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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think Like a Man

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forever Amber

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King's Thief

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

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

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

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

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

In Plain Sight

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

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

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

Desperate Housewives

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

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

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

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from his mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it.

.5

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.

Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.

The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.

Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.

Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.

By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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Review: Intrigo: Death of an Author Is Damned by Its Lack of Self-Awareness

The film evinces neither the visceral pleasures of noir nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

1.5

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Intrigo: Death of an Author
Photo: Lionsgate

“Surprise me!” demands reclusive author Alex Henderson (Ben Kingsley) near the start of Intrigo: Death of an Author of budding novelist Henry (Benno Fürmann), who’s come to him in search of advice. As an audience member, it’s difficult not to end up making exactly the same exhortation to director Daniel Alfredson’s film. With each plot point being not only easy to predict, but also articulated and elaborated on multiple times by an awkwardly on-the-nose narration, the only shock here is that a film apparently concerned with the act of storytelling could be so lacking in self-awareness.

Henry is a translator for the recently deceased Austrian author Germund Rein and is working on a book about a man whose wife disappeared while they were holidaying in the Alps, shortly after her revelation that she would be leaving him for her therapist. Most of the tedious opening half hour of the film is taken up with Henry telling this tale to Kingsley’s enigmatic Henderson, after he meets him at his remote island villa. The pace picks up a little when David switches to giving the older writer an account of the mystery surrounding Rein’s death and how this could be connected to his story, which (surprise!) may not be entirely fictional.

Death of An Author is the most high-profile release of the Intrigo films, all directed by Alfredson and based on Håkan Nesser’s novellas. Alfredson was also at the helm of two film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but he still doesn’t appear to have developed the stylistic tools necessary to elevate his pulpy source material. Here, his aesthetic seems to be aiming for the icy polish of a modern noir, but it leans toward a safe kind of blandness, evincing neither the visceral pleasures of the genre nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

While Fürmann’s stilted central performance at times threatens to sink Death of An Author, Kingsley always appears just in time to keep the unwieldy thing afloat. Nonetheless, his character’s cynical meta commentary, alternately engaged and aloof, is ruinous: As Henderson criticizes Henry’s story, he effectively draws too much attention to the film’s own flaws.

Death of an Author’s mise en abyme framing device has a similarly self-sabotaging effect. It initially promises an interesting push and pull between a writer’s literary perspective on reality and their own lived experience, but as so much of Henry’s psychology is explained through clunky expository dialogue instead of being expressed visually, no such conflict is possible. The structure ends up just distancing us further from the characters, as well as undermining the tension generated by the more procedural elements of the plot. Ultimately, aside from some picturesque scenery and a satisfyingly dark ending, all we’re left to enjoy here is the vicarious thrill of Kingsley’s smug, scene-stealing interlocutor occasionally denouncing Henry as a hack, and implicitly dismissing the whole scenario of the film as trite and clichéd.

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Benno Fürmann, Tuva Novotny, Michael Byrne, Veronica Ferres, Daniela Lavender, Sandra Dickinson Director: Daniel Alfredson Screenwriter: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Weathering with You Lyrically and Mushily Affirms the Sky’s Majesty

Contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed the film’s increasingly mawkish tendencies.

2.5

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Weathering with You
Photo: GKIDS

The lyricism of director Makoto Shinkai’s new animated film, Weathering with You, should shame the impersonality of the CGI-addled blockbusters that are usually pitched at children. An early scene finds a teenage girl, Hina (Nano Mori), floating through the sky, at times almost seeming to swim in it. This moment introduces a suggestive motif: In the film, scientists speculate that the sky possesses a habitat that, for all we know, is full of similar properties to the one in the world’s oceans. The Tokyo of Shinkai’s conception is plagued by rain that sometimes falls so hard as to suggest a tidal wave dropping out of the sky, which is a memorably scary and beautiful effect. Sometimes such rains even leave behind see-through jellyfish-like creatures that evaporate upon touch.

At their best, Shinkai’s images affirm the majesty and power of the sky and rain, intrinsic elements of life that we too often take for granted. Raindrops suggest bright white diamonds, and storms resemble cocoons of water. But Hina’s new friend, Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo), doesn’t take the weather for granted, as he’s introduced on a large passenger boat, surveying a storm that almost kills him. Running away to Tokyo from his parents, Hodaka first glances the city as the boat approaches a port, and at which point Shinkai springs another marvel: a city of vast neon light that’s been rendered with a soft, watercolor-esque delicacy.

The first 45 minutes or so of Weathering with You promisingly merge such visuals with the story of Hina and Hodaka’s blossoming romance, while introducing an amusing rogue, Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri), who offers Hodaka minimal employment as a junior reporter for a tabloid magazine. Suga gives the film a lurid quality that’s surprising for a children’s fantasy—as he milks the young Hodaka for a free meal and carouses around Tokyo at night—until Shinkai sentimentally reduces him to a routine father figure. And it’s around here that the plot grows more and more cumbersome and gradually takes over the film as Hina and Hodaka become typically misunderstood youngsters on the lam, evading the law and the Tokyo crime world. The free-floating visuals are eventually tethered to a metaphor for the specialness of Hina, who’s a mythical “sunshine girl” capable of bringing light to Tokyo’s endless storms, and for the fieriness of Hina and Hodaka’s love. Shinkai over-explains his lyrical imagery with YA tropes, compromising the dreamlike mystery of the film’s first act.

The narrative is also an implicit story of global warming, as Tokyo’s storms threaten to destroy the city, with Hina representing a potential balancing of the scales at the expense of her own earthly life. That’s a resonant concept that Shinkai never quite steers into overtly political territory—and contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed Weathering with You’s increasingly mawkish tendencies. A free-floating atmosphere, in which sky and ocean are merged, suggesting collaborative gods, is more than enough for an evocative fable. It’s a pity that Shinkai overthinks his project, frontloading it with borrowed plot machinery that goes in circles, separating lovers mostly for the sake of separating them.

Cast: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori, Shun Oguri, Kana Ichinose, Ryô Narita, Tsubasa Honda, Mone Kamishiraishi, Kana Ichinose Director: Makoto Shinkai Screenwriter: Makoto Shinkai Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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