albert, a young Englishman, falls in love with a horse, Joey, whom his father, your standard rural drunken lout, buys for him. Albert is a real block of wood as written and played by Jeremy Irvine. His Mum is a little livelier, but she is mostly nagging the dad for being a standard rural, etc. World War I comes along and the horse is bought for the Army, although the rather bland officer to whom he goes promises Albert he is only “renting” Joey for the duration.

At the front Joey, who is a beautifully brown horse, meets a beautiful black horse, and they nuzzle a lot. No particular point is made as to whether the black horse is male or female, but given the lack of characterizations among the humans, I couldn’t but begin to wonder about the horses’ relationship. Then the horses escape and they spend time with a Dutch grandfather and his granddaughter and then with the German army. We are still getting nothing more than standard issue characters. Yes, it’s supposed to be an episodic story, but the episodes are not that interesting because we are just not that emotionally involved in either the horse or the humans. Until the film finally gives us one good scene: Joey is caught in barbed wire between the trenches. Both sides see him and call a truce so they can go out to rescue him. One British soldier comes out, and one German one. And they talk like real, interesting human beings. When they realize they need wire cutters, the German calls back to his lines, and a whole herd of wire cutters are tossed at them from the German side, in the best single shot in the film. Needless to say, Joey and Albert get back together, but it is not as stirring as it is meant to be.

Ordinarily Steven Spielberg is a good director of actors, but just as in Jurassic Park (1993), where he was more involved with the dinos than the characters, here he is more involved with the horse. And the horse is as much a block of wood as many of the other actors. The casting on the film was done by Jina Jay, and with the exception of Emily Watson as the Mum, she has not filled the film with actors who can make something out of very little.

On a much more positive note, I was delighted to see that Spielberg has finally given up on that de-saturated color crap he and others have been peddling since Saving Private Ryan (1998). Good riddance. Yes, the trenches look muddy, but the English countryside looks gorgeous.

Red Tails (2012. Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, story by John Ridley, based on the book Red Tails, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force by John B. Holway. 125 minutes.)

Red Tails

Hollywood liberals will hate this one: I’d been looking forward to this film about the Tuskegee Airmen with some trepidation. In the ‘80s I had a student in my screenwriting class at LACC whose father-in-law had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of black pilots which did remarkable work in World War II. She was working on a feature screenplay on the subject, but she could never get it finished. So I have been thinking since then of all the different ways you could tell the story. The 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen was a fairly straightforward telling of the story, but with a limited budget. There have been a number of documentaries on the subject. I was not particular delighted to hear that George Lucas was going to produce this film, since serious history is not his strong suit. On the other hand, John Ridley, who developed the story and worked on the script, has a wide range of credits. He did the story for the 1999 film Three Kings and wrote and produced for television shows such as Platinum and The Wanda Sykes Show. Aaron McGruder is the creator of the comic strip Boondocks and all the controversy surrounding it. McGruder rags on everybody. What could this strange three-way collaboration come up with?

Lucas has been quoted that what he wanted to make was the kind of gung ho propaganda movie he grew up watching as a kid. But, but, this is about a Serious Issue, Race in America. The standard Hollywood approach would be to make it solemn. Ridley and McGruder are having none of that. This is a World War II action movie. They start the film in 1944, avoiding having to show us all the controversy and politicking that led up to the Tuskegee Airmen. The film begins with them already in the air over Italy. Instead of speeches, we get a truck blown up by the pilots. OK, then the speeches? Nope, then they blow up a train. All in the first ten minutes. My grandson and I were hooked. Yes, the plotting when they get on the ground is a little formulaic, which is the bane of most flying movies, but Ridley and McGruder make the characters and dialogue lively. The black characters are not stiff and noble, but as written and directed loose, funny, and lively. The pilots particularly are like military pilots everywhere and in every time: hot shot flyboys in it for the adventure. Ridley and McGruder have ignored the message approach and simply written an entertaining movie. We get the issue of race in several scenes, but that’s not the focus of the movie, simply one issue these guys have to deal with. The writers assume, and rightly so, that we do not need to be lectured.

I have slapped George Lucas about the head and shoulders in stuff I have written about him and his films, but here’s the bottom line: He put up $58 million of his own money to make this film when nobody else in Hollywood would. And I mean nobody: no Hollywood types who slit peoples’ throats during the week, contribute to charities, and collect Humanitarian of the Year awards every weekend. It’s almost enough for me to forgive the man for Jar Jar Binks. Well, almost.

Crazy Horse (2011. Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman. 134 minutes.)

Crazy Horse

Frederick Wiseman and bare naked French ladies: what more could you want?: No, this is not a sequel to War Horse, nor is it a cowboys-and-Native Americans movie. The institution Wiseman is looking at in this documentary is the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris. The cabaret has several acts of women topless and bottomless, and we sort of follow the development of a couple of new numbers. I say sort of, because as is typical of Wiseman, we do not move in a straight line. For example, near the beginning we see a woman recording what they call in the porno business “groan-overs.” It is only much later in the film do we hear, if we are paying attention, how they are used in an act. Wiseman is using, as he often does, a circular structure. We see the work the women and others put in and we see some of the results. It is typical of Wiseman that we see the auditions of a number of woman only near the end of the film, when we know the kind of work they will be doing.

We get a lot of footage of the acts, but the character that is most interesting is the director of the new numbers, Philippe Decouflé, who is frazzled by the lack of time and what appears to be, quite frankly, a lack of organization at the club. He wants at one point to shut down the club for two nights to improve the equipment (clean the lights, etc), but Andrée, the manager of the club, says the “stockholders” will not allow it to go dark, even for just a couple of days. Decouflé is also hampered by Ali, the “artistic director,” (Decouflé is just the regular director), whom Wiseman doesn’t introduce us to until halfway through the film. Whereas Decouflé is trying to do stuff, all Ali does is talk, talk, and talk. Late in the film Wiseman films a television interview Andrée, Ali, and Decouflé are giving. Wiseman’s cameraman, the great John Davey, frames the shot so that, unlike the TV interview, we see Decouflé’s reactions to Ali’s bullshit.

We do not get to know the women in the show as well, but Wiseman has spaced three scenes of them off-stage over the course of the film. In the first, the dancers are laughing at a video of ballet bloopers. This scene makes the dancers seem human. In the second, a group of the dancers, makeup off, talk to Decouflé about the problems backstage. The dancers are obviously professional. And in the third scene, some of the dancers are backstage watching a new number on closed circuit TV. One of the dancers is critiquing the show in ways that make her one of the sharpest people in the film.

Ali talks at great length about how the show is about eroticism, which it is. But it is a very French eroticism. The women are all thin, with small breasts and very round, perky bottoms. A lot of very round, perky bottoms. The one woman who auditions near the end who is a little shorter and rounder is described, accurately or not, as a transexual. I walked from my house up to the theater where Crazy Horse was playing, and what struck me in the 45 minute walk home was the enormous range of women’s bodies you see on the streets of LA. As a populist about many things, I found the variety, well, enjoyable. That’s Wiseman, always making you think.

Oh, one other thing. Not a single review I saw in Los Angeles happened to mention that Decouflé is the same guy who conceived and directed the Cirque de Soleil show Iris. You can see US#81 for my comments on Iris.

Miss Bala (2011. Written by Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz. 113 minutes.)

Miss Bala

Squalid, not that there’s anything wrong with that: This one is inspired by a true story of a Mexican beauty contest winner who got involved with a drug cartel. You can imagine the Hollywood version of this: flashy costumes for not only the beautiful woman, but also for the druggies. Big houses, lots of bling, lots of ammunition being fired off. Well, we do get some shootout moments, but not as many as you might expect.

We start with Laura, who goes along with a friend to the contest tryout. They then go to a club, where Laura witnesses a gang shooting. She is in shock and doesn’t know what to do. The next day she approaches a cop car. He says she needs to go to the police station, but he takes her instead to the drug boss. Not in a big house, but in a garage in a rundown neighborhood. And Lino is not young, handsome, and dashing. He is middle-aged and dressed like a day laborer you could find on any number of street corners in Los Angeles. He sees he can use Laura in all kinds of ways, such as going across the border to the U.S. to pick up a truck with a supply of ammunition. What we are seeing here is how squalid the real business of the drug trade is. And how it corrupts the rest of Mexican society. Lino can fix the pageant so Laura wins, and can get her into see a high-ranking police officer, whom Lino is, we think, trying to assassinate.

The problem with the film is Laura. We see in the early scenes that she is a rather lively woman, but once the killing starts, she is in a state of shock. Which she stays in during the rest of the film. Stephanie Sigman in the early scenes can be expressive as Laura, but she is not after those scenes. I suppose that is true to life, but it makes her a very uninteresting character for the rest of the film, which seeps the energy out.

Safe House (2012. Written by David Guggenheim. 115 minutes.)

Safe House

The Spook’s Dream: Matt Weston is a young C.I.A. agent (no relation to Michael Westen; different spelling of the last name) whose job is to keep the Company’s safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, in working order in case needed. As we see early on, it’s a boring job: checking the equipment, bringing in supplies, begging his superiors to be sent to somewhere interesting like Paris. Now if this were a low-budget, existential art house film, we would have 115 minutes of Matt sitting around questioning his life. But it’s a big budget thriller, so very quickly he gets dumped in his lap Tobin Frost. Yes, that Tobin Frost. The renegade C.I.A. agent who has been selling everybody’s secrets to everybody else for a decade. And what’s Matt’s reaction when the agents bring Frost in? Like Laura in Miss Bala, he’s gobsmacked. Now if I were in Matt’s position, I would for one see this as a great opportunity to learn from one of the evil legends in his field, but it never occurs to this Matt. By the time something like it occurs to the screenwriter, it is way late in the picture and Matt and Frost are in another safe house, and the agent there asks Matt what he has learned from Frost. And Matt is at a loss for an answer.

Again, this is not a low-budget, existential art house film, so we don’t stay in the house long. It’s invaded by a lot of guys with guns, the other agents are killed and Matt and Frost escape. Like the people of the IMF (see US#89), everybody drives recklessly. Matt loses track of Frost, finds him again, more chasing, etc. Meanwhile their tracks are followed at Langley by Matt’s bosses, played by Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendon Gleeson, as opposed to Peter Gallagher, Kari Matchett, and Christopher Gorman, whose writers on Covert Affairs give them more interesting scenes to play than those Guggenheim gives his higher priced actors here. One of Matt’s bosses will betray him, of course, and you will not only not get extra credit for guessing who it is, if you don’t guess early on, you will have points deducted.

Tobin Frost is a sociopath, and a great character for Denzel Washington, who is always more fun to watch in his bad guy roles than in his “a credit to his race” parts. The problem with a sociopath as a main character is that you can’t really go anywhere with him as a character. He is fun to watch outwitting nearly everybody in the first half of the film, but in a scene with a forger Guggenheim tries to humanize him, which makes him less interesting in this film. Once introduced to Frost, we want him to be more inventive as the film goes along. Matt grows up a bit in the film, but that’s not a good tradeoff for making Frost human.

You may remember from US#53 that I have some contacts with people who work with the intelligence community. One of them told me an ex-spook he knows said that the scene of Frost going down a hallway, shooting into rooms on both sides without looking, is a spook’s dream of what being an agent is all about. When asked if he himself had done that during his career, the ex-spook sniffed as if to say, sadly, no.

SOME PRINT ITEMS: Several interesting pieces about screenwriting showed up in the print media recently. The first is a real good news/bad news situation. The Anthology Film Archives in New York City is running some retrospectives on screenwriters. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the “Goings on About Town” notice in the February 17th issue of The New Yorker announced it this way: “To inaugurate a series of retrospectives devoted to screenwriters, Anthology Film Archives presents films written by [John] Sayles, including Joe Dante’s Piranha, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, and two by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate and Smile.” OK, here are the problems. First, if the retrospective is about the writer, why are they identifying the films by their directors? Second, and worse, Sayles did not write Norma Rae, The Candidate, or Smile. They were written by Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr., Jeremy Larner, and Jerry Belson, respectively. I have not seen the press release from the Archives, but their website has a line hidden in the small print that the retrospective will include some films Sayles admires for their screenwriting. Both The New Yorker and the Archives geeked this one. I trust both will do better on upcoming series.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday February 12th, playwright Jason Grote repeats the cliches that “Hollywood did burn the likes of Bertolt Brecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the martyred writer is part of film iconography: the floating corpse of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and John Turturro shambling through a flaming hotel in Barton Fink.” That’s not quite true. Brecht gave as good as he got in Hollywood, and Fitzgerald not only survived on the money he made, but wrote The Last Tycoon, not a bad tradeoff. On the up side, what Grote spends most of the article on is his finding that writing for television, specifically Smash, is rewarding creatively as well as financially. Something a lot of writers before him, both in television and feature films, discovered.

In an interview (which apparently is not on their website) in the Sunday, February 19th Los Angeles Times, Emily Kapnek, the creator of Suburgatory, talks about the creation of the show, which was based partially on her life in the suburbs. The networks would not allow her to write a mom who made mistakes, since the networks only wanted moms who were perfect. So Kapnek turned the mom into George, since men are allowed to get things wrong. There’s at least a Master’s thesis there waiting to be written.

The Power and the Glory (1933. Original screenplay by Preston Sturges. 76 minutes.)

The Power and the Glory

The Sturges Project: A Bonus Take: James Curtis, who wrote the biography of Sturges that I have been using throughout the Sturges Project, has a new book out. It is a biography of Spencer Tracy. In connection with it, the UCLA Film Archives is having a retrospective of Tracy films, one of which happens to be this one. So I couldn’t not see it, could I?

This is not a distinctively Preston Sturges script. He was at the beginning of his screenwriting career and trying out all kinds of ideas. In this case it is the story of a railroad tycoon and his rise and fall, but told in a non-chronological way. His inspiration was the millionaire C.W. Post (Post cereals and all that) who had killed himself. Sturges had heard tales about him from his then-wife, Post’s granddaughter. He decided that since he had heard the stories in piece-meal ways, he would tell it that way in the script. So we start with Tom Garner’s funeral, but his friend Henry quickly discovers that not only the building’s janitor but also Henry’s wife are perfectly happy Garner is dead. The competing views of the dead man is the forerunner of the News on the March sequence in Citizen Kane (1941). Sturges knew Welles and happened to mention Power once, to which Welles replied, “Don’t you know it’s in bad taste to mention that film around me?” The scene is even more a forerunner of the discussion of Lawrence on the steps of St. Paul’s at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). We quickly get into flashbacks of different time periods, but Sturges is very sharp in providing lines that connect the scenes. Over a scene of Sally, Tom’s wife, walking the rails in midwinter, Henry mentions that when she was older her hands were still red. Cut to an older Sally.

The picture was critically acclaimed, but not a hit. It is generally assumed that was because of Sturges’s time jumps, but I think it is more from the sophistication that Sturges shows in his characterizations. They are subtle in a way that was probably beyond the general audiences of 1933. You also do not have the humor that we came to know and love and think of as distinctively Sturges. Which bring us up to…

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944. Written by Preston Sturges. 101 minutes.)

Hail the Conquering Hero

The Sturges Project: Take Eight: So Sturges had both The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in the can by late spring 1943 (they were both not released until 1944). Buddy De Sylva, the head of production was unhappy with Moment, and the studio was negotiating with the War Department on Miracle. Paramount had a backlog of films waiting release, so De Sylva had no hesitation on holding up the Sturges films. What else could Sturges do but write and direct another film? Which he did.

The earliest notes Brian Henderson (in his Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges) could find were in May, but by July 12th Sturges had a complete screenplay. Shooting started on the 14th and continued through September. One reason Sturges may have been able to write the script so quickly is that Hail has the simplest plot of any of the Sturges films. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the son of World War I Marine Medal of Honor winner Hinky Dinky Truesmith, joined the Marines in World War II, but was thrown out for chronic hay fever. Ashamed to go home, he works in a shipyard until he runs into six Marines who dress him up as Marine to deliver him back to his mother. What could go wrong with that? Nearly everything, as Struges piles on complication after complication, but all connected to the basic situation. The six Marines are the Ale and Quail Club of this film, but they drive the action all the way through the film.

Sturges wrote Woodrow specifically for Eddie Bracken, imagining the character as a variation of Norval Jones from Miracle. Sgt. Heppelfinger, the header of the Marines, had to be William Demarest. Most of the rest of the cast are our old friends from the previous Sturges films. Al Bridge is the Political Boss, rather different from Tamiroff’s Boss in McGinty and Miracle. Struges writes a great, almost-serious role for Jimmie Conlin as Judge Dennis, since Sturges knew from Sullivan’s Travels that Conlin could carry it.

As Sturges developed the script from the 13-page “original story” he first turned into Paramount, two more characters were expanded. Bugsy is the Marine who, on hearing Woodrow’s story, calls Woodrow’s mother and tells her he is coming home. Bugsy is an orphan with mother issues, and probably suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although Sturges handles this in a very subtle way. Even more developed is Woodrow’s girlfriend back home, Libby. In the earlier versions of the story, she is just the girl he left behind. By the final script and film, Woodrow had written a letter dumping her when he was kicked out of the Marines. She is now engaged to Forrest Noble, the son of the current mayor. When news of Woodrow’s return gets out, she asks nearly everybody else to tell Woodrow she’s engaged. They refuse, and her attempts to tell him keep getting interrupted. It is 61 minutes into the film before she tells him. Given all the problems he sees himself in, he declares, “But that’s marvelous! That’s the first good news I’ve had all day.” That was not the reaction she was looking for. This in turns leads to one of Sturges’s great scenes. Henderson notes that it is Woodrow and Libby’s only scene together and “Everything must be packed into it—the present, the past, and the future of their relationship; and it also must fit precisely, and advance, the dramatic situation in which it occurs. The scene in fact realizes these requirements superbly.” And Henderson says that it does it without being in any way a conventional romantic scene.

Henderson also makes the point that Sturges in this film is writing fewer and fewer complete scenes, but more scenes that seem parts of continuing discussions. That is only partially true. There are several long, emotionally complicated sequences, many of them done in single takes. (The cinematographer is John Seitz again, as if you couldn’t tell from the fog outside the bar in the opening scene.) A large chunk of the scene in the bar, in which Woodrow and the Marines meet, is done in a take running five minutes and eleven seconds. The scene includes Marine comedy and Woodrow’s emotional description of his admiration for the Marine Corps. Sturges and Seitz start with a medium shot, dolly into Woodrow’s closeup and then dolly out to medium shot. Just as in Miracle there are several long traveling shots around the town (the same Paramount ranch set that was Morgan’s Creek). The Libby-Woodrow scene is one of those. Libby is played by Ella Raines, whom Sturges borrowed from Universal, and she is not a particularly expressive actor. The script and Bracken carry her. There is also a long walking scene between Libby and Forrest, played by ex-rodeo rider Bill Edwards, who is just as inexpressive as Raines. The script carries them both, and is so great you aren’t bothered that they are not that good. I have always said that if you write good scripts, you get good actors. This is sort of the reverse of that: a good script can carry bad actors.

Like the first Woodrow-Marines scene, the entire film has a striking equilibrium between comedy and drama. You don’t immediately think of the word “equilibrium” when you think of Preston Sturges, but this is the most evenly balanced of all his films. And because of that, it keeps the audience off-balance. We never know when a serious moment if going to turn comic, and vice versa. For all the action and yelling—it is a Sturges picture after all—this is a much less frenetic film than Miracle. Sturges manages a lot of satire (of hero worship, politics, and mother love, among other things), but some touching moments as well. Woodrow’s admission to the town is more than a little heartrending, and would not be out of place in a Capra film. Sturges’s view of small towns and their citizens is closer to that of Ben Hecht in Nothing Sacred (1937), but not without its emotional moments. Sturges’s direction here is, I think, better overall than in his previous films. In the sequence of the town preparing for Woodrow’s arrival, Sturges the writer has, as Henderson noted, given us ongoing conversations more than scenes, and Sturges the director has given them the flow they need to play. The same is true of his direction of his stock company. Bracken, not trying to upstage Betty Hutton this time, gives an amazingly varied performance. I had not realized he was that good an actor. Heppelfinger is not as good a part as Officer Kockenlocker, but Demarest is great as always. (Shortly after this film Sturges and Demarest had a falling out and never spoke to each other again. You can read Curtis for the details.) Raymond Walburn is at his best as Mayor Noble. And so on. In some ways this may be Sturges’s best film. And after a first sneak preview, De Sylva took it away from him and recut it. And, as often happens, the studio recut played worse than the original. In a deal I talked about in writing about The Great Moment in US#89, Sturges recut this one, and shot a new ending that condensed the final sequence by eliminating the campaign and election of Woodrow as Mayor. Henderson thinks Sturges did more cutting after the script was in production on this one, but when writing about this in the first of his two books, he had not yet looked at Miracle, where there is a lot more cutting.

Sturges was officially let go from Paramount in December 1943. Miracle opened in January 1944 and became the highest grossing film of the year. Hail opened in August 1944 and while it got critical raves, it was only a modest financial success. The Great Moment, released a month later, was a total disaster. Sturges went to work with Howard Hughes, and that did not end well. Sturges then moved on to Fox (you may remember he still owed Zanuck a picture) and that generally did not work out well. Then things got even worse. But I am now at the end of the Sturges Project, and I am not sure I could bear to write about some of his later films. Although I do have his 1949 Fox film The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend stashed on my DVR just in case.

Ah, well, two more items. When I was preparing to do this, I read over Andrew Sarris’s section on Sturges in his 1968 book The American Cinema. The book is the beginning of the reign of the auteur theory in America. But like so much auteur writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarris spends more time writing about Sturges’s screenwriting (character, dialogue, structure, etc.) than about his directing. What does that tell you?
The more mathematically inclined of you may have noticed that Brian Henderson (and a hearty, very hearty, thank-you to all the work he did) in his two books of screenplays researched and wrote on nine films and I have only written on eight. The other one Henderson deals with is his 1948 Fox film Unfaithfully Yours. It is the best of the later Sturges films. And it shows up occasionally on the Fox Movie Channel. So…

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: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up

The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

1.5

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Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.

Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.

In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.

Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.

The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.

Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family

The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

2.5

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Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?

At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.

The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.

Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.

One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident

Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.

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The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.

It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.

As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.

While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.

Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón

Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.

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Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.

Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.

Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.

If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.

Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.

Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.

More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.

And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”

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Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects

Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.

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Maiden
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.

The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.

Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.

By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.

Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.

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Transit
Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown


3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac


Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac


The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg


Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti


Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same

By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

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Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.

The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.

It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.

Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.

The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.

As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.

Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.

The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art

Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.

A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.

Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.

Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.

Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.

Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973

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