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.)
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.)
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.)
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)
Full 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.)
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.)
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.
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness
The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.2.5
Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.
Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.
If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.
Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd
The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.3.5
In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.
The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.
As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.
To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.
Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
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