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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: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers.

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The Infiltrators
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

At the start of Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators, photo-negative infrared shots conjure the imposing nature of border enforcement. The miles of fencing along the United States border with Mexico come through as a flickering whiteness, with the migrants walking across the desert suggesting truly alien forms. In voiceover, 22-year-old Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado) discusses being undocumented and the intense fear that young immigrants and second-generation Americas have for their parents. Documentary footage depicts ICE and CBP agents arresting people like Marco in front of their families, tearful children giving press conferences, and the menacing detention facilities where undocumented persons are held in limbo. Then, Marco relates that as much as any immigrant would do to stay out of such a place, he hatched a plan to deliberately be placed in one.

Blending archival footage, interviews with real people, and dramatized reenactments, Ibarra and Rivera’s film traces the efforts of Marco and the group of radical DREAMers to which he belongs, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to assist detainees to prevent their deportation. The dramatizations frame the film as a thriller, one in which detainees have to constantly slip papers to each other and visit lawyers under the noses of guards who seethe with resentment. More than once, detainees are surprised with news of their sudden deportation, forcing Marco and his comrades on the outside to scramble to save them. Yet the most troubling aspect depicted here is how detention facilities, in which people are deliberately kept without being charged to limit their legal rights to attorneys, are designed to induce hopelessness. It isn’t the abruptness with which guards summon detainees to get on planes that causes the most stress here, but the purgatorial waiting that precedes it.

The juxtaposition of real and fictionalized elements, complete with chyrons identifying individuals and the actors playing them, isn’t exactly new to nonfiction filmmaking, and several documentarians have compellingly used such techniques to unpack the lines between performance and reality. At times in The Infiltrators, the real people involved in the story talk about how they approached their attempts to infiltrate detention facilities as actors, finding ways to look sufficiently guilty to officers who’re understandably quick to suspect why undocumented immigrants would volunteer to be deported. This dimension to the young adults’ actions is intriguing but left dangling by the film, which mostly sticks to unsuspenseful reenactments of Marco’s mildly clandestine activities within one detention center.

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers, teenagers and twentysomethings who put themselves at severe risk by publicly protesting for their rights and those of their families and others like them. There’s far more urgency in watching Mohammed, a gay Iranian youth, confront politicians while at risk for deportation to a country he’s never known and is openly hostile to his sexual identity than there is in shots of Marco and others strategically handing off manila folders set to suspenseful music. The young people’s ability to create and exploit media for outreach likewise feels like an exciting subject that The Infiltrators fails to deeply explore, where it could have illuminated just how well activists can mobilize modern technology and media with minimal resources.

Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay Director: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera Screenwriter: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history.

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Around the World When You Were My Age
Photo: Crim Productions

Jiro Koretzky left his native Japan in 1979 for a year-long trip around the world, from Moscow all the way to Beirut, mostly traveling in his white Ford Taunus. Jiro spent time in Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Syria, and by the time he was ready to fly back home, the young man had discovered the one thing missing from the hyper-organization of Japanese cities: passion. Almost four decades later, his daughter, filmmaker Aya Koretzky, happened upon a metallic box full of photographic slides and detailed diary entries that Jiro amassed during his journey and decided to make a film about it. The result is Around the World When You Were My Age, and it’s a beautiful tribute to her father’s passion.

The boxy format of Koretzky’s Bolex camera mimics the proportions of her father’s original 16mm and 35mm slides. This may give the impression of a filmmaker who’s merely stitching old swatches together, but Around the World When You Were My Age isn’t a found-footage film. Koretzky’s poetic interventions, through reenactment and narration, attest to a self-ethnography bearing the freshest of fruits. This is a case of cinematic intimacy that renders visible old transmissions between father and daughter as much as it yields new ones.

Here, Koretzky’s opening of her father’s box, where Jiro’s memories lay dormant for so long, is a kind of cracking of her symbolic DNA—the one that carries the key to the generational transmission of emotions instead of genetic material. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s unearthing of what the father once buried is something like the reading of a father’s will before his demise. Except the inheritance here has already been distributed throughout Koretzky’s upbringing: her artistic sensibility, her fondness for silence, and her peripatetic urge. As the unconscious and the ineffable are made tangible through the cinematic image in a delicate father-daughter duet, she now knows where her own passions came from.

Koretzky performs her excavations gently and respectfully, refusing the position of the filmmaker offspring hellbent on settling old scores or demystifying the presumable bliss of family albums. Instead, she performs the humble contemplation of those who are genuinely curious—the ones we would trust to peruse our most special private collections. Koretzy is open to whatever the archive happens to bring without hoping to impose order in what is, by design, volatile and loose, like the most inextinguishable of sensations. Around the World When You Were My Age, then, is much closer to a series of lyrical vignettes (shades of Jonas Mekas and Michel de Montaigne) than to what we have come to expect from filmmakers who utilize their own relatives to (re-)write family narratives.

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history. We see what the world looked like in 1979 and what it felt like to exist in it as a foreign flaneur. We learn that Moscow felt so large that it was as if there was “no human scale,” that the comforts of Helsinki were only rivaled by its monotony and absence of human presence, that everything in Stockholm was expensive except for milk, and that in the south of Italy one could sense “the whole of Europe condensed” in one little instant, while eating spaghetti to the sound of an accordion played by the homeless.

The film’s voiceover, by father and daughter, mostly consists of readings from Jiro’s diary. But Koretzky also knows exactly when narration, no matter how pretty, must go quiet—so that the objects in the frame can speak for themselves. Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are when all we hear are the noises made by scissors, a broom, an analog camera, the waiving of a polaroid, a finger retracing a journey on a paper map, or a slug slithering on a globe. Sudden moments of complete silence also remind us that the filmmaker’s commitment isn’t necessarily to information or knowledge, but to the poetics of feeling.

Director: Aya Koretzky Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Vast of Night Is a Wistful Riff on the Intimacy of Radio Dramas

The filmmakers patiently savor the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

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The Vast of Night
Photo: Amazon Studios

Early in The Vast of Night, there’s a striking tracking shot through the gymnasium of a high school in the fictional 1950s-era town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The gym is being prepared for the big basketball game that night, and we’re shown how various students and professionals work together to complete this task, talking over one another with a propulsive snappiness that evokes a Howard Hawks comedy. The sequence is exhilarating, especially because one doesn’t normally encounter such verbal and visual intricacy in a genre film. But it’s also misleading, as it suggests that The Vast of Night will involve a wide cast of characters, though it’s closer to a two-hander between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works the town switchboard and shares Everett’s fascination with radios, recorders, and the like.

As Everett and Fay converge inside the gym, director Andrew Patterson has the wit to allow us to believe that we’re discovering these characters for ourselves as the camera just happens to land on them. Right away, they radiate their intelligence in contrasting fashions: Everett is confident yet sarcastic, on the border of being a know-it-all, while Faye is earnest and attentive. They exist somewhat apart from the Cayuga community at large, and they quickly shunt off to their respective offices, the churches of their obsessions. The Vast of Night is a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, even featuring its own faux credits montage, but it’s truly a riff on the intimacy of radio dramas.

Patterson’s tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s films. Yet Patterson has absorbed more than Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, as he understands the melancholy soulfulness of the legend’s best work. With its obsession with radio callers, who gradually reveal a potential alien invasion, The Vast of Night most explicitly suggests the radio station-set scenes from The Fog if they were to be expanded to compose an entire film. Talking to people in radio land who recognize an eerie droning sound that comes through on a phone line, Everett and Faye clearly relish the collaboration of solving a mystery and of symbolically assembling their own radio thriller. And Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger never break the incantatory spell with pointless freneticism, patiently savoring the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

The Vast of Night features several long monologues in which older people tell Everett and Faye of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness.

Late into The Vast of Night, Patterson springs another tracking shot that reveals the proximity of Cayuga High School, the town’s switchboard, and the radio station to each other. They’re all close to one another but separated at night by gulfs of darkness and emptiness. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of a payoff, lacking the kinetic savagery of Bruce McDonald’s similarly themed Pontypool, but that’s the point. The lovely, wistful The Vast of Night pivots instead on a decidedly friendlier vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements.

Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Pam Dougherty Director: Andrew Patterson Screenwriter: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: On the Record Is a Richly Contextualized Look at Rape Culture

On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins.

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On the Record
Photo: HBO

Misogyny has been a sticking point for critics of hip-hop ever since the genre became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For those who not only value the artistry of hip-hop, but also recognize it as the defiant aesthetic expression of an oppressed population, calling out systemic sexism within that culture is a fraught undertaking. The accusation that rappers perpetuate demeaning ideas about women can also serve as ammunition for conservatives uncomfortable with black self-expression—and, moreover, can feed into historical representations of black men as inherently sexually aggressive.

As Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On The Record stresses, a fear of betraying black America as a whole has led to a culture of silence among black women involved in the music industry that may be even more pervasive than that in the white Hollywood circles where the Me Too movement has been the most visible. When they do come forward, these women are inevitably speaking against the backdrop of the sordid, shameful role black sexuality has played in America’s oppression of its black population—to the lynchings of black men on accusations of sexual transgression, to the Senate’s steamrolling of Anita Hill in 1992.

The film focuses on the sexual assault allegations that led to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’s 2017 fall from grace, and in particular on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s mindset as she brings herself to tell her story to the New York Times. But thanks to dips into history that show the roots of black misogyny in the abuses and iniquities of a racist society, as well as a critical mass of testimonies from activists and academics that provide a contextual framework, On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins. At the origin of black women’s reticence stands nothing other than slavery, the U.S.’s original sin, which began the dehumanizing tradition of treating black women as disposable sexual objects and viewing black men as potentially dangerous sexual predators.

Simmons’ victims’ sense of their own complex relations to such historical power structures emerges from the film’s lucid recounting of the sexual assault allegations against him. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her decision to keep the fact that Simmons raped her in 1995 private for more than two decades. As a black woman, she felt she faced additional pressure to stay quiet and limit her—and Simmons’s—exposure. Beyond her concern about detonating the career of an important black figure, she recalls watching Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and realizing that when a woman publicly accuses a man of serious sexual violations, the perverse result is that the perpetrator is able to align his reaction with that of the public, affecting disgust and outrage. As the accuser, she says, “you are defiled again because you have to tell people, and it’s on your lips.”

There’s a tragic irony here that a more literary-minded documentary might bring to the fore: that a musical form focused so intently on the power of the spoken word—and on the black voice in particular—gives rise, in its thoroughly capitalized form, to a culture that denies the voices of black women. Hip-hop attained mass appeal in part by leaning hard into hypermasculine display and “explicit” lyrics, but now, like the old boys’ club of the 1991 U.S. Senate, institutional hip-hop stands aghast at the words on the lips of abused women. Simmons has persisted in his denial of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and as with so many powerful men, the chorus that sprung up to defend him was only slightly tempered by the accelerating accumulation of accusers. (Dixon was among the first four accusers; there have been 16 more, many of whom appear in the documentary.)

On the Record lets such abstract themes as who gets a voice in hip-hop remain mostly implicit. As in Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which Ziering produced and documented the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the filmmakers approach their subject with journalistic rigor, leaving the interpretation to Dixon and the other interviewees. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” rues former Source writer Kiera Mayo toward the end of the film, reflecting on how, despite her successes, Dixon left the industry after continued harassment by Simmons and Arista chief L.A. Reid. It’s a melancholy realization. While the culture of ‘90s hip-hop has become an object of nostalgic longing akin to boomers’ beloved classic rock (as evidenced by films like Straight Outta Compton), On the Record suggests a different vision of the era—one that longs more for what could have been than what was.

Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord

Everything here wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie.

1.5

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The High Note
Photo: Focus Features

Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is ostensibly about the virtues of taking risks in art-making, of sacrificing the comforts of coasting on past successes for the hard-won rewards of creating something new. And yet the film itself is as formulaic as they come, an agglomeration of soap-operatic story beats and music-industry clichés whose low-key tone may be an attempt at channeling the naturalism of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born but comes off instead as tentative, as if Ganatra were afraid of really leaning into the big, unruly emotions simmering beneath The High Note’s placid surface.

At the heart of the film is the ambition and self-doubt of Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant who dreams of producing records, and her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Diana Ross-like diva facing a crossroads in her career. Grace is deciding whether she wants to risk her legacy by releasing a new album or take the easy road by accepting an offer to headline her own show at Caesars Palace. Her longtime manager (Ice Cube) presses her to cash out with the Vegas residency, but Maggie encourages her—as much as she can, given her relatively junior position—to make some new music. Meanwhile, Maggie covertly produces her own mixes of Grace’s live recordings in the hopes that she can convince Grace to hire her instead of a slick EDM producer (Diplo, playing an air-headed version of himself) who wants to bury her soulful pipes under layers of Auto-Tune and pounding beats.

Flora Greeson’s screenplay is peppered with some clear-eyed wisdom about the entertainment world, such as its observations about the way that so much of the music industry is based around managing artists’ deep-seated insecurities. The characters’ occasional speechifying about the difficult position that women in music often face is on point, if a bit perfunctory, but more incisively, it’s used to subtly suggest the way that these very real obstacles can be used as scapegoats by people, like Grace, who are afraid to simply put themselves out there. But these brief moments of insight are largely overridden by the film’s weak-kneed plotting, repetitiveness, and corny contrivances. Practically every conflict the film raises is resolved just a few scenes later. The film never allows its characters to do anything cruel or mean or misguided without almost immediately absolving them of responsibility.

Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in a subplot involving Maggie’s relationship with a talented but self-doubting musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Everything comes to a head when Maggie attempts to orchestrate a plan to get the opening act (Eddie Izzard) for Grace’s live-album release party to drop out, which will give David the opportunity to perform in front of a bunch of industry big wigs, not to mention Grace herself. While in a different film, this scheme might have served as a big hokey climax, here the whole thing summarily blows up in Maggie’s face, causing her to get fired by Grace and get dumped by David. But while that semi-subversion of our expectations is certainly welcome, The High Note simply trades one unconvincing plot contrivance for another when, just a few scenes later, a major revelation precipitates a rapid succession of reconciliations between characters.

Everything wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie, with no character being forced to sacrifice anything or make a truly difficult decision. Maggie, Grace, and David all make up and record an album together (Maggie naturally produces), and the film closes with Grace and David performing a triumphant concert for a huge crowd of screaming fans as Maggie watches adoringly from backstage. The characters in The High Note talk a lot about the unfair challenges of the music world, but the film ultimately reaffirms what the audience already knows: that success has a lot more to do with who you know—and who you’re related to—than it does about hard work or artistic integrity.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Deniz Akdeniz, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Diplo Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenwriter: Flora Greeson Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, Touching Is Dreaming

Throughout the film, it’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life.

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Crystal Swan
Photo: Loco Films

Darya Zhuk’s 1990s-set Crystal Swan centers around Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young woman who refuses to conform to the provincial miserabilism of Belarusian life. Being a DJ, house music provides her with some much-needed escapism, but she dreams of fleeing to America—or, at least, a fantasy of America where every kid has their own bedroom and parents knock before they come in. That’s the antithesis of Velya’s life in Minsk, where her mother (Svetlana Anikey) spends her days chastising Velya and mourning the troubles caused by the collapse of communism: no money, no pension, no rules.

In order to obtain a tourist visa, Velya needs to show the American embassy that she has strong links to her place of residence. The jobless young woman pretends, then, that she’s a manager at a crystal-making factory, putting down a fake number for the workplace on the application form. But when she’s told that the embassy will call her back in the next few days, Velya rushes to find the home associated with the random number she made up.

Eventually, Velya discovers that the number belongs to a family in the countryside who are in the midst of making preparations for the wedding of their eldest son, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a bitter young man traumatized by his days in the army and resigned to marrying a woman he doesn’t love. Velya ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family as she tries to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. The presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the supposed simpletons so she can flee to America makes some in the family resent her and others to question their previously held truths, as if Velya brought with her from the big city the prickly reminder that resignation is not all there is to life.

Zhuk crafts an exquisite tale of doom and gloom colored by a farcical ethos, from Velya’s no-holds-barred audacity and kookiness (shades of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) to the physical comedy-derived drunkenness as the lingua franca of family get-togethers. But the film’s most remarkable quality is perhaps the way Zhuk so delicately arranges these two currents—namely, the more absurd elements that initiate the film and the progressively visceral sequences where Velya might as well be the little girl with the dead cat in Sátántangó, a much more nihilistic take on post-Soviet desolation. In the latter moments, Velya assumes the position of the terrified child watching the pathetic theater of her elders through the window, and the desolate future that awaits her if she doesn’t run for the hills.

Crystal Swan is also rich in analogical pleasures, which are rooted in the film’s narrative premise and rife with metaphorical possibilities, as in the way Zhuk pays special attention to the materiality of ‘90s objects and the sounds they make. The entire plot revolves around a telephone that will supposedly ring. But when and if it does, will Velya be there to answer it? Will anyone be around to hear it? Bulky phonebooths, posters on teenager’s walls, the mechanical clicking of a photo camera—none of it feels like anodyne technological kinks.

When a VHS tape gets stuck in a VCR, people are forced to go outside and play. Cassette tapes appear as a potentially radical archive passed on to Stepan’s younger brother, Kostya (Ilya Kapanets), who may think twice—thanks to the liberating power of house music—about the naturalization of violence. It’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life. How they work and how they break appear as opportunities for daring to seize the possibility of going elsewhere and for debunking supposedly irreversible things.

Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasia Garvey, Lyudmila Razumova Director: Darya Zhuk Screenwriter: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Lovebirds Is Weighed Down by Plot Incident and Silly Twists

Once the film shifts into a broader comedic register, it no longer capitalizes on Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s gift for gab.

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Lovebirds

Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are past the honeymoon phase depicted in the brief prologue to The Lovebirds. When we pick up with them four years later, they’re in the midst of a heated argument that, after some time, reveals itself to be about something far more petty than it first appears: whether they can win The Amazing Race.

At its best, Michael Showalter’s film revels in loose, digressive humor, as in a scene where Jibran and Leilani discuss the differences between a gangbang and an orgy. The couple is playful and clever in equal measure, yet every fight between them confirms that their relationship is past its due date. That is, until an encounter with a killer cop (Paul Sparks) on their way to a friend’s party that makes them realize that they’re better off together—at least until they can exonerate themselves for the crime that will likely be pinned on them.

The film’s opening act banks heavily on the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae, who effortlessly bounce witty, seemingly improvised lines off one another. Throughout, you don’t doubt that their characters are still very much in love, even as you understand that they’ve grown tired of dealing with each other’s shortcomings. When the film rests primarily on Nanjiani and Rae’s verbal riffing, it’s quite winning and consistent in delivering jokes that are not only funny, but also speak to the root causes of Jibran and Leilani’s personality clashes.

While it’s initially content to keep its focus on the bickering duo as they continue to drive each other mad while trying to solve the murder they witnessed, The Lovebirds regrettably becomes weighed down by plot incident and silly twists. The film foists the couple into a bizarre underworld of political corruption, widespread blackmail, and sex cults, shifting into a significantly broader comedic register that no longer capitalizes on its stars’ gift for gab. As Jibran and Leilani’s relationship woes progressively take a back seat to the formulaic unfolding of a needlessly convoluted, and rather dull, mystery, The Lovebirds slowly derails as it settles into the predictable patterns of many of the action rom-coms that have come before it.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Moses Storm Director: Michael Showalter Screenwriter: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Painter and the Thief Suggests an Intimate Hall of Mirrors

Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

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The Painter and the Thief
Photo: Neon

For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. We’re also led to assume, potentially by our own prejudices, that Kysilkova will be the film’s central consciousness, with Nordland as an intimidating and remote “other.” Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets these conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

The Painter and the Thief suggests an intimate hall of mirrors, in which artistic creation parallels addiction. Kysilkova responds to Nordland’s life force, basing several drawings on him, while Ree utilizes them both for his cinema, while Nordland at times consumes drugs, particularly during a painful relapse. No person is singularly understood as being “used” here, as the various relationships are symbiotic, with Nordland’s addiction suggesting a substitute for the intoxication that Kysilkova and Ree achieve through art-making. Nordland has the soul of an artist as well, as he’s sensitive, observant, and given to poetic observations, suggesting a vessel who’s looking for a purpose, which Ree and Kysilkova each provide. (You may wish that Ree had brought himself more into his own frames, adding another mirror and deepening the film’s auto-critical texture in the tradition of, say, Robert Greene’s work, but Ree probably, and understandably, didn’t wish to distract from his commanding subjects.)

In a primordially powerful moment, Nordland weeps when he sees the first photoreal canvas that Kysilkova has rendered of him, as she’s turned him into an elegant man in a white hoodie swishing a glass of red wine. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls.

We first see the thief through the painter’s eyes. Tall, with a lean, tatted-up frame, Nordland is charismatic and sexy, suggesting an outlaw version of actor Timothy Olyphant. There’s something else about Nordland that perhaps only people with experience with addiction will be especially alive to: His visceral emotional pain suggests a perpetual atonement for his wrongdoings, and this atonement suggest the potential for transcendence, which appeals to artists and people with savior complexes, such as Kysilkova.

Transcendence arrives much later when Nordland goes to prison for another crime, after a lengthy stay in a hospital for a car accident that nearly killed him, and gradually cleans up, grows out a beard, and puts flesh as well as muscle on his body. Nordland is a stubborn survivor who’s willing to suffer for the camera and canvas alike; he’s volatile, profoundly lucky, and seems to achieve a hard-won grace. Drinking coffee with Kysilkova near the end of The Painter and the Thief, he’s softer, cuddlier, and less threatening that he was before prison, and, rediscovering carpentry, he’s even becoming an artist. At a certain point in the film, Nordland resembles less a subject of Kysilkova’s than an old coconspirator.

The viewer also sees the painter through the thief’s eyes, though these alternating perspectives harmonize as Ree continues to hopscotch around in time, offering more context and allowing us to grow to love both people equally. While Kysilkova sees Nordland, Ree sees both of them, to whom he has astonishing access. Meanwhile, Nordland also sees more of Kysilkova than she probably knows, as Ree has an acute understanding of how people can damn near smell one another’s pain, finding their own emotional water level. Kysilkova was once abused by a boyfriend and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. And the first painting she created upon her rebirth, “Swan Song,” is one of the ones that Nordland stole with an accomplice who wasn’t caught. This resonance is almost too good to be true, as Nordland almost literally accessed the secret heart of Kysilkova’s torment.

One of the film’s most palpable tensions is pointedly undiscussed. Kysilkova and Nordland appear to be attracted to one another, and they touch and converse with the sort of casual sureness that usually arises from sustained romance. Perhaps Ree believes that the distinction between a sexual and artistic union is unimportant or none of our business, though Kysilkova’s boyfriend is clearly concerned at times. And maybe the distinction doesn’t matter, as Kysilkova and Nordland have enjoyed a relationship that seems to have healed them, allowing them to face their gnawing hatred of themselves. Whatever labels are applied and whatever other additional actions were taken, Ree has caught a love story in a bottle.

Regardless of their romantic status, The Painter and the Thief ends with an unmistakable consummation: on a medium shot of Kysilkova’s painting of the pair laying intimately on a couch together, Kysilkova’s face replacing that of Nordland’s ex-girlfriend, the actual model for the painting. This is a projection of Kysilkova’s, perhaps of a desire she won’t or can’t actualize, which she instead utilizes to fashion a beguiling, idealized communion. In this canvas, the various social distinctions between Kysilkova and Nordland have been obliterated. Ree has enabled two people to broker a connection on camera in front of us. To capture such a birth, or to at least appear to, is to perform a kind of magic act.

Director: Benjamin Ree Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Inheritance Is Elevated by Simon Pegg’s Effective Anti-Typecasting

Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of the film’s fairy-tale premise.

2.5

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Inheritance
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Vaughn Stein’s Inheritance pivots on a good sick joke that suggests a near-literalization of the idiom “skeleton in the closet.” Lauren Monroe (Lily Collins) is a district attorney who pursues Wall Street hustlers as symbolic atonement for the wealth of her family, which includes a congressman brother, William (Chace Crawford), and a father, Archie (Patrick Warburton), who seems to be involved in a little bit of everything. William is running for reelection while Lauren is trying a huge case, and it’s believed that her victory will cement her brother’s own. But Archie dies suddenly, his will nearly stiffing Lauren of his money, though there are mysterious instructions left behind for her to investigate a family secret. Under the woods on the Monroe property is a bunker containing a man who calls himself Morgan (Simon Pegg) and claims to have been imprisoned by Archie down there for years.

The notion of a mogul keeping a prisoner underground on his property is delectably strange, suggesting the sickness—a true soul rot—of Archie’s ego. Morgan also resonates as an embodiment of Lauren’s fear that she can’t be free of her family’s sins, and that, if nudged by opportunity and desperation, she’s capable of committing those same sins. As Morgan says, if Lauren’s as good as she believes herself to be, she’d immediately spring him from his cage; instead, she plays a game of cat and mouse, somewhat reminiscent of the relationship at the center of The Silence of the Lambs, in which she hectors and consoles Morgan into revealing why Archie would take such insane effort and risk to contain him. Lauren even asks a question that will have occurred to most viewers: Why didn’t Archie just bump Morgan off?

The resolution of the film’s mystery is ordinary, though that isn’t surprising given that Matthew Kennedy’s script is host to all sorts of missed opportunities. Based on the opening montage, one expects the narrative to ping-pong between Lauren’s big case, William’s reelection campaign, and Lauren’s verbal duels with Morgan, but the various subplots are essentially left hanging by an ending that seems to be missing scenes. Inheritance also lacks the obsessive sense of interiority of a great thriller; it’s almost entirely composed of plot, with only passing emotional reverberations, which might’ve been stronger if Morgan’s presence were vividly shown to have an effect on Lauren’s relationships with her work and family, or if she had been more tempted to indulge her father’s potential penchant for evil. Lauren lacks the fevered torment and poignant self-loathing of Clarice Starling, as she’s essentially a tour guide leading us through the traps that Stein and Kennedy have devised.

Yet Inheritance is enjoyable nevertheless, mostly for Pegg’s effective anti-typecasting. Slim, with long gray hair and a region-less American accent, the actor informs a potentially gimmicky character with striking elegance. There’s an unexpectedly lovely moment when Lauren takes Morgan out of the bunker and he savors the darkness of the surrounding woods, observing that “it’s more beautiful than I remembered.” Pegg invests such scenes with pathos, allowing Morgan’s crisp voice to become momentarily, poetically halting. And Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of this fairy-tale premise, allowing one to savor the film’s central question: Is Morgan a figure in the key of Hansel or of the big bad wolf?

Cast: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Patrick Warburton, Chace Crawford, Michael Beach, Marque Richardson, Rebecca Adams, Alec James, Josh Murray, Mariyah Frances, Lydia Hand Director: Vaughn Stein Screenwriter: Matthew Kennedy Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Film

Review: The Trip to Greece Is a Bittersweet Tale of Mortality and Transience

The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot.

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The Trip to Greece
Photo: IFC Films

Though its tone is set by the effortlessly charming, mostly improvised back and forth between its two stars, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series has often succeeded in exploring some relatively weighty topics, including aging, masculinity, and the nature of fame. Under the pretext of reviewing local restaurants for a newspaper, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a tour of historic regions around the world, and the films (edited down from six-part TV shows initially broadcast in the U.K.) have increasingly used their locations’ historical significance to cast these trips in a philosophical light. Previous installments were structured around trips taken by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and now, The Trip to Greece sees the pair retracing the journey of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, from Turkey through modern Macedonia and Greece.

Among the pleasures of this series are Coogan and Brydon’s virtuoso celebrity impressions. Their competitive deconstruction of the vocal textures of Michael Caine was one particular highlight, proving not just hilarious but also fascinating on a technical level. There are some diminishing returns on this front in the final installment, though Brydon’s career-spanning Dustin Hoffman recital is a worthy addition to the canon. The progression of the films up to this point has also seen these compulsive impersonations, and other impromptu riffs, settle pleasingly into a leitmotif that suggests ideas of performance and identity.

Along with the notion of retracing the steps of some imposing cultural predecessors, the pair’s bantering hints subtly at the roleplay that’s often forced upon them, by their profession and their advancing years. Brydon mostly embraces the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood, and his status as a “light entertainment” figure, while Coogan’s philandering and restless yearning for prestige casts him as the romantic hero of the tale. The conflict is spelled out plainly in one scene in The Trip to Greece, where the pair pose for photos with comedy and tragedy masks. This kind of gentle, surface-level symbolism has usually served the series’s themes in a more intriguing way than its occasional forays into contrived drama.

While this might seem an odd criticism to level at actors portraying themselves, there’s the sense that four successive installments of these travelogues have perhaps made the leads a little too comfortable in their respective roles. Despite the frequent references to Coogan ultimately being defined by the various iterations of beloved comedy creation Alan Partridge, he has now played himself on screen almost as often as his most famous character. This marks the sixth time he’s appeared as some version of the insecure, self-aggrandizing persona on which Patridge itself was based, with The Trip preceded by A Cock and Bull Story (another collaboration with Brydon and Winterbottom), and before that a segment in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. The conceit has become familiar enough that it no longer generates the same amount of meta-textual tension that it once did, but it’s still refreshingly honest, and Brydon’s more grounded self-portrayal continues to serve as an effective foil.

The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot, which sees Coogan worriedly inquiring about the health of his elderly father, who’s hospitalized back home in England. In one of the most lyrical moments in the whole series, he dreams that he’s being rowed along a body of water, before confronting his dad on the shore. Alluding to the dead being ferried across to the underworld in Greek mythology, this also foreshadows the inevitable outcome of the storyline, and brings an even deeper undercurrent to the mostly unspoken loneliness of his character.

As usual, the climactic moment of pathos is juxtaposed with a more light-hearted moment of familial joy, as Brydon’s wife, Sally (Rebecca Johnson), arrives to accompany him for the final leg of the trip—at the exact moment that Coogan leaves to pay his respects to his departed father. This synchronicity is an effective way of marrying together the film’s contrasting moods within its own strictly realist framework. The reassuring consistency of Winterbottom’s series over the last decade may have called for a more satisfying ending than The Trip to Greece offers, though it’s perhaps fitting that a bittersweet tale of mortality and transience should ultimately expose some of its own limitations but still leave us wanting more.

Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Marta Barrio, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Justin Edwards, Richard Clews, Kareem Alkabbani Director: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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