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Understanding Screenwriting #93: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, Pauline Kael, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #93: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, Pauline Kael, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, The Forgiveness of Blood, The Kid With a Bike, Salt of Life, Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Film Made (book), Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (book), but first…

Fan Mail: I will take David Ehrentstein at his word that he was serious about Mandingo (1975) is one of the best films about race in America, but I am not sure anybody else will. On Smash’s Ellis I don’t think I made it clear that I think he is bi as well. And I agree completely with David that the “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” number is the best one so far in Smash. That episode had not shown up at the time I wrote US#92. Interesting though that they only showed the rehearsal/audition version and did not cut to the fully produced number as they sometimes do. Well, some people can look forward to seeing all those chorus boys in just their towels.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011. Screenplay by Terence Davies, adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan. 98 minutes.)

Terence, meet Terence: Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) was one of the leading British playwrights of the middle of the twentieth century. The period of his greatest success was from 1946 to 1956. His dramas were literate and restrained, usually about members of the upper class stifling their emotions. His work became almost instantaneously unfashionable with the arrival of the Angry Young Men playwrights like John Osborne. But even before his death, Rattigan’s reputation began to regain some of its luster, as did the reputation of his contemporary Noël Coward, and for some of the same reasons. Both wrote dramas about people with restrained emotions, which gives actors a lot of subtext to play. Both were also extraordinary theatrical craftsmen, especially in the area of dramatic structure.

The stage version of The Deep Blue Sea was produced in both London, where it was a hit, and New York, where it was not, in 1952. Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay for the 1955 film version. (He also wrote original screenplays for such films as Breaking the Sound Barrier [1952], The V.I.P.s [1963], and The Yellow Rolls Royce [1964].) The play takes place over 24 hours in a furnished flat in North-West London. Hester Collyer, the wife of a judge, William Collyer, has left him for a passionate affair with former RAF pilot Freddie Page. That relationship has not worked out, and she has tried to kill herself. There is a lot of exposition before we even meet Hester, and then dramatic scenes with her and William and Freddie. In the 1955 screenplay, there is an attempt to “open up” the play by including a trip to Switzerland. Well, the film was made in the early years of CinemaScope. It didn’t help, although there are those that love Vivien Leigh’s performance as Hester.

The current film version was the inspiration of its producer Sean O’Conner. He had known the director of the original stage production and thought a new film could help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rattigan’s birth. O’Conner went to the Rattigan estate and they approved the idea. O’Conner then went to writer-director Terence Davies, noted for his deeply nostalgic films about Britain in the postwar period (Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988, The Long Day Closes in 1992). Davies did a first draft screenplay, and the Rattigan estate’s reaction to it was “Be radical!” So he was. (The background details on the film are from a group of articles about it in the December 2011 issue of Sight & Sound.) The play begins with a lot of exposition about Hester and her situation. Davies has condensed that into nine minutes of visuals giving us quick scenes of what happened to Hester before the suicide attempt. It is a much more cinematic way to cover the same material. And it does not spell everything out for us the way Rattigan the playwright felt compelled to do in the ‘50s.

Davies as the director lays on the nostalgia about the period a little thicker than he needs to. There is a brief sequence in the Aldwych tube station that is a direct steal from one of the final scenes in Brief Encounter (1945), but if you look at Brief Encounter, it does not fetishize the period as Davies does. And Davies makes it worse in the middle of the scene by throwing in a flashback to a group of people using the station as an air raid shelter during the war, singing along on a chorus of “Molly Malone.” It’s a very Terence Davies image (a single long traveling shot), but it is a complete interruption to the film. Oddly enough, Davies is at his best in the scenes that come straight from the play (or at least seem to; more about that in a minute). Davies carries into his script Rattigan’s sympathy with all of the three major characters, so in any given scene any one of them, or all of them, may be right. With Davies’s skillful direction of the actors, Rattigan’s dialogue scenes become the most moving elements in the film.

In the film we get flashbacks, and one of them is a total invention on Davies’s part. But it feels completely at home in a Rattigan film. The scene has Hester and William visiting William’s mother, who is not only unpleasant to Hester, but to William as well. Davies places this scene in the film nicely, so we are surprised and amused later to learn he is a judge. The scene came out of Davies’s experience living with a woman (“I thought the love of a good woman might cure my homosexuality, which of course was not the case!”) and visiting her mother. Davies turned her into William’s mother, and out of a terrible weekend, he got a great scene. As Phoebe Ephron told her daughter Nora, “Take notes. Everything is copy.”

A Separation (2011. Written by Asghar Farhadi. 123 minutes.)

A Separation

Judge Judy in Farsi: Nader and his wife Simin are arguing in front of a judge in Iran, but for most of this opening scene we only see them, facing the camera, making their cases to us as well as the judge. Simin wants to take their teenage daughter Termeh to live in another country, where she feels there is more opportunity. Well, as a feminist and democrat, I think she’s right, of course. But Nader feels he has to stay in Iran and take care of his father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As someone who has dealt with elderly relatives, I think he’s right too. So Farhadi, who also directed, is setting up the best kind of drama: not good versus evil, but good versus good. You have heard me talk at great length on many, many occasions about the importance of the opening scene of the film and how crucial it is to set up the world of the film. Boy, this scene does that in spades.

But there is a flaw in the opening scene that continues through the film. Nader and Simin are angry. All the time. Not just in this scene, but throughout the movie. Which may be true of them (if I had to live in Iran under the current administration, I’d be pissed too), but we never get much of a counterpoint to their anger. I think their daughter’s quiet (mostly, but she has her loud moments as well) observations of her parents, and the reactions of the young daughter of Razieh, who is hired to look after the father, are supposed to work as that counterpoint. Unfortunately as written and directed they are not quite strong enough to take on that role. You may remember I got into trouble with some readers when I said something similar about Ajami (2009, see US#44) and all the yelling and screaming in that film. Because there are more quiet moments here, it’s less of a problem than in that film.

So the judge decides not to give them a divorce, and Simin goes off to live with her mother. That’s the first of a number of bad decisions the characters make. Nader hires Razieh to look after his father, which goes south as well. Razieh is a very religious woman who has not told her husband Hodjat she has the job. She has also not told Nader she is pregnant. Well, a chador hides a multiplicity of sins. Razieh has to rescue the father when he wanders out of the house and the next day she has to leave him so she ties him to the bed. Bad move; guess who comes home early? Nader, and there is more yelling and she falls/is pushed down the stairs. Now the script gets interesting, setting up a lot of questions about everybody’s behavior. Why did Razieh go out that day? Did she fall or did Nader push her? Did the fall cause the miscarriage? What will Hodjat’s reaction to all this be? Well, he’s not a happy camper, and he’s a yeller and a screamer as well. At this point, in spite of my dislike for the Iranian system of government, I was feeling sorry for the judge having to put up with all this. I have, as you can tell, reservations about the script, but I can see why people love it and the film, and why the script has picked up a pile of awards and nominations. Farhadi has beautifully structured the film so that the answers to those questions raise more questions and put everyone under pressure to do whatever they think might be the right thing. Nader, for example, has a scene late in the picture when he discusses with his daughter what he knew, why he said what he did about what he knew. Which then leads to an interesting action on his part when Simin, against his wishes, has worked out a settlement with Razieh and Hodjat. He asks for a simple favor from Razieh that she cannot do because she can’t swear on the Koran to something that is not true. So Nader and Simin “win” their case, but they may have lost their daughter. Farhadi leaves that up in the air when the judge asks Termeh who she wants to live with after the divorce. She does not want to tell him in front of her parents, and they are sent out of the room. But Farhadi does not tell us what her reply is. Normally I would want that resolved in a script, but he’s right here, because his ending makes you think about everything you have seen so far. I cannot fault a movie that makes you think, as many quibbles as I have with the script.

The Forgiveness of Blood (2010. Written by Joshua Marston & Andamion Murataj. 109 minutes.)

The Forgiveness of Blood

Sophomore Slump: Joshua Marston wrote and directed the great 2004 film Maria Full of Grace. In it he follows Maria, a pregnant Colombian teenager, who becomes a drug mule taking cocaine (you don’t want to know how) to New York City on a regular airline flight. In the first act, we learn the reasons (all of them, not just the obvious ones of poverty) she does it. The second act is the trip, one of the more suspenseful sequences in recent movies, and then the third act payoff is what happens to her in New York. Marston wrote the first draft in 48 hours, then spent three years rewriting it. There is not a wasted word in the script, and Maria is a character we come to know and root for, especially as played by Catalina Sandino Moreno in her sensational film debut.

In the years since Maria Marston has been directing for American television, including episodes of The Good Wife, In Treatment, Law & Order, and Six Feet Under. This is his second feature, set in Albania. We mostly follow Nik, a teenager in a small town. His father and uncle kill a man who now owns the property the father crosses with his bread wagon to get to the main road. The uncle is caught by the police, but the father goes into hiding. So now, according to the mechanics of blood feuds of the area, Nik can no longer go outside, since the victim’s family can kill him if they find him out in the village. He’s a horny teenage boy, so he’s not happy with being locked up all day. His sister, Rudina, takes over the bread route, since women are exempt from the blood feud.

So we wait around to see what happens. If Nik goes out and gets killed, the movie is over. He can sneak out at night, but not often, to see his sort-of girlfriend. Mostly we are just waiting, which makes the film a lot less dynamic than Maria. And Tristan Halilaj, who plays Nik, is simply not as compelling a presence as Sandino Moreno is. The other characters are not as well developed as they could be. Rudina is interesting, but their mother has no characterization at all. The family elders, who are trying to figure out how to get out of this predicament, are rather grumpy old men. Marston and Murataj are not as clear as they might be on the mechanics of the feud, but we can mostly keep up. Apparently feuds can be mediated, and one of the best scenes in the film is the family talking to a “professional” mediator.

Near the end Nik goes to talk directly to the victim’s family. They are impressed he takes the chance, so they do not kill him on the spot. But they tell him to get out of town in 24 hours or they will kill him. So Nik packs up and leaves. The end. That ending ought to have more of a kick than it does, but the writers have not developed the characters enough, especially Nik and his attitudes town his town and his family, to make it pay off. I kept hoping that the writers, and Marston as a director, would give us a little twist at the end of Nik smiling as he leaves town to go out into the big world.

I admire the ambition of the script, and Marston’s interest in dealing with other cultures, but it does not quite pay off here. On the other hand, the film received screenplay awards at both the Berlin and Chicago film festivals. My guess is that those may have been for the attempt rather than the execution. Or it may have been a lousy year for scripts at those festivals.

The Kid with a Bike (2011. Written by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne. 87 minutes.)

The Kid with a Bike

On a human scale, take one: After months, nay years, of big noisy action movies, it’s nice to come across a film done on a very human scale. There are no big car chases and crashes in this film. We have a kid on a bike, not an SUV with a machine gun, and it’s thrilling in a quieter way.

We are in the Belgian town of Seraing. The Dardennes, who also directed, have made several films in Seraing, but they usually made it look dreary, shooting in the winter. This one was shot in the summer. Seraing is an industrial town, but here we mostly seem to be in the suburbs. One review from a Los Angeles critic thought the scenery was beautiful, and it is, but not in a Monument Valley-David Lean sort of way. It looks like a real world that real people live in, and when we see the kid riding his bike, it’s like your own childhood. The town looks just like the kind of town I grew up in in the American Middle West.

The main character is Cyril, a boy of about ten or eleven. His father has left him in the care of a state home, and we meet Cyril when he is trying to contact his dad. He is fiercely trying their old apartment phone number and keeps getting the “disconnected” message. But Cyril keeps trying. And he wants his bike back almost as much as he wants his dad. It’s clear to us that the dad has no intention of coming back and that he’s sold the bike, along with his motorcycle. Cyril connects with a thirtyish hairdresser who agrees to let him come to stay with her on the weekends. She even manages to locate the guy who bought Cyril’s bike and buys it back from him. We have no idea why Samantha is doing all this and when Cyril asks her later in the film, she says she doesn’t know. The Dardennes do not give us a lot of psychological explanations for everything. We don’t know why, other than money, the father left. We don’t really know why he doesn’t want Cyril around in his new life, although there is a hint that the women he lives with may have a say in the matter. The script does not give us the full psychological stories on the characters, but we get enough to be involved. And thank God the Dardennes never bring in a shrink to “rub a little therapy on it,” in Rita Mae Brown’s phrase, and make it all better.

While staying with Samantha, Cyril gets involved with a petty crook (who is kind to his grandmother and has cool video games for Cyril to play) named Wes. Wes sets up Cyril to rob a news agent and his son, whom it turns out Cyril knows. The son has been stealing Cyril’s bike off and on throughout the film, but the script does not push that. Samantha has to step in and settle the case, agreeing to pay out damages to the news agent. We don’t really know why she does that, but we believe her. Cyril has one more run-in with the son, which seems to end badly, but doesn’t. The ending very much has a feeling of life going on. As does the film as a whole.

Salt of Life (2011. Written by Gianni Di Gregorio & Valerio Attanasio. 90 minutes.)

Salt of Life

On a human scale, take two: This one’s a semi-charming Italian film starring and written and directed by Di Gregorio, and it works on the same scale as The Kid with a Bike, but not as well. Di Gregorio is mostly a screenwriter (he wrote the 2008 gangster film Gomorrah) but recently turned to directing as well. In 2008 he made Mid-August Lunch, in which he plays a character named after himself who has to take care of his 90-something mother and her friends. This is a followup to that one, but not a sequel. Di Gregorio is a Gianni again, and again he is dealing with his 90-something mother, played, as in Mid-August Lunch, by Valeria De Franciscis. Gianni’s mother is spending all of her money, and Gianni, married with a daughter in college, is living on his pension. He was involuntarily retired at age 50 and he is close to 60 now. The heart of the film is Gianni hoping to find love, or at least a quickie, with another woman. Particularly after he learns that a guy even older than he is getting it on with a young clerk in a store. We watch his fumbling attempts that go bad. The attempts are small and sweet rather than slapstick. In one sequence, he gets invited to the home of the daughter of one of his mother’s friends. Except when he gets there she is singing opera arias with her male accompanist and hardly seems to remember she asked Gianni to come by. The humor is in Gianni’s reactions to this situation, which Di Gregorio does almost exclusively with his eyes. The film begins to drag toward the end, since he still does not score. At the end his daughter’s on-again, off-again boyfriend asks Gianni what’s going on in his head, it would seem to be a clue for a great montage sequence. Given the small scale the film is working on, it does not mean we need a version of the harem scene from 8 ½ (1963), but all we get are a collection of shots of the women we have seen in the film. A LOT more could be done with that.

Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Films Made (2011. Book by Howard Suber. 190 pages)

Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Films MadeA contrarian: Full disclosure up front. Howard Suber was my mentor when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and he has remained a trusted advisor ever since. I think I have talked with him about every book I’ve written while I was working on them. From 1967 to 1970 I was getting a Master of Fine Arts degree in screenwriting, but in the process I got involved in Howard’s Oral History of the Motion Picture Project. That led me to doing the long oral history interview with Nunnally Johnson. After I was at the American Film Institute for a year, Howard encouraged me to be a guinea pig for him. He had finally persuaded the UCLA Film and Theatre Department to introduce a Ph.D. program specifically for film. Previously if you got a Ph.D., it was officially in Theatre. Howard wanted me to be the first student in the program, probably because he figured that as a Viet Nam vet I was tough enough to put up with all the bullshit that was going to be involved, particularly from the theatre people who hated the idea. Howard was right about that, and I got one of the first two Ph.Ds. in film in 1975. Typical Howard: not many academics at the time would have encouraged me to do a biography of a screenwriter as a dissertation. Not a smart career movie then, and only a little more so now. If Howard’s name is familiar to you, by the way, you probably recognize it from Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael (see below). Howard was the scholar who did the research that Kael stole for her “Raising Kane.” More on that later.

Howard has had a rather odd academic career. He was so busy setting up the film Ph.D. program, the UCLA Film Archive, and the Producers Program that he did not publish much when he was teaching full-time. His first book, The Power of Film, only came out in 2006. It evolved out of his observations of how films work, and is wonderfully contrarian. I particularly like his chapter entitled “Endings, Happy.” It lists 53 classic films, then tells us that none of them have a conventional “happy” ending. In another chapter he mentions that nearly all heroes in American movies are reluctant heroes, like Rick in Casablanca (1942) and Terry in On the Waterfront (1954). After I read the book I asked him, “What about Patton?” He allowed as how that might be the exception that proves the rule. The Power of Film is probably of more help on the screenwriting level than this new one.

Letters comes out of his work with students in the Producers Program, and is aimed at not only writers, but directors and producers as well. But Howard is still, as ever, the contrarian. He forms the book from the letters he has got from current and former students and his replies to them. One chapter is “If the screenplay is so Important, how come screenwriters are so often treated like shit?” Howard’s answer is three-pronged: “(1) everybody thinks he is a writer, (2) the writer leaves the job site early, and (3) sometimes the writer deserves it.” The first two comments are about what you would expect, but the third is surprising and very, very true. Some writers just behave like assholes and give producers and directors a lot of reasons to kick them off the film. Writers tend to work in solitary confinement and often the collaborative nature of film is difficult for them to handle. At LACC we had an Industry Advisory Committee and one thing they insisted on us drumming into our students’ heads was that they had to learn how to play well with others. True. The only reason I don’t like this book quite as much as The Power of Film is that the kind of advice he gives here is the same kind of advice I was giving to students myself. I am sure I picked up some of it from Howard, some of it may just have come from two great minds thinking alike, and he may actually have picked up a couple of things from me.

Howard, who has testified in several copyright cases, is very good on the issue of copyright. He also has a great chapter called “Being Screwed,” in which he asks whether it is worth your time and emotional energy to sue somebody who has screwed you over, and his opinion is that it is probably not. In the cases he has testified in, there is usually a settlement with nobody admitting wrongdoing, which is hardly the revenge you may be looking for. And that may have come out of his experiences with Pauline Kael, which brings us to….

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011. Book by Brian Kellow. 417 pages)

Pauline Kael: A Life in the DarkLove/Hate: I loved reading Pauline Kael’s stuff. I first got hooked in 1966 when I picked up the paperback edition of her collection of reviews and essays, I Lost It At the Movies. She was a lively and earthy writer, and I found either I agreed with her completely on a film (it was like she had been in my mind as I watched it) or disagreed completely (what movie did she see?). But when we disagreed, she was more interesting to read than any other critic writing something I agreed with. Her classic essay on Bonnie and Clyde was published in October 1967, shortly after I had started working on my Masters in screenwriting at UCLA, so I was excited that here was a critic actually paying attention to screenwriters. Well, it did not come as too much of a surprise, because Lost It included her legendary attack on the auteur theory. As I continued studying and moving into studying the history of screenwriting, I appreciated her even more. That is even though one of her Lost It essays attacked my man Nunnally Johnson’s 1954 film Night People as right-wing propaganda. It wasn’t, and she misread the film. Kellow has obviously not seen the film and accepts her reading. It is also interesting that he does not mention that the other part of that review attacked a dreadful left-wing propaganda film Salt of the Earth (1953).

Then came her “Raising Kane” essay. I knew the backstory of this, since I was part of it. Howard Suber had been collecting material on the script of Kane to be part of a book on the film, with essays by other writers. On the first night of my interviewing Nunnally Johnson, he told me the story of Herman Mankiewicz being offered money to take his name off the script and the advice Mank got from Ben Hecht: “Take the ten thousand dollars and double cross the son of a bitch,” i.e., sue to get his credit back. I passed this on to Howard the next day, and it shows up in “Raising Kane.” The other writers on the proposed book did not come through (Kellow does not get this detail), and Kael persuaded Howard to let her use his essay in the proposed book on the script of Kane. She kept promising that there would be a contract drawn up, but there never was. Howard was surprised when he got his copy of the issue of The New Yorker with her essay and found his name mentioned nowhere. Nor did Kael ever mention him in the book that followed.

Kael was attacked, not only for using Howard’s work without acknowledgement, but for suggesting that Orson Welles did not do everything all by himself on Kane. Kael’s essay did what it was supposed to do: remind people of Mankiewicz’s contribution to the film, but the Wellesians never forgave her. Kellow is good at dealing with the controversy that followed.

It did not occur to me until several years later that after “Raising Kane,” Kael never wrote seriously or extensively about screenwriters and screenwriting again. As Kellow points out, she became almost more auteurist than Sarris, particularly with the younger directors that she was a mother hen to, including Sam Peckinpah, James Toback, and Brian De Palma. Why did Kael quit writing about screenwriting? Kellow does not tell us. My guess is that she was a coward. As Kellow points out, she was often thought of as a bully, and my experience has been that most bullies are cowards. Kael could certainly dish it out (Kellow is clear she had very little empathy for other people), but I don’t think she could take it. I may also have contributed to her not writing about writers.

In 1972 I had started working on my dissertation, the biography of Nunnally Johnson, based on the Oral History interviews I’d done with him. I had done some sample chapters, which one New York editor was enthusiastic about but could not get his editorial board to come up with a contract. I showed Nunnally his letter and Nunnally said that I should get an agent. He did not want me to use his agent (he knew his agent would kick me off the project and get a “real writer”), so he arranged a meeting with a big agency at the time. One of their agents was Marcia Nasatir, formerly an editor at Bantam Books, and later a producer and studio head. Marcia was also Pauline Kael’s agent, a fact Kellow does not mention. He says that Kael did not have an agent at this time, but Nasatir certainly was her agent. Nasatir set me up with a couple of meetings with editors, but when I insisted the heart of the book was Nunnally’s artistic contribution as a screenwriter, I got looks from the editors that said, “What planet are you from? I read Andrew Sarris and I know directors make up their movies as they go along.” Nasatir then proposed that I sell Kael my research. Remember what happened with Howard? I sure did. So the agent and I parted ways. I learned later that the “word” was spread around the publishing world that Kael was doing a biography of Johnson. It was an obvious attempt to pressure me, but Howard was right: I am a tough cookie. What I did instead was get a contract from the University of California Press. I did the first draft and sent it to my editor, Ernest Callenbach, telling him it was just a first draft and I only wanted notes on it and it should not be sent out for review. At university presses the procedure is that a manuscript is sent to two readers. If they agreed it should be published, the editorial board normally goes along with their suggestions. Several months went by and I had not gotten any notes from Callenbach. I finally contacted him and he told me the first reader loved it. What? It wasn’t supposed to go out. But Callenbach was sure the second reader would like it. Well, the second reader not only did not like it, but did not like it in such virulent terms that Callenbach felt that even if a third reader liked it, he could not get it past the editorial board. Since Callenbach and Kael knew each other and she wrote occasionally for his Film Quarterly, I have always had the sneaking suspicion that Kael was the second reader, but that information is lost in the mists of time. Anyway, after being turned down by over thirty publishers, many of them twice, my book Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson was finally published in 1980, to good reviews and modest sales.

Now here is a question: would the historiography of screenwriting been different if I had let Kael use my research? On the one hand, a book by her would have drawn more attention than mine. And it might have encouraged her to continue writing about screenwriting. But a full biography may have been beyond Kael’s capabilities. She never wrote anything much longer than “Raising Kane,” and she may not have been equipped either stylistically or emotionally to do a biography. Her attempt may have become one of her projects that never worked out. And I would have lost my research. But that didn’t happen, so for better or worse, you’ll just have to make do with my book.

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: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills

Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

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Ava
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.

Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.

Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System

The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

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Time
Photo: Amazon Studios

If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.

The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.

Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.

At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.

Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.

The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.

Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

9. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

8. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Sinister

7. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Session 9

6. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

5. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

3. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

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Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries

In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

2.5

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Gunda
Photo: Neon

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.

The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.

In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.

Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.

As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.

In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.

3

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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Photo: Apple+

Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.

Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.

The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.

The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.

The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.

One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.

Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.

Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull

Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.

3

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Another Round
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.

Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.

The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.

In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.

Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.

Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.

Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020

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Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.

3

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Wildfire
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.

The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.

The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.

The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.

Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.

Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.

Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life

The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.

2.5

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The Truffle Hunters
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.

Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.

The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.

The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.

This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special

Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.

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Concrete Cowboy
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.

Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.

Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.

The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.

Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Pieces of a Woman Is a Patchy but Well-Acted Portrait of Unravelling Lives

When the film’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances.

2.5

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Pieces of a Woman
Photo: Netflix

Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman swiftly and neatly—perhaps too neatly—establishes its core characters and their relationships to one another. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction worker, is the gruff but loving husband. His wife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), is the expectant mother who’s eager to start her maternity leave. And her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is your stereotypical mother-in-law, buying the couple a new minivan just to spite Sean, who pointedly grumbles at one point that he can afford to support his family. These are familiar tensions that the audience is primed to expect will come to a head as husband and wife blissfully await the next stage in their lives.

Prior to the arrival of Martha and Sean’s midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), as golden light reflects off of the white walls of their home, Martha’s water breaks and Sean calms her with affirmations and silly jokes. This will be understood as the calm before the storm of Martha’s labor, which is captured in a single unbroken take. At first, the shot resolutely focuses on the characters’ faces, registering how Martha’s breathing quickens as her contractions grow more pronounced, and how Sean’s façade of stoicism drops whenever his wife takes her eyes off of him, allowing himself to fully feel the panic of a man about to become a father.

But soon, as the increasing chatter between characters starts to produce a current of tension, the protracted steps of the home birth compound the anxiety of the scene. By the time Eva prepares for the final pushing stages and reveals that the baby’s heart rate isn’t meeting normal levels, the tone of the sequence becomes more fraught. And just as things finally seem to build to a happy conclusion, the sound of a ragged breath causes Eva’s face to freeze, and a fade forward in time to a dour autumnal cityscape hints at the newborn’s fate.

It’s at this point that Pieces of a Woman’s narrative splits itself in two. On one side, we follow Martha and Sean as they struggle to cope with their loss, their relationship barely hanging together by a few threads. The focus remains mostly on Martha, who Kirby plays as trapped between poles of numb detachment and rage. As both Martha and Sean turn to others for physical comfort and escape, it’s Kirby who captures the full range of pain’s dissociative properties, stumbling around Boston in a fugue state, searching for some kind of meaning.

The other half of the narrative concerns Eva being brought up on charges of negligence. As a coroner informs Martha and Sean, the baby showed no signs of defects, and that few cases of infant mortality have satisfactory explanations. But friends make comments in which they hope that Eva faces “consequences,” while Elizabeth is determined to put the woman in prison. That the same long take that made Martha’s birthing process feel so immersive also showed how quickly Eva sprang into action to alert a hospital removes any ambiguity about her professional conduct. As such, her legal case becomes nothing more than a way for the bereaved to lay the blame at someone’s feet for a tragic but natural fact of life.

The trial makes sense as a manifestation of that aspect of the trauma process, particularly in a climactic scene where Martha finally weighs in on a legal action that everyone has taken on her behalf. But the time given over to the question of the case’s outcome too stiffly weds a film that’s at its best when living with characters’ emotional torpor to a conventional plot.

When Pieces of a Woman’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances. Kirby walks a tightrope without collapsing into histrionics, and she conveys Martha’s increasing outbursts less as a show of a loss of control than of slowly regaining it. Elsewhere, LaBeouf soulfully charts the struggle of a man desperately trying to tamp down his sorrow over the death of his child in a last-ditch effort to hold onto the one person left in his life. Even when Sean is scheming behind Martha’s back with her mother or having an affair out of loneliness, LaBeouf stresses the man’s vulnerability and desire to pull his marriage out of the ditch in the face of inevitability. And in a monologue late in the film, in which Elizabeth forcefully explains what life experiences hardened her, Burstyn impressively pushes her character past cookie-cutter status. It’s a show-stopping moment that communicates far more than anything in the last-act coverage of Eva’s trial, which simplistically highlights breakthroughs that are more tacitly conveyed elsewhere.

Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn Director: Kornél Mundruczó Screenwriter: Kata Wéber Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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