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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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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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

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

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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