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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, CSI, Some Short Takes on Late Winter-Early Spring 2010 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that Preston Struges as a writer “organizes chaos,” but isn’t that what all screenwriters do? Unless you have seen writers’ treatments and first draft screenplays, you have no idea how chaotic a lot of movies that seem so perfect started out. With Sturges of course, he is writing about chaos as well. I agree with David that Wiseman’s Model (1980) is a much better film than Crazy Horse. Model brilliantly raises the question of why we should think of the models as “models” for us to follow. And it suggests that—gasp—the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

Both David and Victor Schwartzman take up the issue of race in regard to Red Tails. I certainly agree with David that Intruder in the Dust (1949) is one of the great American films on the subject. I was not quite as taken with Shadows (1960), and I am assuming David is at least partially joking about Mandingo (1975), but it does show you how race can drive everybody crazy, including Hollywood filmmakers. I happen to have a fondness for Pinky (1949). Yes, yes, I know that Pinky, the light-skinned Negro girl, is played by a white girl, but look at the scene in the store where the attitude of the shopkeeper changes as soon as he is told she is black. That’s one of the best examples I know on film of showing everyday racism.

Victor raises the issue of the portrayal of black characters in older films. Yes, there is a lot of cringe-worthy stuff in those films. I remember when I was in the Navy in the early ‘60s. One of my fellow officers and my best friend in the Navy was one of the few black officers at the time. I remember we would get old ‘40s movies to show on board ship, and the wardroom would all be embarrassed when we would see some of the stuff with Willie Best and others in Vance’s presence. Time makes you rethink things.

Downton Abbey (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. Season 2, 7 episodes, approximately 540 minutes.)

Ahh, it came back and nearly all was right with the world: You may remember that when the first season of Downton Abbey came along, I got so hooked into it so quickly I wasn’t able to take the usual kinds of notes I do when I am watching something on television. See US#70 for details. Well, this time I took a lot of notes. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you a complete summary of this season, tempting though it might be. What I am going to do, just because I like to be perverse from time to time, is start with the last twenty minutes or so of the 7th and last episode. What happened was that my wife and I were away in Palm Springs the night it was on. Since I had no idea if the hotel we stayed at got the new PBS station in Southern California, I set up my DVR to record it. As it turns out, the hotel did get the station and we did watch it there. But I was a little sloppy on taking notes, and when we got back to Los Angeles, I wanted to look at the last twenty minutes to make sure I had got stuff right. What struck me in looking at those twenty minutes for a second time is how well Fellowes does everything in this series.

Lady Mary has been engaged to the press lord Sir Richard. He has threatened to print all the lurid details of the death of the Turkish diplomat from season one if she tries to break the engagement. But she has finally told Matthew about the death of the Turkish diplomat in her bed, and being slightly more modern than most characters on the series, he accepts it. That’s a pleasant surprise for Mary. So she tells Sir Richard that she is breaking their engagement. He is not happy about it, since he has spent a lot of time and money on her, buying a stately home near Downton Abbey and everything. Well, you can see why he is pissed. And this is part of what makes Fellowes’s writing so good. Sir Richard may be a skunk (think Rupert, or better, James Murdoch), but he is not without his feelings. She sort of really loves Mary, well, in addition to wanting to own her. And he is perfectly willing to take her on even though he knows (he’s not stupid) that she loves Matt. So, yeah, he’s pissed. And Matt makes it worse by walking into the room. And Sir Richard tells him that Lavinia knew Matt was not in love with her. OK, back up a minute. Lavinia was the woman Matt was engaged to when it did not work out with Mary in season one. She was a sweet young thing, but in over her head with these people. You just knew when the logline for Episode 6 said that “Spanish flu infects Cora [the lady of the house], Lavinia, and Mr. Carson [the head butler]” that Lavinia was not long for this world. When she was in a fevered state, she saw Mary and Matt dancing in the hallway and kissing, so it is likely she told Sir Richard (or is he just being a shit and guessing?). Lavinia was then able to die a wonderfully tragic death. Again, Fellowes giving as much detail to a relatively minor character as to the major ones.

So Matt and Sir Richard get into a fight. How plebian! And Robert, the Earl of Grantham and head of the house, orders Sir Richard to leave. Yes, Robert finally knows about the Turkish diplomat (it is way into this second season that he learns) and will take his chances with whatever gets printed. Sir Richard tries to be as polite as possible, the kind of turns of character that Fellowes is great at, and says to the Dowager, “I doubt we shall see each other again.” Class. And you will remember that the Dowager is Dame Maggie Smith. So what line does Fellowes give her? “Do you promise?” Like every other line Fellowes has given her, it is a perfect Dame Maggie line. But in Season 2 he has deepened the Dowager. She is no longer just a silly old lady, but one who sees better than some of the younger people the changes that are coming. Since she has been through a lot of changes in her life, she is better prepared to roll with the punches. So Fellowes is developing her rather than just falling easily into a bunch of great Dame Maggie lines.

Bates, Robert’s valet, has been accused of the murder of Mrs. Bates. There has been a trial and there is enough circumstantial evidence to convict him. And he is sentenced to death. Since testimony from Robert and others in the household have helped build the circumstantial case against him, Robert is determined at least at first to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. While he is working on that, Anna, Bates’s true love, is telling Mary that if Mary has to go to live with her maternal grandmother in the United States until the scandals blow over Anna will go along with her if she likes. Bates and Anna now have a nice scene in which he tells her that she has to live her own life, make new friends. Fellowes tends to make the lower classes just as dignified and noble as the upper crust. But Bates’s sentence is commuted, so does Anna stay at Downton Abbey as Robert tries to get him completely exonerated?

When have you ever seen a Servants’ Ball? It is a ball put on by the servants in which the upstairs folks dance with the downstairs folks. And Anna, now encouraged by Bates, notices that the maid to Lady Rosamund, the Dowager’s daughter, is sneaking upstairs with Lord Hepworth, who is trying to marry Rosamund. (There was a great, earlier scene where the Dowager, who had a fling many years ago with Hepworth’s father, nails his ambitions to the floor. See what I mean about Fellowes deepening her? Anna, the loyal maid, tells (off-screen) Mary, and Anna takes Mary and Rosamund to the room, opens the door, and lets Rosamund see what’s up. Now Anna tells the family she will be staying on. That’s an interesting touch on Fellowes’s part: showing us her decision after the Rosamund scene. It makes clear she understands where her loyalties lie. Especially if Robert can get Bates’s sentence dismissed.

The Bates-Anna love story is only one of two great love stories that Fellowes have given us. The second one is between Mary and Matt. They were obviously attracted to each other in season one, but it was a thorny attraction at best. For most of Season 2 they have been engaged to Lavinia and Sir Richard. Which means we have a lot of scenes (too many for a lot of viewers) of them almost connecting but not quite. Even I, who love Downton Abbey, wanted to slap these two idiots upside the head on more than one occasion. One of those is one of Fellowes’s best moments. In Episode 3 Matt and William, the downstairs guy, have gone off to World War I and have been reported missing. Downton Abbey has been turned into a convalescent center for recuperating soldiers. The family is dealing with this in a variety of ways. One afternoon Mary is singing “If You Were the Only Girl” to the recovering soldiers, accompanied on the piano by her sister Edith. The song is sentimental, especially to soldiers who may or may not go back to find their women waiting for them. The soldiers join in singing. This is an example of Fellowes’s ability to write multiple character scenes. We see the reactions of Mary, Edith, and the soldiers.

And then Matt and William walk in the door. That’s the most heartstopping moment I’ve seen since Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars says to Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, “My heart is and always will be yours.” At which point in Sense they get married and live happily ever after. But you notice this is Episode 3 of 7 episodes of Downton Abbey, so Matt and Mary stare longingly at each other rather than running off to one of the many rooms in Downton Abbey and doing the nasty.

So finally, at the end of Episode 7 Matt and Mary are outside the house, and it is naturally, snowing. Lavinia’s dead, Sir Richard is gone, the war is over, Matt can walk again and presumably do other useful things with the lower half of his body. So he proposes, and Mary, being the finicky person she is, insists that he kneel down and do it properly. Which he does. So they are finally, FINALLY, engaged.

But they are not married yet. Will they manage to screw up that? And what happens when Sir Richard prints all the lurid details? Will Mary have to go to visit her grandmother in America? Well, we already know that Shirley MacLaine has signed on to play that grandmother in Season 3, so we will see her either in America, or even more deliciously, trading zingers with Dame Maggie at Downton Abbey. And can Robert get Bates out of the hoosegow so he and Anna can have the happy life they deserve? You’ll notice that Fellowes has made the complications in the two love stories very different. For Matt and Mary the problems are internal; for Bates and Anna they are external.

A couple of other comments on Fellowes. He is a whiz at figuring out what to leave off-camera. A lot of scenes where people explain what’s happened to other people who do not need to see, since we know what they are talking about. Cora explaining to Robert about the Turkish diplomat, or Mary telling Matt about the same subject. Fellowes understands when to come into the latter half of the scene so we can tell from the characters’ reactions and comments what has been said.

Another thing: Fellowes, a Brit, has an American sense of pacing, which was one of the reasons I had trouble doing notes on season one. In the early ‘50s, American television writer Sy Salkowitz went over to England to work on The Errol Flynn Show, an anthology series. He discovered the English writers wrote slower-paced scenes, so he condensed scenes, and added two or three scenes in each episode, which made the episodes at least seem to move quicker. Downton Abbey goes at a very American pace.

Smash (2012. Various writers. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Smash

It’s showtime, folks: This show is one of the Great Ideas that may turn out not to be all that great. We are going to follow the creation of a Broadway musical from the original idea through its development, workshop productions, all the way to its Broadway premiere. That is, if the series runs long enough. It has now been renewed for next year, but without Theresa Rebeck, its creator, as showrunner.

Julia and Tom are songwriters with a Broadway hit or two behind them. One day they are talking to Tom’s assistant Ellis, who suggests a musical about Marilyn Monroe. They don’t like the idea at first, but doodle up a song, which they have Ivy, a woman in one of their shows, do a demo of. Which Ellis sends to his mom, who puts it out on the Internet, where it goes viral. OK, stranger things have happened, but as I was watching the first episodes of the series I was also reading Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, complete with his observations, called Look, I Made a Hat. Sondheim includes comments on the development of his shows, and quite frankly, Sondheim’s versions are more convincing as well as more entertaining.

The video comes to the attention of Eileen, a theatrical producer who is divorcing her husband, and she is looking for a show she can produce on her own. So she gloms onto the Marilyn idea, and wants to do a workshop right away. But, but, there is only one song. Tom and Julia write a few more, but I had no idea from the first three episodes if Julia, the lyricist, is also writing a book for the show. There was no mention at all of a book for the show, unless I completely missed it. Would the creators even think about a workshop with only a couple of songs and no book? In later episodes it does become clear Julia is the one writing the book. Eileen hires a big name director, Derek, to do the workshop. And they immediately start casting. Huh? The creators have not even decided what their take is on Marilyn yet. Which leads them to keep calling back two completely different actors for Marilyn. One is Ivy, a lush blonde who would be great as the older Marilyn, and the other is Karen, a newbie, who would be great as the younger Marilyn. In fairness to Theresa Rebeck, who is also a playwright and television writer, in episode two, “The Callback,” she has Derek, Tom, Julia, and Eileen discuss these differences, but not in terms of what their view of what the show is all about.

In the third episode, “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” Rebeck does a little backtracking and in the writing makes it clear that the creators of the musical are only preparing for a workshop. This may have been in reaction to all the excessive hype NBC gave the show, which emphasized it was about the creation of a BROADWAY MUSICAL. Which suggests another problem the show is going to have as it goes along. As the songwriters come up with the songs, we are going to get awfully tired of hearing the ones that stay in the show. Rebeck has so far been rather ingenious about making sure we don’t hear what we have too much, and she gives us scenes of both Ivy and Karen singing other songs. And in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” we get a song written for the show that we had better not hear again. Ever. It is something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which Marilyn and Joe sing about how they want an ordinary life. Yeah, right. But Rebeck doesn’t give us everybody deciding to drop the song.

Here is an odd thing that happens occasionally in television writing, although I can’t off the top of my head think of another example. Rebeck wrote the first three episodes. Playwright David Marshall Grant wrote the fourth, “The Cost of Art,” which was better than the first three, written by Rebeck, the creator of the show. We finally get a mention of the book, which Derek says is “still somewhat in flux.” So I suppose that is why the rehearsals seem to be more about the musical numbers than the book scenes. Ivy is bothered that nobody told her Karen is going to be in the ensemble and diva’s her out of the way in rehearsals. At one point Karen is sitting in the hall of rehearsal studio and one of the ensemble, whom we have heard being catty about her, listens to her complain and decides to help her. Three of the ensemble take Karen out for an “intervention,” getting her new clothes, but more entertainingly, teach her how to come to rehearsal (in regular clothes with your hair up) and change in the bathroom (to rehearsal clothes, and putting your hair in a ponytail). Now that feels like something written from experience. As does the three teaching Karen how to blend into the ensemble.

Eileen is trying to raise money by selling her (very nice) Degas sketch, but no dealer will touch it, since her ex-husband was the one who bought it. Derek is giving a party for Lyle West, a now-famous pop star Derek says he discovers. And Tom later says he discovered. So we think Eileen is going to hit him up for an investment, but where is where Grant is sharp. She offers to “rent” him the Degas for the startup money. Now that’s a nice twist.

The fifth episode, “Let’s Be Bad,” is written by Julie Rottenberg & Elisa Zuritsky is back to being sloppy, since it is mostly about all the characters having sex. That does lead to my favorite scene in the series so far. Tom, the lyricist, has gone out in “The Cost of Art,” with John, a lawyer. Tom and John’s mothers set up the blind date. Eeew, you know what that must be like. But John’s gorgeous and he and Tom hit the sack in this next episode. The great scene is the post-coital one, which starts out with them talking about how great the sex was, but then they quickly admit it was horrible, the worst sex they’ve ever had. You don’t see that in many American films and television shows.

I do have a problem with the writing and casting of the male characters. (On the female side Katharin McPhee and Megan Hilty are great as Karen and Ivy, respectively, and Anjelica Huston is fun to watch as Eileen.) The male characters are all played by good-looking, thin, guys with dark hair, so it is a bit hard to sort them out. As befitting a show about Broadway, several of the male characters are gay, but the straight male characters are deeply flawed. Derek screws every woman in sight and Julia’s husband is not very supportive. Michael, the actor they cast as Joe DiMaggio, had a fling before with Julia and starts up again, even though they are both married. Ellis has been cast and directed to be gay, but in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” we find out that he’s sleeping with one of his female roommates. It’s obvious his heterosexual side is the one that causes him to be not a nice person. When Lamar Trotti wrote the screenplay based on Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946), he told fellow Fox writer Philip Dunne that the story was “Basically… an anti-heterosexual picture.” There is an element of that here. As a straight male, I ought to object, but after all those years of gay psychotic and sociopathic characters (e.g., Quarles on this season’s Justified), it seems only fair that we now get the reverse. And if it gives us great scenes like the one between Tom and John, I am all for it.

There are pleasures to be had from the show, and I have not given up on it yet. The musical numbers, which shift in the cutting from rehearsals to fully staged, are entertaining, and the cutting of the final few moments of the “Pilot” episode, in which the characters all come together for the callback sequence is nicely done. The show was not dead on arrival, but like the theater always says about itself, it is ailing.

Luck (2012. “Pilot,” written by David Milch. 60 minutes.)

Luck

Horsies, some of them now deceased, and gamblers: David Milch is one of the biggest and best television writers around, with credits that include Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and Deadwood, just to name a few. His co-creator of this series is Michael Mann, who before he became a Great Director, was a pretty good television writer himself. See my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for details. So with HBO doing its usual overhyping, at least some attention had to be paid.

The pilot introduces to a lot of characters, all of them associated with horse racing and particularly the track at Santa Anita. The pilot starts out slow, but given the talent in front of and behind the camera, you know there is going to be more development. Whether you stick around for it depends entirely on how interested you are in the world of horseracing. The community seems pretty much hermetically sealed, with very little of real life intruding on it. I admire Milch for creating this world, but I don’t especially want to live in it. The world does give Mann an opportunity to have a lot of great shots of the horses, who are more expressive than those in War Horse (2011; see US#91). So this series appears to have been for guys who like gambling and 11-year-old girls who love their horsies.

I turned out not to be the only one who did not want to live an hour a week in the world of racetracks and gamblers. I was reminded of a film a studio made many years ago about bowling. The studio assumed that bowlers, of which there are millions in this country, would turn out for the movie. They didn’t. They preferred to bowl. I am sure gamblers preferred to gamble. There were no statistics on 11-year-old girls watching, but if they were, they, and everybody else, were turned off by the news that a total of three horses died during production. HBO canceled the series while still in its first season, a combination of bad ratings and dead horsies.

CSI (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Goodbye Catherine, hello Julie: The buildup to Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows leaving the show took several episodes, involving an old friend of her, Laura Gabriel, who was married to a nasty millionaire who ran a security service. All this involved Catherine with the F.B.I., especially agent McQuade. So when the case seems to be winding down in “Mrs. Willows Regrets” (teleplay by Christopher Barbour & Don McGill, story by Christopher Barbour), we are not surprised that Russell finds a letter of resignation from her in his email. Meanwhile she has been shot at and Russell rescues her. In the following episode, “Willows in the Wind” (written by Christopher Barbour & Richard Catalani, story by Carol Mendelson & Don McGill), Catherine discovers that Mark Gabriel is not the villain they thought he was, but the subject of an attempted assassination by Laura and McQuade, whom everybody thought was dead. That would push anybody to resign, but does not explain why she is taking a job with the F.B.I.. Before she goes, we do get a nice scene that finally explains in detail how she went from being a pole dancer in a club to a CSI. Her life as a stripper was alluded to in the early seasons, then pretty much dropped until now, and for good reason. It seemed like one of those ideas designed to appeal to the male executives but, at least during the run of the show, really was not particularly useful to the writers. Catherine’s farewell scene to the CSI crew really sounds more like Helgenberger’s farewell to the cast and crew of the show, and then is topped by a very anticlimactic scene with her and Morgan Brody, the youngest of the CSIs.

Two episodes later we are introduced to Julie Finlay, or “Finn,” in “Seeing Red” (written by Christopher Barbour & Tom Mularz). She is an expert in blood splatter. She also worked with Russell before, and their backstory gets laid out over the next several episodes. He fired her once, she insists he not call her “Jules,” and he insists she not call him Diebenkorn, which is what his initials D.B. stand for. She helps solve this case, then agrees to come to work for the crime lab full-time. She is a little younger and livelier than Catherine was, which may fit better with Ted Danson’s Russell.

Some Short Takes in Late Winter-Early Spring 2012 Television

Justified

I was intending to write a bunch about the new season of Justified, but Luke de Smet has been doing such a knockout job on his episode summaries and commentaries that I don’t have a lot to add. What I like is that he has been dealing with some of the writing problems and solutions the show is dealing with. In his discussion of episode one, he brings up the difficulty the writers must have had in trying to follow the spectacular life and death of Mags Bennett, an issue he deals with again in his comments on episode four. I am not at all sure they have managed it, but it may have been impossible. I also liked the way Luke dealt with the introduction of Limehouse in episode four, as well as his discussion of race in the same episode. Luke is also good on how this set of story arcs is getting us into Raylan’s feelings about his native habitat. He does not specifically lay all that on the writers, but they’re the ones who put it in the show. This show, by the way, escaped the curse of Smash: from the very beginning, all the writers are on the same page as to what show they are writing. Well, it helps if you have Elmore Leonard as your inspiration.

How I Met Your Mother still has not introduced to the mother. The creators of the show have been saying all along they had a plan for the whole series. But at a television critics meetings in Los Angeles, one of the creators of the show actually admitted they had made a huge mistake early on by not making Robin the mother. She and Ted had terrific chemistry, as did the two actors, Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor. But in the older Ted’s narration, he kept referring to her as the kids’ “Aunt Robin.” In “The Drunk Train” (written by Craig Gerard & Matthew Zinman), Robin’s new boyfriend Kevin proposes, but when Robin tells him she not only cannot have children, but does not want any, he passes. She tells the same thing to Ted, and he says he loves her. Well, that could end the show right there, but in the following episode, “No Pressure” (written by George Sloan), Sloan has to write them out of that problem, so we spend the whole episode waiting around for Robin’s reply to Ted’s declaration of love. Eventually she says she does not love him. God, they are worse that Matt and Lady Mary, but unlike Downton Abbey, this show has already foreclosed on the possibility of them getting together. Dumb mistake.

White Collar has not has as lively a season as it’s previous one. We have spent most of the season waiting around to find out Neal’s sentence is going to be commuted. Other than that, there has been no big arc to follow. The individual episodes are all right, but not up to their usual standard.

30 Rock has been going through a bad patch. It seems to have lost its zing. Take the “Leap Day” episode, written by Luke Del Tredici. It was all about a fictional holiday, the sort of thing any second-rate sitcom would do. The same was true of the “St. Patrick’s Day” episode written by Colleen McGuiness. There were virtually none of the usual 30 Rock connections with the real world that make the show sparkle at its best. “Kidnapped by Danger” brought back some of the life. Of course it helped that it was written by Tina Fey her ownself.

Desperate Housewives, coming up to its series finale, has also lost its zing. It plays more like a melodrama than a comedy-drama. In “She Needs Me” (written by Jason Ganzel) we get several scenes that would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera. “Women and Death” (written by Annie Weisman), which dealt with the aftermath of Mike’s death, was all soap opera. And worse, both episodes are sentimental, which is not a term anybody has ever used about Desperate Housewives. Maybe showrunner Marc Cherry was too busy with the lawsuit Nicollette Sheridan filed against him to mind the store properly.

GCB would seem to be intended to replace Desperate Housewives, but I have my doubts. It is based on the book Good Christian Bitches by Kim Gitlin and developed by Robert Harling, who wrote the play and screenplay for Steel Magnolias (1989). That genealogy pretty much tells you what to expect: Southern women being bitchy to each other. In this case they all live in Dallas, so there are a lot of Texas zingers as well. The “Pilot,” as many pilots are, is a little extra stuffed setting up the situation. Amanda was the queen bitch when she was in high school. She married a guy who made millions, but not legally. He is driving away with his ill-gotten gains. His mistress, Amanda’s best friend, not ever have read The World According to Garp on the safety hazards of doing this, is going down on him while he is driving. An accident ensues and all the lovely money they had with them floats away on the highway. That was a nice shot, by the way. So Amanda, broke, goes back to Dallas and even has to move into his mother’s mansion with her two teenaged kids. The women Amanda terrorized in high school are out to get revenge. Now whom do you root for? Amanda seems chastened by all that has happened to her, but the other women have a point as well. The writing in the pilot was very cartoon-like, which may not wear well over the series. In the second episode “Hell Hath No Fury” (also written by Harling), it is clear this is going to be a one-joke series: fundamentalist Christians do not behave well. We get it, now move on. There does not yet appear to be an at least semi-serious counterpoint, as there often was on Desperate Housewives. There is also a very odd casting problem. Carlene, the new queen bitch among the women, is played by Kristin Chenowith. That would appear to be perfect casting, but it may be too perfect. With her almost cartoon-like face and voice, and with a wig and outrageous clothes added, she may just be too much. Write for performance, as I always say, but Harling and his writers need to develop more for Chenowith to do than just the obvious.

Fairly Legal is back. You may remember in US#70, I almost did not watch the new show last winter called because I kept coming across the ads that showed its star, Sarah Shahi, with her cute little finger in her cute little mouth. Fortunately the show was much better than that. It still is in the new season. But I was driving down the street in Hollywood a few weeks before it premiered and a bus pulled up alongside me. I looked over and there is Shahi on the side of a bus. Announcing the upcoming return of the show. With her finger in her mouth. I am watching in spite of the ad rather than because of it.

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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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

1.5

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Wade Muller’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, that work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a languid opening drone shot of the skyline of Al Ghouta, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool and distanced perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging

Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.

1.5

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The Addams Family
Photo: United Artists Releasing

The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.

With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.

In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.

In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.

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Mister America
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.

Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.

The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.

The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”

An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.

Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.

All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.

That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.

Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Gemini Man Erects a Cardboard World Around Its Special Effects

Whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, the film is just another assembly-line reproduction.

1.5

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In centering its action melodrama around the confrontation between its main character and a duplicated version of himself, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man joins some dubious company: the forgotten Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Replicant, the late-pre-governor-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Sixth Day, and Richard Lester’s abortive superhero sequel Superman 3. These films relied on split-screen techniques and misleading cuts to split their respective heroes in two—tricks that had, in essence, existed since Georges Méliés. New digital technologies appear to have spurred this old Hollywood hobbyhorse back into action, as Gemini Man’s preternaturally gifted, recently retired secret agent Henry Brogan (Will Smith) confronts not just a clone, but a younger clone, logically dubbed Junior and also played by Smith, de-aged via facial scanning and semi-automated digital animation.

If the special effects industry has devised some new tricks, however, Gemini Man is hardly evidence that Hollywood screenwriters have. Co-written by Billy Ray, Darren Lemke, and David Benioff, the film never successfully redirects our attention from its naked exhibition of advanced CG and toward some sort of meaningful conflict. The broadly sketched attributes that define Brogan are either totally utilitarian (he has a bee allergy, which comes into play in a manner so haphazard that one suspects that the payoff was added at the last minute) or completely unexplored (such as his insomnia). Sometimes, the script’s sense of characterization also betrays its undercooked thinking about its ostensible main subject. To wit, the film dwells both on how Brogan’s traumatic upbringing shaped his psychology and on how different Junior’s youth has been, but then it has Brogan assemble a precise and specific psychological profile of Junior based on his own mind. Nature or nurture? Whichever one, apparently, is convenient to producing a teary-eyed Will Smith in a given scene.

Given Benioff’s writing credit here, it’s also hard not to draw a connection between the phony female badassery of HBO’s Game of Thrones and how Gemini Man treats Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the agent sent to surveil Brogan in his retirement. When Brogan, attempting to relax and do some boating, outs the attractive young woman working at the dock as an undercover D.I.A. agent (definitely not C.I.A., for whatever reason), he observes, ostensibly impressed, her distinguished record: how she never received a single demerit despite her expansive resume of operations throughout the globe. Brogan then spends the remainder of Gemini Man explaining standard spy procedures to her, like going on the lam, as if she were a rookie. (Lee, Benioff, and company also stage an egregious scene that sees Danielle the seasoned spy strip for an awkward pat-down from Junior.)

Junior has been sent to kill Brogan by Clay Verris (Clive Owen, doing his best to menacingly hit those American diphthongs), Junior’s surrogate father and the head of Gemini, a private military contractor. Brogan, it seems, constitutes a proverbial loose end for both the D.I.A. and Gemini, which cloned him in 1995 and now has his replacement ready to go. The seeming arbitrariness of Verris choosing Junior to assassinate Brogan is hardly accounted for by the film’s explanation, which has something to do with Brogan being Junior’s “darkness” that he must vanquish in order to…become a real man? It’s unclear, particularly as it appears that Verris didn’t want Junior to discover that they were actually the same man.

Perhaps appropriately, Gemini Man suggests a hybrid clone of Bourne, 007, and Terminator flicks. An internecine conflict between shifty agency types divided over what to do about Brogan plays out in dry cellphone exchanges, a pursuit through mostly random places around the globe provides the film with exotic backgrounds for motorcycle chases and extended fisticuffs, and a late-film revelation about Gemini’s ultimate goals raises the specter of a post-human world. Throughout, the action is underwhelming, as Lee uses rapid cuts and tight angles to disguise faulty CG—but to no avail. The problem is less Junior’s digitally altered face—which, while not perfect, can actually emote—and more the rubber bodies that bounce around the frame, rolling out of car accidents and flipping into karate kicks.

Gemini Man is an action movie whose attempt to carry emotional weight is betrayed by the utter weightlessness of both its spectacle and its narrative. There’s a story here about middle age and the loss of youth, the uncanniness of knowing you were once a person you no longer are—the existential discomfort of looking in a mirror and seeing someone else looking back. Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the film Lee thinks he’s making: Brogan avoids mirrors, as he avers on a few occasions, and interestingly, Lee frames close-ups almost frontally, the actors nearly staring into the camera, as in a mirror (or a Yasujirō Ozu film). There’s a self-reflexive element to Gemini Man, concerning the illusory preservation of youth in the cinema and the way Hollywood reflects ideal selves back to us. But Lee can’t do much with this idea, and even a soulful pair of performances from Smith can’t enliven the cardboard world erected around the special effects at the heart of the film. In the end, whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, Gemini Man is just another assembly-line reproduction.

Cast: Will Smith, Clive Owen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Douglas Hodge, Theodora Miranne, Linda Emond, Ralph Brown Director: Ang Lee Screenwriter: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Dead Center Is an Atmospheric Study of Human Futility

The film is in tune with the need to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity.

3

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The Dead Center
Photo: Arrow Films

People who work in intense environments, such as police stations, social services offices, and hospitals, are familiar with the strain of needing to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity. Primarily set in a hospital over a few days, writer-director Billy Senese’s The Dead Center, which follows a handful of medical professionals as they grapple with something that symbolizes their fear of succumbing to their patients’ sickness, is profoundly in tune with this sense of strain.

Senese and cinematographer Andy Duensing capture the hard white and sickly yellow light of a hospital in the middle of the night, as well as the eerie alternation of droning white noise and silence that can define such a setting. The filmmakers allow this hospital, especially the psychiatric ward, to creep into our bones. (It certainly helps that the staff here isn’t composed of actors who appear to be out of central casting, as they suggest truly harried and exhausted members of the working class.) Occasionally puncturing this nocturnal twilight are the piercing sounds of patients in crisis, and Senese expertly captures this ebb and flow between the expectation of violence and weathering it. At its best, The Dead Center exudes some of the concentrated lo-fi intensity of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.

The Dead Center has a horror-movie hook, which often lingers at the narrative’s margins and screams of Chekhov’s gun. The film opens with an ambulance delivering to the hospital a John Doe (Jeremy Child) who sliced his wrists and chest. Senese films the ambulance’s trip from a god’s-eye view, suggesting a supernatural presence that might not be all that friendly. Later, after John Doe is toe-tagged and bagged, he sits up, and Senese springs an unforgettably creepy sound effect: the crinkling of the body bag, which suggests the crackling of electricity. And this effect is complemented by the poignant sight of the quivering John Doe rising from the bag and wandering the hospital and slipping into an empty bed for warmth. In this moment, Senese grounds resurrection in the textures of a very realistic setting.

John Doe is discovered by the hospital’s staff, and psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) is charged with discerning his identity and illness, though Forrester, a renegade with considerable emotional issues himself, doesn’t get far with this endeavor. Carruth invests a familiar type—the hotdog professional with little personal life—with a haunting and unusually opaque vulnerability. He keys us into Forrester’s desperation to hide his own weaknesses from his staff, though his pain is only partially explained. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative thread, medical investigator Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) investigates John Doe’s origins. This trail leads him to a motel room drenched in blood, and, in another bone-chilling detail, Graham drains a tub of blood to reveal a spiral carved at the bottom. Uncovering John Doe’s identity, Graham discovers a man marked by death, who has become a corporeal Grim Reaper.

The Dead Center is ultimately an atmospheric study of human futility. John Doe might be a monster, but he’s also the ultimate incurable victim, who destroys any degree of control that Forrester and Graham fight to assume over their surroundings. Not unlike H.P. Lovecraft, Senese allows his audience to feel as if it’s only seeing but a tip of a malign iceberg, and that ineffable impression of vastness is existentially frightening.

Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely Director: Billy Senese Screenwriter: Billy Senese Distributor: Arrow Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mary Quickly Squanders Its Promising Horror-Movie Hook

Michael Goi’s film comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats.

1.5

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Mary
Photo: RLJE Films

With Mary, whose title refers to an ancient ship with a history of drifting off course and losing its crews, director Michael Goi and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski have settled on a fertile setting for a haunting. This isn’t a grand ship in the vein of either version of Ghost Ship, but a vessel that’s intimate with seemingly little in the way of the sort of nooks and crannies that are integral to games of supernatural hide and seek.

As the latest doomed crew boards the Mary, with the purposes of turning her into a tourist boat along the Florida coast, Goi derives some suspense by implicitly prompting the audience to wonder where the bad stuff can happen, given the constriction of the setting. Intensifying this unease is the film’s one unnerving image: of the boat’s masthead, which is a wooden carving of a beautiful woman with wide, accusatory eyes—presumably Mary, a siren.

At first, it seems as if Mary is going to be a riff on Stephen King’s Christine, in which a young man became romantically obsessed with a vintage vehicle, a 1957 Plymouth Fury. Just as Christine beckoned to its next victim from a junkyard, as a seemingly innocuous antique, the Mary calls to David (Gary Oldman), from a distance as he’s scoping another boat at an auction. Like Christine, the Mary seems impractically beat up, which is a part of the seduction, as they both play into the hero complexes of emasculated men. In David’s case, he’s attempting to break free of a life as a captain for another man’s business, and to help his family rebound from a domestic crisis that isn’t revealed until late in the film. Which is to say that Mary has a promising hook to go with its setting: Initially, it appears that it will tell a story of David’s undoing, of his obsession with a haunted ship that destroys him with promises of redemption.

Astonishingly, Goi and Jaswinski drop that hook immediately. David, who has the most invested in the ghost ship, is shunted off to the film’s sidelines as the Mary works his family over in predictable ways. The man’s wife, Sarah (Emily Mortimer, who’s every bit as game as Oldman), is plagued by nightmares, while their little daughter, another Mary (Chloe Perrin), draws creepy pictures of a mystery woman. Tommy (Owen Teague), the boyfriend of David and Emily’s older daughter, Lindsey (Stefanie Scott), is driven insane almost immediately, while Lindsey is batted around as a victim between various infected parties.

With Goi and Jaswinski unwilling to explore a kinky, psychosexual bond between a man and his demonic lady ghost-boat, Mary comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats. The film’s momentum is further stifled by a framing device—seemingly ported over from a generic cops-and-robbers television show—in which Sarah is interrogated about what happened aboard the Mary. The filmmakers are attempting, via this framing device, to impart a sense of mystery and inevitability upon the narrative, but it serves to make Mary feel as if it’s half over before it even began.

Cast: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Owen Teague, Stefanie Scott, Chloe Perrin, Michael Landes, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jennifer Esposito Director: Michael Goi Screenwriter: Anthony Jaswinski Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: First Cow Aims, and Often Strains, to Illuminate the American Experiment

Its themes are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.

2.5

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First Cow
Photo: A24

The best Kelly Reichardt films strike a sublime balance between character study and socioeconomic critique. First Cow—a mostly 19th-century-set drama co-written by Reichardt and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, and based in part on his 2004 debut novel The Half-Life—is one of the director’s shakier efforts. The film begins with an especially incisive William Blake quote (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”), and its themes of systemic exploitation, the enduring vagaries of the free market, and the alternately tender and tempestuous bonds of male camaraderie are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.

That isn’t to say Reichardt, who’s edited all of her films since Old Joy, has lost the ability to create multilayered, gently provocative imagery. First Cow’s opening scene, set in the present day, is particularly beautiful, visually and thematically. A young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog uncovers a pair of skeletons beside an Oregon river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames the bones in a steady, un-showy composition (the film is photographed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio) so that it takes a few seconds to realize what you’re looking at. The slow-dawning revelation of the moment epitomizes Reichardt’s tendency in First Cow, as well as in many of her other films, to let drama emerge steadily and organically.

How did these bones get here? Reichardt is content to leisurely amble toward the answer to this question, and that approach does intrigue in the early going. In the Pacific Northwest wilderness of the 1820s, a cook named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) accompanies an aggressive group of trappers as they head toward an Oregon Territory outpost. One night he discovers a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), hiding naked in the nearby brush. King-Lu is apparently on the run from some Russian ruffians, so Cookie hides him among the trappers’ belongings. The pair reconnect again at the outpost, where they become drinking buddies and, eventually, partners in fortune-seeking crime.

The outpost’s wealthiest resident, a haughty Englishman referred to only as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has just brought in the first cow to grace the territory. Figowitz and King-Lu decide to steal the cow’s milk—under cover of night, and as often as needed—which they then use as the key ingredient in artisanal pastries that become a lucrative staple of the outpost’s thoroughfare. Their unwitting benefactor finds out about the treats (though not, at first, about their underhanded procuring methods) and offers them a handsome sum to bake pastries for him personally. And so the cycle of exploitation, righteous and not, continues—until it can’t.

None of that summary quite captures First Cow’s gravelly ambience. The outpost itself is as vividly realized and lived-in a location as the mining town in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film Reichardt nods to here via both Anthony Gasparro’s mud-strewn production design and the presence of Rene Auberjonois as a scarecrow-thin eccentric with a crow always on his shoulder. The sense of a nascent community rising up out of the primordial muck is palpable, so it’s unfortunate that Figowitz and King-Lu ultimately feel outside it all.

This isn’t the fault of Magaro or Lee. Both performers have a pleasing and often very funny rapport, especially whenever they exchange conspiratorial glances over a shared bottle of whiskey. However, Reichardt sees Figowitz and King-Lu, first and foremost, as the bag of bones they will become (abusers and victims both of capitalist injustice), rather than the men they are in each given moment. Their all-too-apparent endpoint supersedes their tragically flawed existence, which has the adverse effect of diminishing their humanity, reducing them to paper-thin symbols. This wreaks havoc with a finale that grasps for a profound elementalism akin to one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lushly ardent fantasias, but instead comes off with the contrived ambiguity and labored didacticism of lesser John Sayles.

There’s more insight into economic, racial, and social inequities in the offhand, unsubtitled exchange that Reichardt captures between two Native American women (one played by Lily Gladstone, the breakout star of Certain Women) as they converse among themselves in Chief Factor’s home. It’s the supporting cast and the side details that really sing in First Cow, both giving a sense of the alternately hopeful and despairing qualities of the American experiment that Reichardt aims, and too often strains, to illuminate.

Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, Rene Auberjonois, Jared Kasowski Director: Kelly Reichardt Screenwriter: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt Distributor: A24 Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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