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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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Review: 76 Days Is a Harrowing Document of the Covid Outbreak in Wuhan

The documentary may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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76 Days
MTV Documentary Films

Like Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, Hao Wu and Wiexi Chen’s 76 Days—co-directed by another journalist who chose to remain anonymous—documents the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. While Ai’s film manages to slip a number of pointed critiques of China’s authoritarian tactics passed the country’s typically hawk-eyed censors, 76 Days, which takes its title from the length of Wuhan’s lockdown early in 2020, presents China in a more universally flattering light. What the film lacks in political commentary, however, it makes up for with its tight focus on the daily grind of the medical staff and countless volunteers tirelessly working at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Much of the film follows doctors and nurses, clad in protective gear, as they make their rounds, reassuring patients that everything will be fine, even as they’re only just beginning to understand the virus and how to treat it. The toll this regiment of 12-plus-hour days takes on the staff is palpable in virtually every frame, with insert shots of the medical team asleep on benches or slumped over in chairs speaking to the sheer exhaustion of being a cog in a medical machine, quickly churning through patients with no light at the end of the tunnel. One nurse, while being comforted as her dying father is taken away to quarantine, is ultimately told that she needs to remain composed so she can ready herself to return to work the next day.

Although the staff’s sacrifice and composure under fire is amply documented, 76 Days never stoops to sentimentality, eschewing fawning talking-head interviews and a musical score. Throughout, we’re left brimming in the immediacy of the chaos at hand; only the glimpses we catch of patients who’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, in the hospital provide a concrete sense of time’s passage since the start of the lockdown. Most memorable of these patients is an elderly man who repeatedly leaves his room to wander around the hospital and is continually corralled by different nurses back to his room. His exploits lend the film a bit of levity even as his backstory, once revealed, makes his foibles all the more heartbreaking.

The nightmare of caring for thousands of patients during a pandemic also extends to the intake and discharge processes. This makes for a few touching and cathartic scenes once certain patients finally receive the approval to return home, such as when the aforementioned older gentleman receives applause and well wishes from many of the nursing staff as he exits the hospital. But the film’s most poignant moment comes when an endlessly patient young couple finally meets their newborn child for the first time several weeks after her birth.

These brief glimpses of joy are counterbalanced not only by the gravity of the pandemic as it’s being fought on the frontlines, but also by the cumbersome and often tragic logistical tasks that the hospital staff must perform, such as dealing with the belongings of the dead. Among said belongings is the still-functioning cellphone of one deceased patient that displays 31 missed messages, a mere hint of the suffering that even many of the healthy residents of Wuhan endured in those early days of the outbreak. 76 Days is full of small yet revelatory moments like this, and in keeping its gaze so firmly planted on both the medical staff and patients as they’re forced to navigate the uncharted territory of a deadly new virus, the film may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Director: Hao Wu, Wiexi Chen, Anonymous Distributor: MTV Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Soul More Sublimely Mediates on the Pull of Music Than It Does the Afterlife

In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

2.5

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Soul
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the main character of Pixar’s Soul, is a jazz pianist living in Harlem who’s desperate for music gigs alongside his part-time job directing the disengaged middle schoolers in his band class. When the school principal offers him full-time hours with benefits, it feels more like a final surrender than a lifeline. The threat of lifelong mediocrity has tightened its grasp around every corner of Joe’s life. In a brilliant stroke, even the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” tune that plays over the logo before most Disney movies is heard here as if played by Joe’s out-of-tune student ensemble.

Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, quickly reveals that Joe is anything but mediocre. Hearing melody in the wail of sirens and rhythm in the cacophony of a jackhammer, he has music in his, well, soul. When Joe catches his big break auditioning to play with a pro quartet, headlined by imperious jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the film follows him into “the zone.” Not since Fantasia has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows. As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), Soul gives itself over fully to his music.

For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around. As such, it’s hard not to want Soul to be all about music, not just as metaphor but as the very real engine that drives the film’s characters forward. Music’s extraordinary impact is palpable when Joe’s face lights up as one of his students, Connie (Cora Champommier), leans into a trombone solo, and as Joe’s fingers escape his anxiety in their own improvisatory pursuit. Walk away 15 minutes into the film, at the end of what would make, on its own, a snazzy, sublime short, and you’ll have seen Pixar’s greatest, purest tribute to the arts.

But Joe’s joy, and soon the film’s, is cut short when he plummets down an open manhole, and finds himself—or, rather, his soul, depicted here as a blue-green turnip-shaped substance with glasses and a fedora—on the pathway to the Great Beyond. Refusing to face death, Joe hurtles into the void toward the Great Before, where not-yet-born souls obtain their personalities in a Youth Seminar. Mistaken for a celebrated psychologist, Joe’s soul is assigned a mentee, a cranky pre-human called 22 (Tina Fey) who refuses to cooperate: She’s unwilling, and, so far, unable to find the “spark” that will allow her to be born into a human body. Previous famous mentors have tried and failed (the soul of Carl Jung amusingly tells the difficult 22, “Stop talking—my unconscious mind hates you”), but Joe sees 22 as his ticket back to Earth.

It’s somewhere around here that Soul, co-written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, starts to veer down its own wrong path, abandoning its accessible storytelling, along with that vitalizing jazz soundtrack, for a confusing maze of pseudo-spiritual planes of existence. Besides the Great Beyond and the Great Before, souls can also be in the Zone, where tuned-in artists like Joe sometimes find themselves while still alive, or in a desert of Lost Souls, which belong to people who’ve forgotten how to live (hedge fund managers, in particular, we’re told).

In this ever-evolving terrain occupied by 2D and 3D life forms, the film’s visual adventurousness takes off as contrasting animation styles collide. At the Youth Seminar, flat, geometric figures with transparent features direct the bulbous souls to where they can pick up personality traits (at the Excitable Pavilion, for example). Meanwhile, a New Age-inflected Mystics Without Borders subplot, with Graham Norton voicing the tripped-out Moonwind, adds a daringly vibrant psychedelic color palette to the gentle blues and greens of the Great Before. But as the categories of souls keep expanding, the rules for these overlapping worlds grow foggy, and by the time that Fey’s voice is coming out of Joe’s body in a switcheroo that’s never quite explained, it’s hard not to feel as if the film has lost track of its internal logic.

At the core of the Pixar model is an exploration of friendship within the familiar parameters of the buddy comedy—Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, all the way back to Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody—and Soul tries hard to plug into the transformative power of friendship in pairing Joe with 22. Despite Fey’s droll delivery, 22, who says she chooses to speak with the voice of a middle-aged white lady in order to be “annoying,” isn’t convincing enough as a fully formed character for their relationship, or Joe’s investment in 22’s decision to be born, to ever matter.

The contours of these worlds seem just hazy enough to land on the safe side of blasphemy; sometimes it seems like the film’s imprecision is a deliberate attempt to draw piecemeal from various belief systems and sidestep offending religious audiences by addressing the presence or absence of higher powers at all. But the viewers that seem most painfully left behind are the ones to which Soul should rightly matter the most: kids. Soul swirls with self-help lingo about finding your spark and seeking your purpose, but that’s almost entirely in the context of Joe’s midlife crisis, a sliver of the human experience with which children seem unlikely to resonate. In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, which magnanimously welcomed grownups along for a sophisticated ride, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead and Inside Out’s representation of depression exemplify explorations of “grownup” topics with a probing awareness of the ways they also touch kids’ lives. For a while, it seems that Soul, in its treatment of the Great Before, will have a similar capacity for digging into big, unanswerable questions with care and clarity. But while most Pixar films pride themselves on presenting rich, fantastical responses to real-world wonderings, Soul keeps conjuring up visions that don’t correspond precisely enough to anything in the real world. It’s not clear whether the film ultimately offers a call to arms to pursue a passion or a warning that creative passion alone doesn’t provide for a fulfilling life.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi Director: Pete Docter Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Black Bear Is an Unnerving Look at the Baggage that Fuels Creation

Shot through with darkly existentialist humor, the film finds Aubrey Plaza throwing a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past.

3

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Black Bear
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear belongs to a long tradition of sexual psychodrama, in which a handful of frustrated and privileged characters hole up in a remote place and exorcize their resentments. This tradition is so venerable that it was parodied by Christopher Guest over 30 years ago in The Big Picture, and there’s also a dark strand of existentialist humor running through this similarly self-conscious film.

Levine casts doubt on his narrative’s sense of reality in the opening sequence, wherein a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) is sitting on a pier in a swimsuit looking out at a vast foggy lake. After a moment, she rises and proceeds into a luxurious home, ascends a flight of stairs, and sits at a desk and smokes a cigarette. Soon, she begins to write in a notebook and the narrative segues into what’s presumably a dramatization of the story she fashions. This scene will be repeated several times in Black Bear, suggesting both a leitmotif and a temporal loop.

We then see this woman, Allison, being dropped off on a road a bit away from the home. Meeting Allison at the drop-off point is Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who immediately sets about flirting with her. It’s the sort of flirtation indulged by aspiring artists and self-conscious intellectuals-in-training, rife with deflections, fake-outs, and challenges to the nature of reality that complement the suggestion that the entire situation is possibly a projection of some kind. Allison and Gabe arrive at the residence to meet Blair (Sarah Gadon), who’s pregnant with Gabe’s child, which wasn’t mentioned when Gabe was probing Allison about her career as a filmmaker and, especially, her relationship status. The trio have a long and boozy dinner and air a variety of grievances, leading to a shocking accident.

Allison, initially suggesting a prototypical Plaza character, seemingly prizes hip detachment above all else, in the process enraging the judgmental Blair, who was hoping for help in persecuting Gabe for various slights. This characterization of Allison is a purposeful trap door—a sop to expectation that Levine detonates. In Black Bear’s first half, Allison is cast as a male fantasy—a sexy, seemingly willing and wandering artist who’s uninterested in Blair’s sermonizing about gender roles. In effect, Allison gratifies the submerged feelings of men and even women who may feel that women wish to be subjugated—feelings that are perversely validated in the moment by Blair’s caustic hectoring, which is realistic of the patter of the blowhard at parties who wishes to bore everyone into submission with rigid political views. The film’s early scenes are so stacked against Blair that one may forgive Gabe’s own simplistic speechifying, though such forgiveness may prompt us to examine our own biases.

Remarkably, the film’s emotional intensity is inseparable from its parlor game-like self-consciousness, especially when Allison’s “cool girl” demeanor is unexpectedly demolished. At its halfway mark, Black Bear effectively reboots itself, switching the core identities of the women, with only Gabe tellingly gaining more power in the process. Suddenly, Allison becomes the vulnerable and rejected party, and Plaza imbues her transformed character with a raw and frenzied anguish. Plaza throws a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past, while Levine plumbs the various forms of subjugation that fuel the creative process.

In Black Bear’s second half, the remote house is now a set for an independent film with a plot that roughly re-stages the earlier clashes between Allison, Blair, and Gabe, who are now reimagined as two actresses and the director, respectively. The film thusly expands beyond the confines of a chamber play to include a micro community, with sustained, confidently intricate set pieces—reminiscent of the game-show scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—that explore the exhilaration and terror of corralling dozens of working parts and personalities to create something palatable for audiences. Both films understand such corralling to thrive in part on exploitation, and in the case of Black Bear, the film-within-a-story-within-the-film is constructed around Gabe’s gaslighting of Allison, which Levine stages with a sense of unnerving intimacy that might playfully echo his own experience working with his spouse, filmmaker and actress Sophie Takal, who’s among Black Bear’s co-producers.

Levine is hunting big game in Black Bear, as the film reflects to varying degrees the influence of dozens of self-reflective film classics, mostly notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If Black Bear feels too neat, a little too resolved as a game, it may be because the framing device gives us a convenient exit, though even the conclusion isn’t without ambiguities. Given that both stories are sex triangles fueled by exploitation, you may be driven to wonder if Plaza’s writer is attempting to find a way to channel real trauma. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, she’s conjuring it out of thin air, accessing unvarnished pain out of sheer talent and for the hell of it. This coda restores the smug Plaza stereotype to an extent, while alluding to the vast emotional undertow it suppresses.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng, Lou Gonzalez Director: Lawrence Michael Levine Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine Distributor: Momentum Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Survival Skills Surreally Straddles the Line Between Parody and Pathos

Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014.

2.5

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Survival Skills
Photo: Cranked Up Films

Purporting to be an actual VHS-shot police training video unearthed from the last gasp of the Reagan era, Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014, sandwiched between Too Many Cooks and reruns of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Yet writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature resists indulging the easy trappings of our current cultural obsession with ‘80s-era aesthetics as it digs into some rather contentious and particularly timely subject matter.

Survival Skills opens on a training guide introducing his lesson on a stagy classroom set. Credited as the Narrator, he’s played by Stacy Keach, a recognizable enough personality to immediately break any illusion of found-footage “authenticity.” But seeing as Armstrong will continue to break the fourth wall and experiment with meta-fictional ideas throughout, Keach, with his never-failing gravitas, becomes the perfect chaperone for this cracked video project.

The Narrator’s first order of business is creating the ideal police trainee, filtering the expected qualities needed for the job through an ancient computer system to end up with Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), an all-American goody-two-shoes who we’ll follow through his first year on the force in quaint Middletown, U.S.A. Speaking in insufferably chipper soundbites, Jim acts and sounds exactly like someone who you’d see in the kind of stilted training video that Survival Skills spoofs throughout. But as we enter Jim’s video world, the joke becomes that he’s almost the only one here who behaves this way, while his hardened partner—curiously named Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz), in what must be some kind of inside joke—and the people they encounter are all perplexed by his alien manner. No matter, though, as Jim continues to take his cues from the Narrator’s booming voice, which seems to be heard solely by him.

The line between the staged world and the real one blurs even further when Jim and Allison are tasked with responding to a domestic violence call involving a married couple, the Jennings. After the cops diffuse the situation, Mr. Jennings (Bradford Farwell) assures them that everything is okay while Mrs. Jennings (Emily Chisholm) sheepishly nods along, but Jim can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Defying orders from his superiors (and the natural progression of the training video), Jim begins a quixotic attempt to rescue Mrs. Jennings and her daughter (Madeline Anderson) from a situation that no one but him seems to particularly care about, while the Narrator desperately tries to steer him back on track.

Unlike many a throwback that adopts a retro look and doesn’t offer much beyond hollow non sequiturs (Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes instantly comes to mind), the film avoids cheapening its domestic-abuse storyline by using its formal conceit to also highlight another absurdity that Jim must confront: the impossibility of positive, meaningful police work within a broken legal (and social) system. The only lesson Jim can ultimately take away from his training is how to not get too involved, while his well-meaning suggestions to Mrs. Jennings that she flee her husband and file charges provoke immediate scorn from the same person he’s trying to help, since she’s already well aware how stacked the system is against her.

While mostly pulling off this tricky balancing act of humor and real-life horror, Survival Skills doesn’t quite go far enough in its critiques, especially in a climate where police-community relations are more frayed than ever. The whimsical mechanics of Armstrong’s world occasionally take precedence over the thematic issues at play, making it strange at times that Jim, who for all intents and purposes is a glorified android (Allison tellingly nicknames him “Robocop”), becomes so obsessed with this one case when he can barely read the room in any other setting. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in scenes with Jim’s hyperbolically domesticated wife, Jenny (Tyra Colar), who, while being the only other person in the film to behave in the same pre-programmed way, is clearly undergoing a stifled breakdown of her own. In these moments, Armstrong hints at but doesn’t fully comment on the correlation between the pressures of police work and domestic violence in police families.

The final act of Survival Skills, however, still intrigues, with Jim’s impossible quandary causing his idyllic existence to come unglued at the seams. Armstrong forcefully dives headfirst into the deep end of the meta pool, staging an aptly surreal revenge climax before Keach’s narrator concludes with a blunt lesson in the futility of policing. It’s a sentiment that ultimately resonates beyond the film’s stylistic posturing.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, Bradford Farwell Director: Quinn Armstrong Screenwriter: Quinn Armstrong Distributor: Cranked Up Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I’m Your Woman Is an Unresolved Grab at Feminist Revisionism

Julia Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything.

1.5

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I’m Your Woman
Photo: Amazon Studios

Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman is, in practice, a feminist response to the decidedly male-centric crime genre. Rather than follow a hoodlum named Eddie (Bill Heck) as he eludes his gangster cohorts, the film tracks Eddie’s wife, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), and their baby, Harry, as the latter are inducted into an underworld witness protection program. Such a premise has immense potential, especially given that Jean knows little about Eddie’s profession and that anyone could be an enemy looking to get back at him through her and Harry. A head of paranoid steam, resonant of Jean’s indentured status as a “kept” woman, could have been built up by the film, but Hart and co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz are barely invested in engendering suspense. Instead, I’m Your Woman is content to have us cheer Jean as she comes into her own apart from Eddie’s lies and manipulations—except that she never does, which appears to be an accidentally achieved irony on the filmmakers’ part.

I’m Your Woman is set in the 1970s, in conjunction with the second and third waves of feminism, and more pressingly so that Hart may have reason to offer the retro pop songs and ostentatious set designs that are common of films replicating the era. A strange opening scene, in which Eddie presents the mysteriously acquired Harry to Jean as one might an impulse purchase from a fancy store, establishes above all Jean’s complacency, which would shame a stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s, let alone the ‘70s. Indeed, Jean is so accommodating, defenseless, and opinion-less that she resembles a cult member, and as such you may wonder how she’s held the firebrand Eddie’s attention. As proffered here, these details are stereotypical and unconvincing, existing only as easy thematic signifiers.

None of this might matter if I’m Your Woman were remotely serviceable as a thriller, but it’s composed of a thicket of incoherent exposition, with a cipher at its center. Jean often hears rumors of what’s happening to Eddie while he’s hiding somewhere else, mostly as related by her primary protector, Cal (Arinzé Kene), and these stories suggest the conventional male-centric narrative that’s being consciously elided by Hart and Horowitz. But this gambit backfires, given that the story that Cal relates to Jean, however convoluted, is more exciting than the one we actually see play out on screen. At times, I’m Your Woman appears to be tipping its hat to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Gloria—two films, both made by men, that are far more curious about the inner lives of women than this one. Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes didn’t see their heroines merely as embodiments of an agenda, but also as volatile, intelligent, furious living and breathing human beings.

By contrast, nothing seems to elicit a recognizably human emotion from Jean. Once she’s sprung from life as Eddie’s plus one, Jean remains supernaturally passive—entirely reactive and played by the usually inventive Brosnahan in a monotonal stupor that nulls Hart’s theme of female empowerment. Jean is almost killed several times, and commits murder in self-defense, all without evincing remorse, panic, or jubilation at facing extremities of human existence, which Hart films perfunctorily without offering even scraps of the sort of basic narrative context that might’ve made these sequences thrilling. In other words, Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything, only to restore said bluster belatedly and halfheartedly once she’s run her single idea into the ground.

Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Bill Heck, James Charles, Justin Charles Director: Julia Hart Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy

The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.

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Superintelligence
Photo: HBO Max

Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.

The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.

Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.

Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.

Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.

McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

3

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Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.

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Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.

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The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Noir City: International 2020

The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.

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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Photo: Sigma III Corporation

Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.

A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.

One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.

Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.

Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.

Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.

While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.

As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.

Noir City: International runs through November 29.

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