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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: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed

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

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The Infiltrators
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Vast of Night
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Record
Photo: HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The High Note
Photo: Focus Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Crystal Swan
Photo: Loco Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lovebirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Painter and the Thief
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Inheritance
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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The Trip to Greece
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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