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Understanding Screenwriting #95: The Avengers, Think Like a Man, Desperate Housewives, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #95: The Avengers, Think Like a Man, Desperate Housewives, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Avengers, Think Like a Man, The Pirates! Band of Misfits!, Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer (book), Forever Amber, The King’s Thief, In Plain Sight, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: I agree with “Snarpo” (is he a lost Marx Brother?) that Eugene Levy should work more, and one advantage to appearing in a hit movie/series is that it gives you more work. And I agree with David Ehrenstein (it happens!) that in Damsels in Distress Stillman has no interest in the male characters. On the other hand, I disagree with David (now that’s more like it) that Stillman makes the girls “loveable.” More like fingernails on a blackboard.

The Avengers (2012. Screenplay by Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. 143 minutes.)

Summer—Swoosh! Bang! Crash! Pow! Smush! Whump!—is here: Those of you who have read this column from the beginning in 2008 may remember that early on I pissed off the fanboy crowd by dumping on graphic novels and the problems they presented for potential filmmakers (Look at columns #2 through #4 and the comments on them). The lack of serious characterization is one problem. The relentlessly excessive visual dazzle is another. So you may have noticed that I have not discussed several of the recent adaptations of graphic novels in this column. So what prompted me to see The Avengers?

Well, it wasn’t the relentless ads. It wasn’t that I had grown up with these characters, since I basically stopped reading comics in the early ‘60s, with the obvious exception of Mad magazine. It wasn’t that the figures from the film and/or parodies of them started showing up in commercials for other products. It wasn’t that the cans my Dr. Pepper comes in had Avengers on them. It was one short cut in a clip from the film that Scarlett Johansson brought along with her on The Tonight Show. In the clip her character Nathasha is tied to a chair being brutally interrogated by some baddies. Her phone rings, and it is Agent Coulson telling her she needs to come in to work. She says she is putting him on hold, then beats the crap out of the bad guys, even though she is still tied to the chair. OK, so far so typically comic book. But in the middle of the fight, the film cuts to Agent Coulson waiting patiently with that same expression you and I have when we are on hold. Now I thought that was funny. It was obvious the film was not going to be the usual solemn, ponderous stuff, with the occasional wisecrack, but something with a little wit. So off I went.

That scene is early in the film, and there are a few more like it. Not as many as I would have liked, but almost enough. There are also the James Bondian one-liners, some of which seem to be part of the script and some, especially from Robert Downey Jr., seem to be added at some point by the actors. Or writers the stars keep on their own payroll. One of the funniest bits is the single shot after the credits. Nobody moves or says anything, which is a relief after all the action of the film. And the longer the shot goes on, the funnier it gets. Stick around for it.

To go all Dickensian on you, the script as a whole could have been better and it could have been worse. We start with some mythobabble (like technobabble, but about the mythology) that got put through an echo chamber so I did not get all of it. It has to do with an energy cube called the Tesseract that everybody wants to get their hands on. It has ended up on earth and the aliens slip through a time tunnel of some kind to come and get it. So Nick Fury, the director of the Avengers project, calls in all the avengers he can muster. This is a basic Seven Samurai (1954)/mission movie setup. If you love these characters from the comics and the other movies, you’ll be glad to see them, although Whedon’s script is uneven in terms of characterization. Tony Stark is well defined, but Thor is a block of wood, as is Chris Hemsworth, who plays him. Whedon and actor Mark Ruffalo give Bruce Banner a nice edge. But Natasha is mostly a sulk, and Fury’s assistant Agent Maria Hill is the standard assistant-who-stands-around-and-gives-exposition-usually-played-by-a-woman-and/or-person-of-color. Here she is Cobie Smulders, who gets a lot more to do as Robin in How I Met Your Mother. Given that Whedon was the creator and guiding light of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was surprised that the female characters were so underserved in this film. Whedon did recognize the problem. In an article in the Los Angeles Times about Smulders, Whedon said he wanted somebody for Fury and Coulson to deal with, “and I wanted a woman. There’s a lot of boys, and I felt the movie definitely needed another strong female presence just to balance it out, and someone at Marvel suggested that we use Maria Hill….I was like ’That’s perfect! That makes sense, because she’s always had a bit of a beef with Fury, so we’ll have some tension there.’” Unfortunately he didn’t get the tension in either the writing or directing.

Loki, Thor’s brother (which sets up a great one-word explanation of their relationship), has come through the wormhole to get the Tesseract so he can bring his army through and beat the crap out of humans. Well, of course it is going to take the Avengers to stop him, but when Fury has gathered them all together, their egos (that was the one stroke of genius of the Marvel comics: their heroes are very imperfect, to say the least) get them into arguments. I thought those scenes were just treading water, but the Avengers eventually figure out that Loki is counting on them squabbling. So they finally get together to beat the aliens, and there is certainly something primally fascinating about watching ALL of these characters gang up on the baddies. The secret of all commercially successful movies (and The Avengers is now third on all the all-time grosses list) is that they deliver something the audiences want to see. The last half hour of this film does that in spades. Needless to say, the final sequences are also careful to set up a sequel.

Think Like a Man (2012. Screenplay by Keith Merryman & David A. Newman, based on the book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey. 122 minutes.)

Think Like a Man

The Greatest Romantic Comedy Ever Made *from a Self-Help Book: OK, OK, there’s not a lot of competition for that title. The 1964 adaptation of Helen Gurley Brown’s groundbreaking (Women might like to have sex! Whodda thunk it?) Sex and the Single Girl (the writing credits include a “story by” credit for Joseph Hoffman, and a screenplay credit for Joseph Heller and David R. Scwartz) turns it into a conventional ‘60s rom-com, avoiding the sexual details in Brown’s book. In Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972, screenplay by Woody Allen, from the best-seller by Dr. David Reuben), a few of the sections in the book are used for a variety of sketches, some of which are amusing (this is one of the “early, funny ones”), but the movie hardly holds together as a film. More recently we had 2009’s He’s Just Not That Into You, which I eviscerated in US#20. One of the big problems with that one was that the basic idea (that men are not into some women) was presented as though it was a condition that was true of men in all times and in all places. And the writers of that film (Abby Kohn & Mark Silverstein, working from the book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tucillo) couldn’t avoid making the film repetitive, since every guy had the same problem.

Merryman and Newman, who wrote last year’s Friends With Benefits (with two other writers [see US#78]), have a little more to work with in Harvey’s book, which covers a greater range of behavior of guys. The screenwriters’ setup is that the women characters start reading the book (and the writers get in some interesting digs at Harvey, who appears as himself as a kind of Greek chorus) and applying it to their various relationships with men. About an hour into the film, the men figure out the women are giving them the same lines. They find a copy of the book and start to use it against the women. Then an hour-and-a-half in the women figure out what the men are doing and use that against them. So we have four couples we are following and their assorted twists and turns. Structurally this is lot sounder than most rom-coms.

The screenwriters have, as in Friends With Benefits, gone to a lot of trouble to create a gallery of interesting and varied characters. Zeke is described in a title as The Player, and he is a master at seduction. On the other hand, Michael is a Mamma’s Boy. And Jeremy is a nice guy in a longtime relationship who cannot commit to taking it into marriage. And so on. There are six male characters we follow and an even larger number of female characters and the writers make all of them distinctive.

One hundred and twenty two minutes is a long running time for a romantic comedy, but the characters and their situations hold our interest. The dialogue comes fast and furious. It is not the speedy dialogue of His Girl Friday (1940), but closer in its convolutions to Rap.

Oh.

Did I forget to mention that all but a couple of token white folks are black? So we are not watching the typical actors you see in rom-coms, which helps keep the movie very fresh. The casting here is superb, since it gives this collection of black actors roles they would not get in mainstream films and television. Lauren, the high-powered businesswoman, is played by Taraji P. Henson. She is currently playing a detective in the series Person of Interest, and she played another detective in the series The Division. Here she is loose and funny and sexy, in a way she generally doesn’t get to be in her other roles. You may remember Romany Malco as Jay, the token black guy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), and if so, you know he is funny, but as Zeke here he is also gorgeous and seductive. And so on down the line. This is one of the best-looking casts of any recent film, and even better, they are well-photographed, which is alas not often true of black actors.

The one outright comic character is Cedric, described in the titles as the Happily Divorced Guy, and he is played by Kevin Hart. I have seen Hart in a few things, but he really takes off here. I am sure some of his riffs are improvised, but always in context of the character. I particularly like a scene where the guys are playing a pickup basketball game at a gym, which without stating this boldly explains why these guys hang out together. A very tall guy from the other end of the court asks our guys if his team can use the whole court. Cedric goes off on a rant, not recognizing that the tall guy is Meta World Peace, or Ron Artest as he used to be known. I saw this a week or so after World Peace got suspended for giving an elbow to the face of another player and I kept expecting him to do the same to Cedric. Instead they decide to play a short game to see who can use the court. We don’t see the game then, but in the credits are shots from it. Cedric is up against the girl on the other team, who cleans his clock. Repeatedly. Well, the “girl” is former WNBA star Lisa Leslie, who not only can play ball, but doesn’t have an unelegant bone in her body. I told you the film was good-looking as well as funny.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012. Screenplay by Gideon Defoe, based on his book. 88 minutes.)

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Where are Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio when you need them?: If this film had come out before the Pirates of the Caribbean films, we all would have liked it better. When the first Pirates of the Caribbean film came out in 2003, the screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio raised the bar very, very high for writing pirate movies. As I mentioned in whacking Pirates 4 last year in US#75, they gave us complex plotting (so much so that on #3 Johnny Depp couldn’t understand the script) and an incredible gallery of characters. Pirates 4 did not live up to what they had done in the trilogy. Band of Misfits lives up to that standard even less than #4.

Let’s start with the pirate captains. In Pirates he is Captain Jack Sparrow. In Band he is…the Pirate Captain. Captain Jack’s “crew” includes Barbossa, Davy Jones, Pintell and Regetti, and Bootstrap Bill, just to give a few of their names. The Pirate Captain’s crew includes The Albino Pirate, The Pirate with Gout, The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens, and the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate. The last one of course is a woman disguised as a pirate, but very little is done with that. Those “names” probably read well in the book, but sound rather clunky on screen. And as screen characters they are all one-note.

Then there is the plot. The Pirate Captain is desperately trying to win the Pirate of the Year Award, which has eluded him all these years. He ends up having on board Charles Darwin (the British subtitle is “In an Adventure with Scientists!,” which undoubtedly scared the bejeesus out of the American marketers), who identifies the captain’s parrot as a dodo thought long to be extinct. Darwin wants to present it to Queen Victoria, who hates pirates. Hijinks ensue. But compared to Elliott and Rossio’s highjinks, they are not much.

The trilogy of course has the advantage of a great cast at the height of their visual and verbal powers. Band is a stop-motion animation piece from the great Aardman Studios of England, but their style really seems too tame for a rousing pirate movie, especially in the character work. Of the voice cast, Imelda Staunton is good as Queen Victoria, but Hugh Grant is not a patch on Johnny Depp as a pirate captain. Salma Hayek does the voice of one of the captain’s competitors, Cutlass Liz, but wouldn’t you really rather see Hayek than a clay figure? As much as we love animation, and as much as we have loved other Aardman work, sometimes you just need the actors in the flesh. Especially Hayek.

Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer (2012. Book by Brian Taves. 367 pages)

Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent PioneerAbout bloody time: OK class, show of hands. How many people know who Thomas Ince was? Yeah, I didn’t think so. If you came across him in your film history textbook, it was as the producer who first established the assembly line method of making movies that became the studio system. He was usually compared to D.W. Griffith, who made up his brilliant films as he went along, while Ince had scripts written, which he stamped with a rubber stamp that said, “Shoot as Written.” Ince’s directors then had to follow the script completely or lose their jobs. Well, Griffith used more than his share of scripts, there was no rubber stamp, and Ince’s films frequently departed from the script. Ince did organize a system that the later studios adopted and thereby may have had as much influence as Griffith did. Especially in the matter of screenplays and their use in filmmaking. And Taves’s book is the first biography in English of Ince.

Why haven’t there been others? First of all, Iris Barry, who established the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, was a friend of Griffith and promoted him with revivals of his films. She encouraged film scholars to write about Griffith. And Griffith as a flamboyant artist compared to Ince as an organizer just made Griffith irresistible to write about. Brian Taves is an archivist at the Library of Congress, where the Ince papers and many of the Ince films are. Boy, is he an archivist. He digs out piles and piles and PILES of information from the papers. I am not sure we need the budgets and rentals on as many of the Ince films as he has, but it is nice to have. Taves also describes more than analyzes the films, summarizing the plots more than he needs to (says the writer who does a lot of plot summaries in this column). Taves is focused more on the business side of Ince, which is understandable, and he lets us know for the first time why Ince’s career dimmed in the late teens and early ‘20s before his untimely death in 1924. (And Taves starts right up front with the death and demolishes all, and I mean all, the rumors about it.) Ince was trying to keep his independence as both a producer and distributor at a time when the studio system was taking shape. He often had to spend more time on the business details of the distribution of his films than on the creation of them. His work ruined his health and led to his death.

For all Taves’s research, I often got the feeling that he does not have as strong a background in film history as he might have. On page 89 he says the cost of making The Birth of a Nation (1915) was $200,000, whereas the more recent research shows it was nearer to $100,000. On pages 169-171, Taves discusses Ince’s 1921 film Mother o’ Mine without ever mentioning that the ending he describes is a straight steal from Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance. Taves also is somewhat limited in his writing about Ince and the screenplays. He never mentions the famous rubber stamp (which, again, did not exist), and he never gets into any detail about the scripts and how they differ from the films. One gets the feeling he never really compared the scripts to the films. Well, I suppose he did not really need to do that, since I did it when I was at Library of Congress in 1983 researching my FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film. My book, which came out in 1988, has a chapter on Ince and the scriptwork done at his studio. There were often changes from the script to the film. In one film that Taves does talk about, the 1921 Beau Revel, the film continues on for several more minutes after the end of the script with scenes that are not in the screenplay or in any written notes that I found. I would love to say that Taves just felt he did not need to do what I had done, but there is no reference to FrameWork in his book. Brian, sometimes you just have to come out of the archives and read the books on the shelves.

I don’t want to be too hard on Taves, since the book is very good, and it introduces us to several people even I had never heard of. I am a big fan of Ince’s chief screenwriter, C. Gardner Sullivan, whose career continued into the 1960s, but I had never heard of Bradley King, a woman screenwriter who wrote for Ince’s from 1920 to his death in 1924, then continued on as a screenwriter throughout the ‘30s. Boy, is there a subject for further research. As is the fact that many of Ince’s films were primarily about women. So all you women historians and critical studies people out there, get to work. Like most good books, Taves opens up new areas of exploration, and, quibbles and all, I am awfully glad he wrote it.

Forever Amber (1947. Screenplay by Philip Dunne and Ring Lardner Jr., adaptation by Jerome Cady from the novel by Kathleen Winsor. 138 minutes.)

Forever Amber

Charles II, take one: Winsor’s 1944 novel was a huge bestseller about Amber, a young woman in Restoration England who sleeps her way to the top. Sort of like Scarlett O’Hara, but with a stronger sex drive. A much stronger sex drive. The book was banned in various parts of the country, and it was generally thought impossible to make a film of it, but Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox decided to try. Because of the notoriety of the book, the Breen office was gunning for it. As we saw with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, see US#90), the Breen Office was willing to work with Sturges, since the office felt it could properly shape it. In the case of Amber, its reputation as a book was so well known the office knew it had to be extra strict. As Philip Dunne said, “So we could do less in Forever Amber than in any other picture because the whole project was suspect.” (That quote is from an oral history interview I did with Dunne. Additional material in this item is from Dunne’s memoir Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics and Ring Lardner Jr.’s I’d Hate Myself in the Morning.)

The first writer Zanuck assigned to it was Jerome Cady, but he made the dreadful mistake of taking the dialogue Zanuck suggested in their story conferences and putting it into the script verbatim. Zanuck was appalled and said in the next conference, “The scene on page 82 is the worst scene I have ever read in my life,” knowing full well it came from himself. Zanuck replaced Cady with Philip Dunne, who had written several historical pictures for Zanuck, including Suez (1938) and Stanley and Livingstone (1939). But Dunne had worked for the Office of War Information during the Second World War, and like most filmmaker/veterans he wanted to do more serious films after the end of the war. He said later, “The first thing he hit with me was Forever Amber.” Dunne’s first idea was to treat the whole thing as a spoof, but Zanuck, rightly, thought that would not work with audiences who took the book seriously. There is still some wit in the film, some of which may have come from Dunne.

The picture started shooting with John Stahl directing British actress Peggy Cummins, but Zanuck stopped production after four weeks, since he did not think Cummins was up to the role. Zanuck replaced her with Linda Darnell and Stahl with Otto Preminger. Preminger insisted on bringing in Ring Lardner Jr. to rework the script. Dunne and Lardner worked together with Preminger. As Lardner later wrote, the three of them “established a strong bond based, in part, on a fervent common desire to be working on almost any property other than the one Zanuck had foisted on us.”

The picture was given an expensive production, with lavish sets and costumes, and the Great London Fire to boot. Leon Shamroy did the great, dark cinematography (the film is not yet available on DVD, and the print the Fox Movie Channel runs does not do justice to Shamroy’s work), and David Raksin composed a wonderful score. The problem is that the script has to be so cautious, unless you have a really dirty mind, you may not know what is going on. The film is fascinating to look at in terms of what the script is hiding from the audience. James Agee, in his 1947 review in Time magazine, noted, “During the 140 minutes of the movie the famous hussy is never kissed hard enough to jar an eyelash loose; and it comes as a mild shock when she suddenly announces her pregnancy.” Late in the picture Amber has lost her husband and become the king’s mistress. How can you show that in a 1940s movie under the watchful eye of the Breen office? Well, we see her in an extra lavish gown, surrounded by admirers. When one of them gives her a present, she says to him, “And what is it that you seek from his majesty?” Isn’t that an elegant way to make the point?

Dunne and Lardner do come up with a couple of good scenes. Amber has run back to her true love Bruce at one point without bothering to tell him that she has a husband, the silly goose. When the husband shows up to confront Bruce, the writers give us a nice scene of both men trying to remain gentlemen of good breeding in the circumstances. And the writers do provide a great part for George Sanders as King Charles II. They give him amusing things to do, and some good lines. When an earlier mistress of his shows up at a ball after saying she was not coming, she says she changed her mind. Charles replies, “You mind is rather like your wardrobe, madam, many changes, but no surprises.”

The King’s Thief (1955. Screenplay by Christopher Knopf, story by Robert Hardy Andrews. 78 minutes.)

The King's Thief

Charles II, take two: Christopher Knopf was the son of Edwin Knopf, who in turn was the brother of the publisher Alfred Knopf. Edwin come out to Hollywood in the late ‘20s and wrote, produced and directed films. After Irving Thalberg’s death, Edwin was head of the story department at MGM. Christopher grew up in the business, and after World War II and a degree in English from UC Berkeley, his dad brought him into MGM, along with other sons and nephews of others at the student. They were assigned to Charles Schnee, where they were called “Schnee White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and also known as “The Sons of the Pioneers” (not to be confused with the well-known western music singers of the time who made movies with Roy Rogers). Edwin hired Christopher to write this picture as his first screenplay. Edwin was a “brutal taskmaster,” who demanded 20 pages a week. He would ask Christopher to do the scene in ten lines. Christopher would bring in the ten lines, and Edwin would ask him to do it in four. Which sounds like great training to me. The final result was not very good. (The information for this item is from an interview I did with Christopher Knopf for Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.)

The film is supposed to be a swashbuckler, but Knopf’s script doesn’t have the wit that Ben Hecht, Herman Mankiewicz, and Elliott and Rossio bring to the genre. The director was the MGM stalwart Robert Z. Leonard, who had directed the 1940 Pride and Prejudice. Knopf was not, alas, either Jane Austen, Jane Murfin or Aldous Huxley, and Leonard was only a year or two from retirement. The film was a flop, and as Knopf said later, “almost ruined eight careers.” He remembered going into the unemployment office shortly after the film was released and seeing two of the actors in the film “glowering at me.”

Christopher Knopf’s career was far from over. He moved from features into television. He wrote for several of the anthology shows of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In 1967-8 he was the showrunner for an hour-and-a-half western called Cimarron Strip notable for its attempts to bring greater subtlety to the television western. He was also one of the co-creators and showrunners of the 1990 legal series Equal Justice. See, there is life after flops.

Oh yes, Charles II. George Sanders recreates his role from Forever Amber, but Knopf did not give him the good bits and good lines that Dunne and Lardner gave him. I do not know if he was one of the actors Knopf saw at the unemployment office.

In Plain Sight (2012. Various writers. 60 minutes.)

In Plain Sight

Goodbye, Mary: In Plain Sight ended its four-year run this spring. I have written about this show off and on since it began back in 2008. I love the character of Mary Shannon, the irascible U.S. Marshal in WITSEC, the Federal witness protection program. If you are going to have somebody protecting witnesses, most of them sleazy in their own right, you don’t want a wimp in the job. It was a great character and a great role for Mary McCormick, since over the run of the show the writers gave both Mary and Mary a lot to do. I was put off in the early seasons by the emphasis on Mary’s family (mother Jinx, sister Brandi) and their problems. As the show cut down the screen time given them, it got better. And now, just to show you how contrary I can be, I liked the way the writers came back to the family in the final episodes of the series. First up was Mary’s father, a con man and general all-round crook whom she had not seen in decades. When he shows up at her door in “Drag Me to Hell” (written by Michael Reiz), she arrests him. In the following episode, “The Medal of Mary’ (teleplay by John Cockrell, story by John Cockrell & Ed Decter), the F.B.I., with whom Mary has always had a testy relationship (well, with whom hasn’t she had a testy relationship?), want to get Shannon to roll over on his former boss Sullivan. Sullivan knows about Jinx and Brandi, so they are in danger. The good guys eventually track them down and protect them

The most interesting ongoing relationship in the series has been between Mary and her partner, Marshall Mann. They are sort of attracted to each other, but not as much as, say Castle and Beckett in Castle. (By the way there was a nice touch in the season finale of that show, “Always,” written by Terri Edda Miller and Andrew Marlowe, where Beckett, after her boss suspends her, goes to a park and sits in a swing like the lead character in Ikiru [1952]. Steal from the best, I always say.) Mary and Marshall have always been more like squabbling siblings than lovers. For the past season and a half he has been romantically involved with Abby, a police detective. Abby is a smart cookie, and in “All’s Well That Ends” (teleplay by John Cockrell & Mary McCormack & William Frederick, story by William Frederick), Abby tells Marshall they have to put their marriage plans on hold until he has a talk with Mary. He keeps trying to, but the writers are smart enough to put it off as long as they can in the episode. We are anticipating the scene (not only in this episode, but for years), and the writers do right by it. Marshall tells her that he loves her, but “not in that way,” so we get that out of the way up front. Then they talk about how he always comes when she calls, but he cannot do that any more now that he is getting married. He says Mary needs to “release him,” which she reluctantly does. The series ends up with the main cast members around the table celebrating various things. It is not a big flashy ending, but nicely understated. We sense that these characters will go on, even if the show doesn’t. And Stan, Mary’s boss, who has mostly given orders and advice the past four years, has this season been given a romance with his dance instructor Lia. And he ends up with her. She’s played by Tia Carrere and Stan deserves her.

Desperate Housewives (2012. Various writers. 60 minutes.)

Desperate Housewives

And goodbye also to Susan, Bree, Gaby, Lynette, Mrs. McCluskey, and, and, and…: As I mentioned in US#92, the final season has not been up to the series’s best work. It’s gotten sentimental and lost the wonderful balance of comedy and drama we loved it for. Most daytime—and nighttime for that matter—soaps are not intentionally humorous. Many of course are unintentionally so. Marc Cherry and his crew of writers at their best keep us guessing not only in terms of plot but in terms of tone. There was nothing quite like this show in its heyday. (By the way, Daniel Goldberg did a great piece on the end of the show that you can read here if you missed it.)

In the second to last hour, “Give Me the Blame,” written by Bill Daily, the show pulls off its last best twist, which obviously has been some time in the making. Bree is on trial for the killing of Gaby’s stepfather and Carlos wants to step up and admit it. Mrs. McCluskey, whom we have known for weeks is dying of cancer, overhears Carlos and Gaby talking. Mrs. McCluskey goes into court and claims she was the one who killed him. The prosecutor drops the case against Bree, and given Mrs. McCluskey’s health, decides not to prosecute her. Neatly played, team. (And we say goodbye to Katherine Joosten, who played Mrs. McCluskey, who passed away a few weeks after the showed ended. Boy, was she fun to watch, not only here but as Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing. She was one of those wonderful character actors who made you smile when they show up because you know you are going to be in good hands for however long they are on the screen)

In the final hour, “Finishing the Hat,” written by Cherry himself, he is tying up all the remaining lose ends, but there are no surprising twists. Tom and Lynette get together, and he indicates he is willing to go with her to a new job Katherine Mayfair has offered her in New York. Ben marries Renee, even though she shows up in a borrowed wedding dress with her hair and makeup a mess. (Hey, it’s Vanessa Williams, who looks better when she’s a mess than the rest of us do when we’re all cleaned up. But then NONE of the women on Wisteria Lane were hit by ugly sticks when they were born.) Julie has her baby and Susan is going to take care of it. Jennifer, the woman who is moving into Susan’s house at first seems rather bland, but sure enough, she has a wooden box that she hides in a locked cupboard. Yeah, but who cares? Susan drives around the neighborhood and we see ghosts of all the people on Wisteria Lane who have died. It’s not quite the murder rate of Cabot Cove in Murder She Wrote, but close. But there is nobody we don’t expect, such as Nicollette Sheridan’s Edie. In this episode Cherry is like Charles II’s mistress: many changes, but no surprises.

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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Festivals

Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)

Shorts

Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:

Features

Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.

3.5

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Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

4

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

2.5

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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