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Understanding Screenwriting #96: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Mad Men, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #96: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Mad Men, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Girl in Progress, Where Do We Go Now?, My Life as a Mankiewicz (book), Hemingway & Gellhorn, Mad Men, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein wondered if I have written about Ring Lardner Jr. at any length before. I haven’t in the column, but you might want to take a look at Chapter 13 in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. There I do a case history of M*A*S*H starting with the first movie about a MASH unit—the terrible Battle Circus (1955)—the Robert Altman film, and then the TV series. I point out how Lardner’s script for the film was brilliant and nearly destroyed by Altman’s direction.

“Snarpo” says his nickname comes from mis-typing “Sopranos.” If he says so, but I still think he should claim to be a lost Marx Brother.

“outsidedog” is upset because he thought I was implying Joss Whedon could not write the one-liners for Iron Man. I was not intending to say that, just that the tone of them is just enough different from the rest of the script that I had my suspicions. Yes, understanding the difference in tone in dialogue is part of understanding screenwriting. A script-doctor, by the way, is different from a writer a director or star keeps on the payroll. A script-doctor works on the script overall, while the “pocket writer,” as they are called, usually focus on one or two aspects of the script. If you read the Tom Mankiewicz book I review in this column, you’ll begin to see the difference.

Battleship (2012. Written by Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber. 131 minutes.)

The Monster that Challenged the World on steroids: Welcome to another episode of “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” film critics division. How many times have I beaten movies about the head and shoulders for not focusing on characters? And how many times have I made the point that perhaps the best way to get us into your story is get us involved with the characters? The answer to both questions is “lots.” So here comes Battleship just to prove I can be wrong. You know with that title there is going to be a lot of things being blown up real good, but the film starts out slowly. Alex Hooper, a ne’er do well young guy, gets arrested for breaking into a store to get Samantha, a girl he just met in a bar, a burrito. Stone, his brother, is a Naval officer, and insists that Alex go into the Navy rather than go to jail (in real life the judge in the case would make that call, but reality is not a strong suit of a film inspired by a board game). And in no time flat Alex has gone through Officer Candidate School and has risen to the rank of Lieutenant. Which would normally take three or four years, but reality is not, etc. So we know Alex is going to be a maverick, in the Tom Cruise not Sarah Palin sense. But that is about all we know of him. The writers don’t give him much more than that. Taylor Kitsch plays Alex. There are those who liked him as part of the ensemble cast on Friday Night Lights but he did not make a good impression as a leading man in John Carter a few months ago. So he is not a character we will necessarily want to follow. Stone is a block of wood. Samantha turns out to be the daughter of Admiral Shane, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, but she is not given much texture, and the Admiral is just a tough guy. If this were a 1943 movie, Samantha would be a nurse, but here she is a physical therapist who spends most of the movie doing a physical therapy hike with Lt. Colonel Canales, who has lost both his legs. His lost legs are not CGI like Lt. Dan’s were in Forrest Gump (1994), but belong to vet Gregory D. Gadson, who is indeed a double amputee and is the most real person on-screen.

We finally put out to sea for the RIMPAC war games, in which navies from the Pacific Rim work together. Well, they have their job cut out for them. Scientists have been sending out messages to planets that may be like ours, which has led to the arrival of a bunch of Transformer-like vessels in the waters off Hawaii. The message transmitters are on the Big Island in Hawaii. The aliens put a protective shield around their vessels, trapping the Guided Missile Cruiser John Paul Jones within the shield. Alex leads the charge, his brother having conveniently been killed, along with enlisted personnel including Fire Control Petty Officer Raikes, who also has no character, but is played by singer Rihanna. We don’t know if she can act yet, but the camera loves her. The first battle between the ship and the aliens goes on forever. I mean forever. In 1957 the Navy dealt with a beast in the Salton Sea in The Monster That Challenged the World (story by David Duncan, screenplay by Pat Fielder), which according to the IMDb cost $254,000. Battleship cost close to 1,000 times that and is only a little more entertaining.

The John Paul Jones does some damage to the aliens, but the JPJ is a cruiser and not a battleship. And the title of the film is Battleship. Fine, except the Navy no longer has any active battleships. The USS Iowa has recently been towed from the ship graveyard in Suisun Bay east of San Francisco to Los Angeles, where it will be a floating museum. Ah, but remember I said this movie was set in Hawaii. And at Pearl Harbor we have the most famous American battleship, the USS Missouri. So Alex and the gang get it underway in what appears to be a matter of minutes. In real life it would take about six months to de-mothball it. And what do you do for a crew for a seventy-year-old ship? And here’s where the picture finally began to work for me. All I will tell you is that I saw this one on Memorial Day with my friend, the son of an admiral, whom you may remember from US#94 (his wife is out of the hospital and recuperating, thank you for asking) and we laughed more at that moment than anybody else in the theater.

And to add to the fun, the other crew that helps Alex is…Japanese. And nobody makes any references to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor or the Japanese signing their surrender in 1945 on the Missouri. I can’t help but think there may have been a couple of references in the script, but if there were, there are none in the film, and I think it works better without them. It makes you think.

Battleship opened overseas a month before it opened in the United States. It played fairly well there, but did not take off here at home. Part of the problem is that it opened shortly after The Avengers, which sucked all the air out of the box office. In addition to the bland characterizations, most of the characters seem like cliches from World War II movies. In the book Understanding Screenwriting, I put the 2001 Pearl Harbor (written by Randall Wallace) in the “Not-Quite-So Good” category, because it seemed to me to use all the World War II cliches. I wrote, “Pearl Harbor is one-stop shopping for all you World War II film needs.” In spite of that, there was enough of what Wallace intended in the script to make it interesting. There is nothing similar here.

Oh, one other thing. I mentioned in writing about The Avengers in US#95 that you should stick around for the scene after the end of the credits. There is a similar post-credit scene here, but do yourself a favor and get out of the theatre before it comes on.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011. Screenplay by Ol Parker, based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach. 124 minutes.)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

All the good jokes are in the trailer: Now I bet that was something you never thought you would hear about a movie starring the two Great Dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

In addition to being a novelist, Deborah Moggach is also a screenwriter, most notably of the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice. So why did she tell this story as a novel? The obvious answer is that it’s about a group of elderly English people who come to live at the Indian hotel of the title, and who wants a movie about geezers? Lots of people apparently; it just crossed over the $100 million mark at the worldwide box office. But I suspect she also did it as a novel since she could get inside the heads of the characters in a way that’s difficult to do on film. Which may be one of the reasons she did not do the script (or it may have just been studio politics). Ol Parker, who did write the script, has not found any way to get into the characters’ internal emotions other than have them say exactly what they are thinking and feeling. So the scenes are very flat, even with Her Majesty’s First Team of actors, including Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. Parker does give them jokes, but a lot of those are older than the actors. Maggie Smith’s Muriel says at one point that she is so old she does not even buy green bananas. That’s quite a ways from the line Julian Fellowes gives her in the second season of Downton Abbey, “Do you promise?” “Green bananas” is just a generic joke; “Do you promise?” is a great character line.

I don’t know if Parker is just following the book on this, but he does not seem to get very deeply into the characters. Near the end of the film a faithful servant to the family that owns the hotel reminds the mother of Sonny, who runs the hotel, that her husband’s parents objected to her as she is currently objecting to the woman Sonny loves. She immediately softens, happy ending, end of story. But it would not take more than an additional line or two for her to make a case that she wants Sonny and the girl to avoid the fights she had to go through. What’s missing in any texture to nearly all the characters, Tom Wilkinson’s gay judge being the exception. The other actors try hard, but the material is just not there. They do the jokes well, of course, which is why those are in the trailer.

I also felt the story misses the texture of India. There are a lot of postcard shots, but the script skims over other details, such as the workers at a phone answering center that Evelyn teaches English customs to. She and the kids have a nice scene where she teaches them how to talk on the telephone, but it is pretty much a stand-alone scene. On the other hand, after I wrote the first part of this paragraph I had brunch one day with my son-in-law and his business partner. They have offices around the world, including one in India, and they thought Sonny was exactly like the guy they had running the Indian office (“Right away, right away, right away in three months”). The partner’s wife saw the film twice and then went again with him. So I have to bow to their experience, but it still did not seem to me to get the texture of the country as well as it could have. The partner suggested it may have been because you don’t hear any car horns in the movie, and you hear nothing but in India. But if we heard them, then maybe we would have missed the jokes. As in…

Girl in Progress (2012. Written by Hiram Martinez. 93 minutes.)

Girl in Progress

What did she say?: Ansiedad, aka Ann, a 15-year-old girl, is giving a report in school on someone she admires. It’s about her mom, Grace, who got knocked up when she was 18, lives as a single mom, and has a married boyfriend. At least I think that’s part of what she said. The sound track on this film is so badly recorded and/or mixed, as are those in way too many contemporary films and television shows, that I don’t know exactly what Ann said. (I tried all four different settings on my hearing aids and none of them made it any better.) Whatever she says, it’s enough for the teacher to send her to the principal, who calls in the mother. Grace is indeed rather flighty and unfocused, but warm and loving, a little too much so with the married doctor whose house she cleans. She also works at a clam restaurant, or more like a shack.

The film is Ann’s story. Inspired by the coming-of-age stories her teacher has her reading, she decides to consciously live her life as if it is a coming-of-age story. She puts up a chart on her wall of the steps she has to take (dumping her dorky friend, losing her virginity, etc) and starts to follow them. She does get in with the in-crowd at school, and after deciding not to dump her friend Tavita (played by Raini Rodriquez, the sister of Rico Rodriquez, who plays Manny on Modern Family; the family has a deep talent bench), she does, which leads Tavita to attempt suicide. The film is trying to be both funny and serious and manages it reasonably well. The satire of in this case the “heroine’s journey” is a great idea, but not as thoroughly developed as it might. Martinez does not give it as much time as he could, since he is juggling so many other subplots.

Patricia Riggen directed the wonderful Under the Same Moon (2007), but the script here is not up to the one for the earlier film. Same Moon was written by Ligiah Villalobos, whose TV movie earlier this year, Firelight, was not up to her earlier script. Hey, it happens. Riggen does some good work here with the actors, which help make it watchable. Ann is played by Cierra Ramirez, who has done mostly TV work, but captures a girl on the cusp of growing up. The delight is Eva Mendes as Grace. Mendes is usually cast for her gorgeousness, but she is deglamorized here and gives a much richer and more detailed performance here than I have seen before. I would have thought mothers and/or daughters would have turned out for this one, but the day I saw it there was only one other person in the theater and like me he was a man of a certain age. Make of that what you will.

Where Do We Go Now? (2011. Rodney Al Haddad, Jihad Hojeily, Nadeen Labaki, and Sam Munier, with the collaboration of Thomas Bidegain. 110 minutes.)

Where Do We Go Now?

A Lebanese Amarcord: Nadeen Labaki, who not only co-wrote this film but also directs it, made the wonderful 2007 Caramel (also co-written with Al Haddad and Hojeily). Caramel is about four women who work at a beauty salon in Beirut and their adventures, romantic and otherwise. It was an art house hit when it played in the U.S., eventually grossing over a million dollars. This one is not doing quite as well, having made only a quarter of that by early June. It is not as much of a crowd-pleaser as Caramel, but it is a little more cinematically adventurous.

Instead of Beirut, we are in a small village in the hills, isolated by active mines from leftover wars. The film opens with a group of the village women all dressed in black moving and chanting in unison. Is this simply a village funeral ritual, or is it a musical number? We can’t tell, and I suspect that threw audiences off a bit. It turns out it may be a bit of both, since there are occasional musical numbers, some done just as voiceovers, some sung and danced. My favorite is a number the women of the village do while they are cooking up hash brownies.

The village connects to the outside by a couple of guys who have found a way through the mine fields and go out to civilization on their motorcycle to get supplies. Today they are bringing back a big screen TV and a satellite dish. The setting up of the TV reminds me very much of Amarcord (1973; story and screenplay by Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra) as we watch the assorted characters in the village react to the events. Fellini would feel right at home in this village, and we get the sense that this is going to be an ensemble piece, as was Caramel, but with more characters. Labaki not only co-wrote and directed the film, but she also plays one of the villagers. And neither as writer nor director does she privilege her character over the others. There are not a lot of actor-directors who do that.

The plot gets going when the television brings news that Muslims and Christians are fighting in other parts of Lebanon. People of both religions have gotten along fine in the village for years, but neighbors begin to look at each other suspiciously. And the women in the village are worried. They don’t want fighting to break out among their fathers, husbands, or sons. So the women try to distract the men. First up in a false miracle in the Christian church, and when that does not work, the women get the two guys with the motorcycle to arrange to have a troupe of Russian showgirls stranded in the village. That only works for a while, so the women whip up the hash brownies to put the men to sleep while the women hide their guns. Finally the Christian women dress as Muslims while the Muslim women dress as Christians. As everywhere in the movie, look at the reactions the writers have given all the characters to everything that is going on.

So what we have here is a movie that’s part Neo-realism, part musical, part political comment. You see what I mean about it being cinematically adventurous. The film gets more serious as it progresses, without getting heavy-handed, and ends with the question of the title in a very interesting context. If you missed this in theaters, that’s why both the Christian and Muslim gods made Netflix.

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood (2012. Book by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane. 370 pages)

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through HollywoodFull disclaimer: You may remember that a couple of years ago in US#54 I wrote an appreciation of the late Tom Mankiewicz, who had just passed away. I had known him at Yale and later. For the last several years of his life he was talking to Robert Crane about his life and career. Crane put it all together in this book, and Patrick McGilligan (the Backstory books), the editor of the Screen Classics series of books for the University Press of Kentucky, asked me to review the manuscript for them. I did and recommended they publish it, assuming they corrected the errors I found. They did correct them and the book has just been published, with a line from my comments as a blurb on the back. Here is a slightly revised version of some of what I said in my comments:

The reason I thought they ought to publish it is that it is one of the few books about the American movie industry that shows, not tells, what is meant by the idea that the business is one of relationships. In Mankiewicz’s case I don’t just mean that he was the son of Joe and the nephew of Herman. As he points out, you don’t succeed as a screenwriter unless you can deliver the goods. Yes, his dad’s connections got him is assistant’s gig on The Comancheros (1962), but the writing he did on his own. His family relationships may have opened doors, but he went through them. What’s more important about the book, though, is that it confirms what the industry advisory committee we have at LACC always tells us to teach our students: learn how to play well with others. If Mankiewicz was not the writer his dad was (who is?), the book makes clear he had a knack for friendship that is crucial to succeed in the business. If you are working with people 27 hours a day, 8 days a week on multi-million dollar films like the Bond or Superman films, they had better want to have you around. The book gives you a real sense of the way the Bond and Superman films were written and created. It is clear from the book that Mankiewicz’s collaborators liked his company as well as his writing ability. The downside of that is that when he left CAA, then under control of the Mike Ovitz, his former friends there caused his career harm. Mankiewicz does not go into that as deeply as he could have, I suspect because it may have been too painful for him.

Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012. Written by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner. 155 minutes.)

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Not the Hatfields and McCoys: While the entire known world was watching the History Channel’s first (officially) scripted miniseries, Hatfields and McCoys, I ended up watching HBO’s film on Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. Well, it had good bloodlines. Barbara Turner (interviewed in Backstory 5, where she mentions working on this for some years) has credits that include Petulia (1968), Georgia (1995) and Pollock (2000). Jerry Stahl’s TV credits include everything from Alf through thirtysomething to CSI. The director is Philip Kaufman, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, which he co-wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière). And the editor is the great Walter Murch of The Conversation (1974). Great bloodlines don’t always win races.

There are a lot of good things in the movie. Hemingway and Gellhorn had fabulous lives, with Gellhorn’s maybe the most interesting, as you can see from the Wikipedia entry on her. They had an affair in the late ‘30s while running around covering the Spanish Civil War, then were married during World War II. If anything, there may be too much material on the two of them for a single film. I have no idea if a longer film was considered. In this film we get some lively scenes between Hemingway and Gellhorn, nicely played by Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, respectively. Kidman is easily the best thing in the picture, for some reasons we will discuss later. Murch, who was one of the editors on Unbearable Lightness of Being, is back to cutting between staged material and documentary material, in this case scenes from Joris Ivens’s 1937 documentary about the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway was involved in the production of The Spanish Earth and eventually did the narration for it, and we cut from staged scenes of Ivens and Hemingway shooting the film to clips from the film.

The fact that the film spends the first hour on the Spanish Civil War becomes part of the problem. Americans in general always had mixed feelings about the Spanish Civil War. Frank Capra, in his 1942 documentary Prelude to War, makes no mention of it in his coverage of the events leading up to World War II. Americans on the Left supported the Loyalist cause, those on the Right supported Franco, and most Americans were perfectly satisfied to see the Communists and Fascists kill each other. Hemingway, Gellhorn and Ivens were of the Left and the script is sympathetic to that point of view, so much so that the film never really deals with the reality of the politics. In our day and age, the Leftists seem incredibly naïve for supporting the Communist position.

With the decline of the influence of Marxist theories since the fall of the Soviet Empire, we are less sympathetic with those true believers. The script does not deal with that, except for the minor presence of a Soviet agent who pulls Paco, an anti-fascist, from the front lines and eventually—we are told, but do not see it for ourselves—has him killed. That Hemingway and Gellhorn never seem to twig to the limits of the Left makes them seem rather stupid. The script could have been sharper about this, but then it might have lost our sympathy for the characters.

An even bigger problem that dates the film is Hemingway. His brand of excess machismo seems very old fashioned now. In the film he is in the process of becoming the pompous blowhard of his later years. I can see why Stahl and Turner portray him that way, since their sympathy is much more with Gellhorn. She is by far the most interesting character in the script, and Kidman captures her completely as we see her deal with Hemingway’s excesses. The writers may have been afraid that if you make Hemingway more sensitive (yes, there was a sensitive side to Hemingway; read A Farewell to Arms), then you possibly take away from her character. I suspect they could have balanced the two out better and the picture would have worked better.

The writers also make a rookie mistake in the opening minutes. We are with an older Gellhorn and she tells us that she was bad at sex. I suppose the idea was that we will then want to find out what she was good at, but I think it takes away some of our interest in her, especially in a film that is going to be about the great romance between her and Hemingway.

Mad Men (2012. Various Writers. Various lengths.)

Mad Men

A season of great scenes: “A Little Kiss” (written by Matthew Weiner), the two-hour opener of the 5th season, seemed to me to be less of a typical season opener than something you might see in midseason: a continuation of the many characters and storylines we have been following. The rest of the season has been like that as well, but Weiner and his writers have thrown us an interesting change-up this season. Much to our, and possible his, surprise, Don seems reasonably happy. Who would have guessed, A) that he would actually have married Megan, and B) they would be happy? Yes, there have been ups and downs, but they sure get along a hell of a lot better than Don and Betty did. So the overall tension of the entire season has been: can this happiness last? Everything we have seen in the first four seasons suggests it won’t; but it does. Much to everybody’s surprise. (Especially the Brits. Several British critics think this season jumped the shark.)

One thing that struck me about this season, and it is apparent in “A Little Kiss,” is that we have had a season of great scenes. Weiner starts the episode with a group of white guys dumping bags of water on civil rights marchers on the streets below. They aren’t “our” white guys, so why are we watching this? Because it leads to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hiring a black woman receptionist. Who is immediately ignored by Weiner and the other writers for the rest of the season. We suspect she will play a bigger role next season, but I still think it’s a bit sloppy of the show not to do more with her now.

The most talked about scene in “A Little Kiss” was Megan singing the French song “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Who knew that Megan had that in her? Or that she would do it in front of everybody? At a 40th birthday party for Don that Don did not want? So we get a scene that’s very sexy (Megan singing and dancing), funny (the reactions of the other guests), and dramatic (we know that Don’s not pleased).

Dream scenes are always tricky to do, like surrealism in general. They are either too obvious, or too obscure. The one Victor Levin and Weiner cook up for “Mystery Date” is one that works. Early in the episode Don and Megan meet Andrea, someone Don has known intimately before. Andrea flirts with Don until he mentions Megan is his wife. Later Don has gone home sick, but Andrea arrives at his front door. He rushes her out the backdoor. Well, yes, we could believe that would happen in real life. Then we have some scenes with others, then Don wakes up and finds Andrea in his bedroom, and they start to make out. Well, yes, we’ll believe that as well, knowing Don. More scenes with others, then Don wakes up again as Andrea is leaving. She says they will do it again…and he strangles her and pushes her body under the bed. Well, no, we don’t necessarily think Don would do that, but we have seen all these “real” scenes of them before this, so maybe he did. And then he wakes up again and it’s morning. Andrea’s body is not there and Megan has been there all night. What the writers are doing is what Fellini does with great skill in 8 ½ (1963): make you think you know where you are, and then pulling the rug out from under you. Fred would be proud.

In “Far Away Places,” written by Semi Chellas and Weiner, there are two striking scenes. The first is Don and Megan on a “fact-finding mission” to a Howard Johnson’s, not their normal habitat. This leads to a confrontation between then, since Megan doesn’t know when she is a co-worker, and when she is a wife. He leaves her in the parking lot and then cannot find her. The scene is a nice use of a location to add to the unease we feel. The second striking sequence is Roger and Jane, his younger wife, taking LSD at a party. Unlike so many LSD movies of the ‘60s, the writers handle this with great restraint. There are unnerving elements like there were in “Mystery Date,” but they focus on the details of what Roger thinks he sees rather than any flashy psychedelic special effects. Restraint is something Mad Men has always been good at.

In “At the Codfish Ball” by Jonathan Igla, the writer builds the entire episode towards the scene at the end at the dinner. Megan’s parents, Dr. Emile and Marie Calvet, have come to town, partly to meet Don and partly to be there when he gets an award from the American Cancer Society for his infamous letter about tobacco. Emile is a French intellectual who believes in Marx and learns his book has not been picked up for publication. Marie’s a little more down to earth. Sally, Don’s daughter, is going to the dinner, and trying to dress above her age, which Don vetoes. At the dinner Don is told privately that even though he is getting an award, no big companies will hire SCDP because of his letter. Emile asks what Don does all day, and Peggy starts to talk to him about his work, saying that it should be better known. When she gets him hooked, Don tells him, “That’s what I do all day.” Emile is not as smart as they are. Roger flirts with Marie, and they end up in another room, with Marie going down on him. Sally happens to open the door and sees them. Eventually everybody is back at the table, looking glum. Later Sally talks to Glen, her creepy friend from back home. He asks how the big city is. She replies, “Dirty.”

“The Other Woman,” written by Chellas and Weiner, starts a build to its best scene by having Pete tell Joan that Herb, the head of the Jaguar dealers, would guarantee SCDP would get the Jaguar account if she would sleep with him. We see it discussed, and Joan shoots Pete down the first time he mentions it. Don rejects the idea, but the other partners figure out what it will cost in terms of money AND in terms of making Joan a partner. The great scene is Don going to Joan’s house to try to talk her out of doing it. He does have morals after all. She is non-committal and we discover later that she has already slept with Herb by the time Don talks to her. So when she comes into the partners meeting the next day, he knows what’s happened and there is a nice exchange of reaction shots between Don and Joan. This episode also gives us a scene we have been waiting years for: Peggy telling Don she is quitting. When she leaves the company, smiling to herself, she gets into the elevator. Given that several episodes before we have seen Don staring into an empty elevator shaft, we half expect her to fall to her death, but this is not L.A. Law and she is not Rosalind Shays.

“Commissions and Fees,” written by André Jacquemetton & Maria Jacquemetton, gives us two great Lane Pryce scenes. He has embezzled money from SCDP and finally been caught. He and Don have a showdown as Lane begs not to be fired. The scene is a perfect example of my mantra of writing for performance. The other scene pays off a bit that has been running through the attempt to get the Jaguar account. Everybody has pointed out that the car is unreliable. Lane has a Jaguar and tries to kill himself by putting a hose from the exhaust pipe into the car. But the car won’t start. Always steal from the best; see Walter Neff and the car in Double Indemnity (1944; screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder) for the forerunner of this scene.

In “The Phantom,” written by Igla and Weiner, we get a nice scene where Don and Peggy run into each other at a movie. They still have the same respect for each they have always had, but they are more relaxed with each other now they are not working together. This episode has one of the best final scenes of any episode. Megan has left the ad business and has tried to go back to acting. Don has been resistant. When a friend of hers asks Megan to help her get a gig in a commercial Don is doing based on Beauty and the Beast, Megan pitches herself. Don turns her down, but then looks at a screen test she had made. His reaction tells us he is falling in love again, and we cut to the set with Megan in the part. As they get ready to shoot Don walks away into the dark and into a bar with a Japanese décor. Well, of course; the music has been the lead-in to the title song from You Only Live Twice, which was set in Japan, and the lyrics come up as he comes into the bar. What better song for this season, as Don is into his second, or maybe third, or fourth life? We get quick clips of Pete at home with headphones on and Peggy in what I took to be her apartment, but which Weiner said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times was hotel room. She watches a couple of dogs screwing outside the window. And we get Roger. Standing naked in front of a hotel room window, looking as though he might jump, although the look on his face tells us he’s tried the LSD again. We come back to the bar, and a woman asks Don if he is alone. His reaction tells us he really does not know how to answer that these days. He’s been “alone” all his life, but now he’s not so much anymore.

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

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Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

1.5

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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