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

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

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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