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Understanding Screenwriting #97: Snow White and the Huntsman, Brave, Bernie, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #97: Snow White and the Huntsman, Brave, Bernie, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Snow White and the Huntsman; Brave; Turn Me on, Dammit!; Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding; Safety Not Guaranteed; Bernie,; An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck; Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron; The Conspirator; Bunheads, but first…

Fan Mail: Generally by the time Keith posts one column I have the next one written. I then wait a couple of days to read the comments, add my comments in this “Fan Mail” section and send it. On #95 I sent it off without yet having seen the very interesting comments by “DevilMonkey.” He had been sent a link to that column by a friend who thought that since DM didn’t like superhero movies, “it’s practically made to order for you.” DM thought that column was merely “okay,” but since he remembered reading my book Understanding Screenwriting, he decided to read some of the past columns and ended up reading all of them. That’s above and beyond the call of duty, and if I gave out medals DM would get one.

He particularly liked the Sturges Project and would like to see me do one on Billy Wilder. The advantage to doing Sturges that way is that he had that four-year period of great creativity, while Wilder was wonderful off and on for thirty years. But there are some Wilder films I really want to do. I got a DVD a couple of years ago of Ace in the Hole (1951) that I still have not watched and that I want to do in the column. What other Wilder films to pick? The list goes on and on.

DM raised the very interesting point that I have not done a lot of films from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He asks, “Is it a silent commentary on your sentiments about films from that era, a matter of personal taste, or just a question of priority and time?” I first wrote that the answer is all of the above, which is usually the best answer to a question like that. But I do like films of the ‘60s and ‘70s very much. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, and covered in depth in my Understanding Screenwriting book) and Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963) are two of my favorite movies. And of course Coppola’s two, The Godfather (1972) and The Conversation (1974). I think part of the reason I had not dealt with the films of those two decades is that I dealt with them a lot both as a historian and writer (look at the Annotated Study list in my 1982 Screenwriting book) and as a teacher. At one of Coppola’s many bankruptcy auctions we picked up a gorgeous 35mm print of The Conversation, which I showed nearly every semester for thirty years. I covered several films from the period in my screenwriting class, showing them in sequences over the course of the semester and discussing them in screenwriting terms. So I sort of felt I had dealt with those. But I still have my notes. And scripts for some of them. Did you know that the “dream scene” of Harry and the wife (Cindy Williams) in The Conversation was a “real” scene in the screenplay? Or that Harry originally had a wicked sense of humor? So now that DM has provoked me, you may look forward to more films from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Oh, like any good writer, DM saved the punchline until last: it turns out he had not read the book Understanding Screenwriting at all, but something with a similar title. I assume he is making up for that lack in his life even as we speak.

And now, on to the comments on #96: Matt Maul had a different reading of the last scene of the season finale of Mad Men. Matt thought that Don was walking away from the commercial shoot unhappy rather than satisfied. I am not sure there is the visual evidence for that in the shot, but it’s perfectly possible to read it that way. Which is the sort of ambiguity that we love about the show. David Ehrenstein noted that they did give the black secretary a nice scene with Peggy. It was a nice scene, but I still wish there had been more of them. Ah, well, that’s what next season is for. Maybe she’ll become romantically involved with Don. Or with Joan.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, screen story by Evan Daugherty. 127 minutes.)

This is the script Tarsem Singh should have directed: You may remember that one reason I whacked Mirror, Mirror in US#94 is that I did not think Tarsem Singh was the right director for it. He did not handle the comedy well, and the producers hadn’t provided enough production values to make it live up to his visual sense. There is hardly any comedy in this script, and the producers give the director Rupert Sanders the kind of production values Singh would work wonders with. Sanders works enough wonders that when I first saw the trailer, I assumed it was Singh’s film.

I mentioned in my comments on Mirror, Mirror that the Snow White tale is “one hell of a scary story,” and this script is true to that. Mirror, Mirror was trying to be true to its idea of Disney, but this one is determined to make it different. We start with a raging battle sequence (Sanders obviously loves Kurosawa), and then discover exactly how sick a puppy Queen Ravenna is. Unlike the queen in Mirror, Mirror, she is more a terror than a diva. She’s played by Charlize Theron, who brings the same kind of intense evil that she brought to her Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Sanders does let her get a little too Norma Desmond in a couple of scenes, but this is his first feature and he’ll learn better. The seven dwarves are very minor characters here and basically forest trash, neither cutesy nor Robin Hood-like thieves.

I got on Mirror, Mirror’s case because it turned Snow White into a warrior princess in a clumsy montage sequence. She ends up a warrior princess here, but we get no montage. She starts out smart. We first see the adult Snow in prison, where she has been languishing for years. She’s inventive and figures out how to escape from the castle, so we know right away she’s no wuss. At the end, she dons a suit of armor to lead the attack on the castle, but the armor is a mistake on the filmmakers’ part. As several critics have pointed out, it makes her look like Joan of Arc, which takes us out of Snow’s story. Like I say, Sanders will learn. He also lets Kristin Stewart play Snow with a little too much of her trademarked sulk. It’s well over an hour before she shows us she has a captivating smile, but then we don’t see it that often. Like Sanders, she’ll learn.

Brave (2012. Screenplay by Mark Andrews & Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi, story by Brenda Chapman. 100 minutes.)

Brave

Why discuss the ones that are only not-quite-so good?: When I was trying to get my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays published, one publisher who does a line of books it would have fit very nicely into objected to my writing about less-than-good and bad screenplays. Why not just write about the good ones? As I told him, and subsequently added to the Introduction, “After all, that’s why medical schools study disease and why business schools study the Edsel and New Coke. Part of the purpose of including the less-than-perfect scripts is to train you to look for problems, so that you can do that in your own scripts.” In this case, the film is by the GAPS (the Geniuses At Pixar), whose batting average is incredibly high, mostly because they know how to develop scripts properly. See my comments on any of the Pixar films of the last four years. So what went wrong here?

The story begins with Brenda Chapman, who worked on the stories for Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994) and Chicken Run (2000), so we are not talking about an amateur here. She wanted to do a film about a mother-daughter relationship similar to her own with her daughter. OK, Princess Merida is a tomboy in Scotland in the Middle Ages and she defies her mother’s wishes that she femme up to try to make a good marriage. Merida would much rather be an archer, the occupation of choice this cinematic season. Merida breaks up an archery contest among the dweebish sons of the neighboring kingdoms for her hand by beating them in the contest and declaring that therefore she can choose her own husband. Queen Elinor is none too happy and they argue. The dialogue between mother and daughter is very generic mother-and-daughter stuff. I have no idea if it was that way in Chapman and Mecchi’s screenplay, which in spite of the order in the credits came first, or if it has been flattened out in the rewrites. Merida goes off into the woods, where she lets a witch smooth talk her into putting a spell on Elinor. Merida just wants her to change, but the witch turns her into a bear. Which given that dad, King Fergus, had a fight with a bear years before and lost part of his leg to it, may make for awkward moments around the castle. Things work out in the end.

Chapman, who became the first woman to direct an animated feature with Prince of Egypt (1998), started directing Brave. But she was replaced by Mark Andrews, whose major credit seems to be the screenplay for this year’s John Carter. I have seen no reasons given, since everybody at Pixar appears to have signed confidentiality clauses. We may have to wait twenty years until they all write their memoirs. If the mother-daughter stuff is Chapman’s, the subplots about the legends of the kingdom are probably Andrews and Purcell’s, and they don’t help. As the film develops, it becomes more and more unfocused. When we want more of Merida and Elinor, we get instead the mythology of the kingdom. I also suspect that a lot of the comic slapstick comes from the guys rather than Chapman. I love Billy Connolly, who voices Fergus, but a little of him goes a long way. The characterization of the secondary characters is not up to Pixar at its best. Usually the group efforts at Pixar work out, here they don’t.

It being a Pixar film, there are some nice things. The animators give Merida great red hair, and Elinor as a bear has some nice reactions. There are also some good lines of dialogue, as in Elinor’s instruction to Merida that “A princess does not chortle.” And the film is also subversive in that Merida does not end up with a man. So she can chortle all she wants.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (2011. Screenplay by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, based on the novel by Olaug Nilseen. 76 minutes.)

Turn Me On, Dammit!

A different take on mothers and daughters: This is a live-action Norwegian film, not an animated American one. So unlike Disney and Pixar, we very early on get Alma, a 15-year-old girl, masturbating while listening to a phone sex line. The scene is fairly explicit, as is the rest of the film. Because that’s what it’s about: Alma is a very horny teenage girl. She keeps having sexual fantasies about almost everybody she meets. Then at a party, Artur, whom she likes and fantasizes about in very romantic ways, comes up to her outside a party and nudges her with his penis. Alma makes the mistake of telling her two best friends, the sisters Saralou and Ingrid, about it. Ingrid, the blonde, tells everybody what Alma said, Artur denies it, and Alma is a social outcast among her peers. Eventually she runs away from her small town to Oslo, where she stays with Saralou and Ingrid’s sister. She gets some perspective on her situation and goes back and confronts Arthur, who has missed her. She tells him he had his chance with her and blew it. I would have been happy if the film ended there, but he apologizes publicly and she takes him back. Well, she is fifteen after all.

So what about Alma’s mother? She’s a single mom in her forties and just as fed up with Alma as Elinor is with Merida. Mom is really pissed when the phone sex line bills come in, but look at her reaction when she answers the phone and it is Steig, the phone sex guy, with Alma’s free call for the month. The mother-daughter relationship is much more textured here than it is in Brave.

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (2011. Written by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert. 96 minutes.)

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding

And yet another mother-daughter movie: I like movies that start off fast, but this is ridiculous. Mark tells his wife Diane he wants a divorce. We have no idea why. We see them at a dinner party, but without any indication of marital troubles. So Diane packs up her kids Zoe, who is in college, and Jake, who is in his teens, and takes them off to spend a couple of weeks with her mother, Grace. Oh, goodie, a visit to Grandma’s. Well, yes, but Diane has not seen Grace in twenty years. We learn later that Diane, an uptight lawyer, called the cops on her Mom for selling weed at Grace’s wedding. So why, of all places, does Diane go there? We have no idea. Diane, as written, is so opaque a character that even the great Catherine Keener cannot bring her to life.

Grace lives in Woodstock, New York, and is an unreconstructed hippie. And that’s all we get about her character. The film seems to admire Grace, so much so that it skims over Grace’s peccadilloes, which are many and varied. She is played by the great Jane Fonda, and there is not a lot she can do with the part. Jake is an obnoxious twerp who videos everything. We eventually see the film he puts together at a young filmmakers screening, and it is awful. I’ve seen bad student films, but this takes the cake. Needless to say, the audience in the movie loves it. Zoe is the only character given more than one dimension and the great Elizabeth Olsen runs with it.

This is the kind of script where every one of the three visitors almost immediately meets a perfect mate for themselves. There are some problems, but with one exception they are easily solvable. The exception is the guy Grace fixes Diane up with in a “what was she thinking?” moment.

The movie is relentlessly nostalgic about the ‘60s and about Woodstock in particular, but it has the feeling of a nostalgia created by people who were not there, but wish they had been. Created rather experienced.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012. Written by Derek Connolly. 86 minutes.)

Safety Not Guaranteed

Good up to a point: This is one of those films that got great acclaim at Sundance, and as we have talked about before, sometimes films play better at film festivals than they do in real life. This may be one of those, although it has opened reasonably well in a limited number of theaters. And it is delightful up to its final scene, although the final scene was apparently what got people cheering at Sundance.

The script was inspired by a joke ad the editor of Backwoods Home Magazine inserted, asking for someone to time travel with him. The ad not only went viral, but showed up on The Tonight Show in one of Jay Leno’s “Headlines” bits. So Connolly and director Colin Treverrow came up with a script. Jeff, a reporter for Seattle Magazine, spots the ad and pitches the idea of a story on it. Great, crusading investigative reporter at work. Not really. He wants to go where the ad was placed to make contact with a woman he had a fling with in high school. He leaves most of the heavy lifting to Darius, his intern. She is a twenty-something woman with no major goals in life—oh,crap, Lena Dunham’s been here as well. Well, no, and this is one of the freshest elements in the script. Darius is smart, does not mumble a bit, and is willing to work her tail off. And best of all, she does not whine. What Jeff has in mind is that while he tracks down his old flame, Darius can charm Kenneth, the guy from the ad. And you have to love Darius when she accuses Jeff of “dangling my vagina like bait.” Kenneth is strange, but we don’t know if he is just paranoid or if people are out to get him. He’s built a time machine, but neither we nor Darius have any idea if it will work. I had my suspicions, since I didn’t see any flux capacitor on it. It is well into the picture when we learn he wants to go back to save the woman he was in love with, who was killed in an accident. That means that Darius and Kenneth are probably not going to be an item. As in Salmon Fishing in Yemen (see US#94), Connolly has given them a strong reason not to fall in love. At least until we find out the truth about the other woman.

The film retains its charming quirkiness until the final scene, which becomes a very conventional Hollywood ending. The film has beautifully avoided anything conventional up until that point. I should let you know that the audience I saw the film with, unlike the Sundance audience, did not stand up and cheer. But they did not boo, either.

Bernie (2011. Screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on a magazine article by Hollandsworth. 104 minutes.)

Bernie

Actors and real people: The story is a true-life tale. Bernie Tiede was an assistant mortician in East Texas (and the film has a wonderful explanation, part-narrated, part-animated, about the different regions of Texas) who became friends with cranky old widow Marjorie Nugent. They had massages together, took trips, and he waited on her hand and foot…until he killed her. And put her body in the freezer in her house. He told people she had moved to a retirement home, but since nobody liked her, including her relatives, nobody checked his story out. He was eventually found out, arrested and convicted of murder.

Which the small town he lived in hated. Just hated. They loved Bernie because he was such a sweet, caring guy, not only to Marjorie but to everybody. He was a pillar of the community. And there are still people in the town who do not think Bernie killed her, even though he confessed.

Linklater and Hollandsworth are Texans and understand the story and the people. They have created great characters for the actors to play. Jack Black gives the performance of his life as Bernie, and Matthew McConaughey comes close as the prosecutor. Shirley MacLaine does not have a lot to do or say as Marjorie, but nearly sixty years of experience means she gets the most out of it. And the rest of the cast is very good as well.

As are the real townspeople. Linklater and Hollandsworth have intercut interviews with people who knew Bernie, Marjorie and the others. Some critics thought it took us out of the story, but I disagree. The comments are so funny, so interesting, and so revealing that I kept waiting for more of them. We have talked several times before about how characters in documentaries are often more interesting than those in fiction films. That’s the brilliant part of the script and Linklater’s direction: the tone in the writing (and acting and direction) of the fictional characters and the townspeople match beautifully. In Steel Magnolias (1989), screenwriter Robert Harling and director Herbert Ross never managed to make the pieces fit. You were always aware of the difference between the STARS and the people from the town. Not so here. Everybody working on this movie was on the same page, which does not happen as often as it should. I was talking recently with Kevin Tent, a former student of mine and one of the great contemporary film editors. He was about to start doing some editorial doctoring on a feature. I told him I hoped everybody was on the same page. He laughed and said, “They never are.” In Bernie they are.

In the end credits we see not only the actors, but the townspeople, so we can finally tell who is who. Stick around to the end, since there is a shot of the real Bernie in prison. And then the camera pans off him and onto Jack Black. You can see Black studying Bernie like a bug under a microscope. Whatever Black learned in his prison visit, he put to great use.

An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck

Richard Zanuck

Producer Richard Zanuck, who died on July 13th, knew how movies are made. Well, of course, but you would be surprised how many producers, including some very successful ones, do not have a single, freaking clue how movies get made. Richard was the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, the legendary head of 20th Century-Fox. Dick grew up on the Fox lot, literally. He would hide out from his dad on the backlot. Dick spent his summer breaks from high school and college working in various departments at the studio. He produced his first film Compulsion in 1958, and four years later when Darryl returned to take over the studio after others had run it into the ground, he made Dick his head of production at the age of 28. And then fired him eight years later, partially to save his own job and partially because Dick had fired Darryl’s girlfriend.

At this point in his life, Dick could have turned into a bum and lived off his trust funds. But he didn’t. He worked as an executive at Warners, then went into partnership with David Brown, whose talent was spotting good material. Even though Dick went into the same business as his father, his talents were a little different. Darryl focused on getting the script right and crapping all over directors. Dick was less a script guy and more a supporter of directors. It was Dick Zanuck who took The Sugarland Express (1974) project into Lew Wasserman with a television director doing his first feature film. Wasserman did not like the project, predicting it would not be a hit, but he told Zanuck, “Dick, I’m not making this deal with you because I think I know more about producing than you do. Go make the picture. Why would I hire you if I didn’t trust your judgment?” Later Dick told the director, “Think of me as your bodyguard.” The picture was a flop but the director went on to make a number of films for the studio, including his next one, Jaws. (The quotes are from a Patrick Goldstein column in the Los Angeles Times.)

Jaws, which Zanuck and Brown also produced, was a troubled shoot, and the studio kept suggesting that they should send some executives out to the location to supervise. Zanuck showed he knew how to talk to studio people in terms they would understand. He told them, “If I see a single Lear Jet at the airport, I am closing down the production.” (Variations of this line show up in several of the Zanuck obituaties.) No planes arrived and they completed the picture.

In the item above on Bernie, I mentioned that it is essential in making a movie to have everybody on the same page. The producer’s job is to make sure that happens, and Richard Zanuck was a master at it.

Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron

Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron died recently within a week of each other. As you may guess, I had my reservations about Sarris, and if you have read this column you know I had reservations about Ephron (see US#31 for my take on Julie & Julia).

Sarris of course was the American promoter of the auteur theory, which made everybody think the director was the only one who mattered on a film. Sarris was not quite as doctrinaire as many of those who followed in his footsteps. He did a nice preface to Richard Corliss’s 1974 book Talking Pictures, which tried to do for screenwriters what Sarris’s 1968 The American Cinema did for directors. Talking Pictures is interesting to look at in comparison with The American Cinema. Sarris rated directors in wholesale lots, with only a page or two at the most on each one. Corliss did fewer writers, but went into them in a lot more depth than Sarris did directors. The thing is that you can do that with writers because of all the nuances of content they provide. The Los Angeles Times had a quote in its obituary of Sarris in which Sarris says, “The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much the what as the how.” But the what is more important than that quote gives it credit for. At the end of my Sturges Project, I noted that in the section on Sturges in The American Cinema, “like so much auteur writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarris spends more time writing about Sturges’s screenwriting (character, dialogue, structure, etc.) than about his directing. What does that tell you?” But at least Sarris began to get people thinking seriously about film.

Nora Ephron was the daughter of two screenwriters, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose credits include There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Carousel (1956). Their 1961 stage play Take Her, She’s Mine is about a daughter, based on Nora, going off to college. You could believe the character Mollie in the play (played in her dazzling Broadway debut by a very young Elizabeth Ashley) will grow up to be Nora Ephron. (Even though the 1963 film of the play is by my man Nunnally Johnson, it is not a patch on the play. Sandra Dee as Nora Ephron!? Enough said.) Nora first came to fame as a writer of essays, and then moved into novels and eventually screenplays. I must admit I generally liked her essays, at least the non-food ones, better than her scripts. Part of that was her obsession in the screenplays with food, and also her tendency to write neurotic women characters that we were supposed to love because they were neurotic rather than in spite of it. She could of course be very funny, both in the essays and the scripts. When a friend of mine, upon hearing of Ephron’s death, asked me what we would do without her, I replied that we would probably eat less well and definitely not laugh as much. Not a bad legacy.

And here’s another bit of her legacy. In spite of Sarris’ efforts to erase the work of writers, Ephron got a long obituary in the Los Angeles Times. And she is the first screenwriter I know whose obit made the front page of the Times.

The Conspirator (2010. Screenplay by James Solomon, story by James Solomon & Gregory Bernstein. 122 minutes.)

The Conspirator

The daughter of the prisoner of Shark Island: One day in 1935 Darryl Zanuck called Nunnally Johnson into his office. Zanuck handed him a magazine clipping about Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd was the doctor who had set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after Booth assassinated Lincoln. Mudd was brought up on conspiracy charges, and as Johnson said later, “The trial had brought in a kind of Scottish verdict, ’Not proven, but just for the hell of it, we’ll give him six years for being around there.’” Mudd was sent to a prison in the Dry Tortugas, and after he helped deal with an epidemic of yellow fever, his case was reopened and he was released. Zanuck asked Johnson, “Does this sound like a picture to you?”

Johnson replied, “It might.”

Zanuck said, “Why don’t you look into it and see if we can get something?” (The quotes are from the oral history interview I did with Johnson in the late ‘60s.) Johnson did and came up with the script for the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island. It was a good film and a substantial hit.

Dr. Mudd has a walk-on, well, more of a sit-in, in The Conspirator, which deals with the trial of another of the defendants, Mary Surratt. Mudd is identified as one of the prisoners, but the focus of the newer film is on Surratt, who ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C. where some of the plotting of the assassination took place. Her son, John, was involved in the plotting, but she probably was not. Her case is first taken by Reverdy Johnson, a Southern politican who sided with the Union in the Late Unpleasantness, as it is known in the South. His second chair is a Union officer named Frederick Aiken, but Johnson leaves the case entirely to him, figuring that Johnson’s southern accent will prejudice the case. Thanks a lot, fella, since the emotions are running high over Lincoln’s death and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, is determined to hang as many of the conspirators as possible.

Johnson in his script gets through all of the setup very quickly and economically, which is true of the picture as a whole. It runs 95 minutes. It was one of the only pictures Johnson wrote for which he kept a copy of a review, and he kept it because the critic talked about director John Ford’s narrative quickness, mentioning several specific cuts. The reason Johnson kept the review is that all the cuts had been by Zanuck over Ford’s objections. The Conspirator gets off to a very confusing start. We suspect we are watching the lead-up to the assassination and other related activities, but it is very unclear as to who is doing what to whom. Johnson has a great sympathy for all the characters, even those trying Mudd’s case, whereas Solomon makes it quite clear the court is made up of bad guys. In several dialogue scenes Solomon is beating us over the head with the connections between the historical case and our contemporary handling of suspected terrorists. It makes the film a lot preachier than it needs to be.

Dr. Mudd is a much more sympathetic character than Mary Surratt, at least partly because he is innocent. With Surratt we never quite know. We are supposed to get deeply involved with Aiken’s attempts to get her as fair a trial as he can, but given how little we know about her, it is difficult. In dramatic terms, it doesn’t help that Dr. Mudd gets “redeemed” and she gets hanged.

Bunheads (2012. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino & Lamar Damon. Various writers. 30 minutes.)

Bunheads

What’s the franchise?: Amy Sherman-Palladino was the creator and showrunner for The Gilmore Girls, one of my favorite television shows of the last decade. So I was willing to give her a shot with this one. It began with a script by Damon about a high school drill team. By the time it made the air on the ABC Family channel, it was about a Vegas showgirl who winds up in a small town teaching at a ballet school. The pilot, with a story by Damon and Palladino, and a teleplay by Palladino, begins in Las Vegas where Michelle, a showgirl, is coming to the end of her career and for a variety of reasons marries a nice guy who has been sending her flowers. He takes her away from Vegas to the small town where he lives. With his mother. Whom he has not told about the marriage. She is not happy. So the series is going to be about the three of them learning to adjust. Nope. At the end of the pilot, Hubbell is killed in a car accident. Too bad, since he was played by Alan Ruck, who has a nice sweetness that played off well against his mother and his wife.

In the second episode, “For Fanny,” also written by Sherman-Palladino, the mother (Fanny) is focused on arranging the funeral service for Hubbell. Focused as in using it to avoid her feelings about her son dying. So the series is going to be about Fanny and Michelle learning to get along. Maybe, but at the end of this episode, Fanny and Michelle learn that Hubbell has changed his will and left everything to Michelle. Mom is not happy. In the third episode, “Inherit the Wind,” written by Sarah Dunn, Fanny yells at Michelle a lot. Fanny is played by Kelly Bishop who was wonderful as the mother-in-law on The Gilmore Girls, but only in relatively small doses. Here she is center stage and in full rant all the time.

Michelle is played by Sutton Foster, a Tony-winning star of musical comedies. She is terrific onstage, but she is a little overemphatic here. And to be blunt about it, the camera does not love her. At least not in the way it loves Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel and Melissa McCarthy. Her wisecracks could make her hold her own with Bishop, but she has not eased into the role, at least not yet. Folks, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

After I had given up on the show and written the above, I was talking with my granddaughter about the series. She continued watching after the first three episodes and thought it had begun to settle down. So I watched the fourth episode, “Better Luck Next Year,” written by Daniel Palladino, and half of the fifth, “Money for Nothing,” written by Amy Welsh. I love my granddaughter but those problems mentioned above are still there.

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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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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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

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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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.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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.

Yeah.

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.

Right.

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.

Yeah.

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.

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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.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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 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.

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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

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

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

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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.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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!

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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.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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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.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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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.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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