Connect with us

Film

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

Published

on

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Features

Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

Published

on

Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.

Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.

Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.

Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.

Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.

While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.

The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Books

Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

Published

on

They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

2

Published

on

Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

Published

on

Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

Published

on

Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

Published

on

Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

Published

on

Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

2

Published

on

Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

Published

on

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

2

Published

on

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending