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Understanding Screenwriting #98: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Newsroom, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #98: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Newsroom, & More

Coming Up In This Column: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Frank Pierson: An Appreciation, Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton (play), War Horse (play), The Exorcist (play), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Anger Management, The Newsroom, Political Animals, Twenty Twelve (and the Skydiving Queen), but first…

Fan Mail: I trust you all marked it down in your diaries that David Ehrenstein and I actually agreed on a film, in this case that Bernie is a terrific movie.

To Rome with Love (2012. Written by Woody Allen. 112 minutes.)

Four—count ’em, four—shaggy dog stories: Unlike last year’s Midnight in Paris, this year’s Woody Allen movie is what used to be called a portmanteau film. Instead of following one character’s adventures, we get several stories in one film. While such earlier films of the type as We’re Not Married and O.Henry’s Full House, both from 1952, and which I wrote about in US#34 and US#40, respectively, tells each story successively, Allen intercuts between all four. Like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), only better and funnier. The closest modern equivalent is Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003).

Love Actually follows nine separate stories, a rather neat balancing act, and Curtis is talented enough and witty enough to make the brief amount of time we spend on each story pay off. Allen, working at greater length on each of his four, manages to make them all pay off as well, partly because he doesn’t dawdle. But then Allen has never been much of a dawdler. Check the running times of his other films. At 112 minutes, this is one of his longest, but it never feels too long. Allen’s characterizations are not much deeper than Curtis’s, but the plotting is. Even though there are striking differences in the stories, the lightness of tone Allen brings as both writer and director makes them all seem part of the same film. The tone is that of a shaggy dog story, which all of them are in varying degrees.

The most conventional of the stories is the one Allen appears in. He’s a retired opera director who goes to Rome with his sharp-tongued wife (Judy Davis, in her fifth Allen film, knows how to deliver his stuff) to meet their daughter and her Italian fiance. Allen’s Jerry discovers that the fiance’s father has a beautiful operatic voice. The father does not want to sing in public, but Jerry insists. You could see this ending either badly or with a conventional happy ending. Allen’s ending? Since the father can only sing in the shower, Jerry, who has been established as a director of productions that were “ahead of their time,” creates a production of Rigoletto in which the father is constantly in the shower. Well, I suppose in the opera world it’s possible…

The story of an ordinary worker, Leopoldo, who becomes a celebrity for no apparent reason, is the sort of fable that Allen might have done as a story in The New Yorker. We never learn why he is suddenly the object of attention of the paparazzi, who have only gotten worse since Fellini introduced them to us in La Dolce Vita (1960). Then when the paparazzi move on to the next big thing, Leopoldo is relieved, then begins to miss it, then adjusts. That’s a nicely developed ending. The story is a combination of La Dolce Vita and Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). Speaking of Fellini, Leopoldo is played by Roberto Benigni, who has not been this good since he appeared in the Master’s final film, The Voice of the Moon, in 1990.

The third story is Allen’s re-write of Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), which had a story by Fellini, Antonioni (one of Antonioni’s early, funny ones?), and Tullio Pinelli, with a screenplay by Fellini, Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. With the exception of Antonioni, who did not like what Fellini did with the story, the others writers became the heart of Fellini’s writing team. In Fellini’s version a young couple from the provinces come to Rome but lose track of each other as the wife deliberately goes out to find “The White Sheik,” an actor/model who appears in photo-novels (comic books with photographs instead of drawings). She does and he tries to seduce her. Meanwhile the husband has a run-in with a winsome prostitute named Cabiria. Cabiria is played by Fellini’s wife, Guilietta Masina, and he would later created a full-length film for her about the character, The Nights of Cabiria (1957). The White Shiek, Fellini’s first solo directing effort, was not a hit with either the public or the critics, the latter because they were still in the thrall of neorealism. It is a charmer of movie, and Allen’s version has some of the same charm. Allen has the young wife just trying to find a beauty salon to get her hair done when she stumbles on a film shoot with her favorite actor, who like The White Shiek tries to seduce her. Allen brings in a handsome young robber as well. And the husband has more than a run-in with Anna, a prostitute who has been mistakenly sent to his hotel room. She has to pretend to be his wife while he meets his stuffy relatives and businessmen, some of whom know Anna professionally. Hers, not theirs. Allen’s version, which runs shorter than Fellini’s feature, is more densely plotted, which makes it more of a shaggy dog story. But Allen does drop one very Fellini touch. In The White Shiek the young couple has to find each other because they have an appointment to meet the Pope.

The shaggy dog element in the fourth story is its very casual surrealism. Jerry, a young man studying to be an architect in Rome, happens to meet in the street John, an older, established architect. John spent some time in Rome when he was about Jack’s age, and he offers Jack advice on his love life, seeming to know what’s going to happen. Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, has invited her flaky actress friend Monica, to stay with them. John sees exactly where that is going to go. Then Monica casually uses a phrase we have heard John use before. Hmm. Then we get more subtle hints and finally figure it out that Jack is John’s younger self, and John knows what will happen with Monica. OK, so John is imaginary, only in Jack’s mind. Only he’s not. Monica and others talk to him as well. I can give you ten reasons why that should not work (film is a realistic medium, Allen changes “the rules” from scene to scene, etc.), but it does.

To Rome with Love is not as thematically rich as Midnight in Paris. Paris dealt with all kinds of issues: literature, nostalgia for the past, and Allen’s inability to get beyond the East Coast attitude toward screenwriting; see US#75 for details. It managed to be charming as well. Rome is just as charming, if not more so.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012. Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Behn Zeitlin, based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar. 93 minutes.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Oh, crap…more water buffaloes: I had a bit of difficulty getting into this film, for an odd reason. Before the movies there were the usual art-house trailers. One was about a young male writer coming of age (The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2012]). Another was about a young male writer whose female creation comes to life (Ruby Sparks [2012]). A third was a potentially interesting thriller about getting the Iranian hostages who hide in the Canadian embassy out of the country (Argo [2012]). But the one that made the hairs on my neck stand up was for a film that I did not think was already on my radar. It turned out it sort of was, having shown at Sundance under the title, The Surrogate, but the Variety review did not capture its striking qualities. It is currently called The Sessions and due for release in the fall. The trailer starts with an immobile young man asking a priest if it is all right for him to have sex. The priest, a wonderfully shaggy William Macy, considers it and says yes. Well, that’s not your standard Hero’s Journey crap, is it? So the priest and the man’s friends arrange to get him a sex surrogate. And who shows up in that role but Helen Hunt. No, not the grumpy Helen Hunt from the last ten years who couldn’t even direct herself properly in And Then She Found Me (2007), but the beautiful, charming and sexy Helen Hunt from Mad About You, As Good As It Gets (1997), and the slightly similar film The Waterdance (1992). And then the trailer gets sharper and funnier and livelier. At the end of the three minutes or so, that I was the movie I most wanted to see…now.

But hey, I had paid my money for Beasts and was determined to give it a shot, given the great reviews. We are in a poverty-stricken island off New Orleans nicknamed The Bathtub, an ironic touch since it does not look as though anybody in the movie ever saw a bathtub, let alone used one. We get a lot of the squalor of the area: the sort-of houses, leftover house trailers, open truck beds, and all the detritus you could want. And more. Much more. Much, much more. What we have here is poverty porn. You usually think of the big historical costume pictures as the ones where you go out humming the sets, but the set decoration here is relentless. Part of the reason it dominates is that the characterization is rather thin. If you look at Nunnally Johnson’s script for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), about people also in very dire straits, you get a gallery of richly detailed people. The same is true in the script for The Bicycle Thief (1947)

The main character we follow is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old black girl who seems a little smarter than most six-year-olds. That may be because in the play the character was a ten-year-old boy. In the casting calls they found Quvenzhané Wallis and changed the age and gender. Wallis has a great face and the camera loves her, but the script does not give her a lot to express. Zeitlin, who also directed, seemed to think holding on her face is enough. It’s not, although it seems to be for some critics and viewers. Even Garbo had reactions to play, but the script does not give Wallis much if any. Her father Wink is a drunk, whose default setting is yelling at Hushpuppy. We can never quite tell if he thinks he is doing what he does for Hushpuppy’s benefit, or if he’s just a natural yeller. We get no nuances with him. Compare his scenes with Hushpuppy with Ricci’s scenes with his son in The Bicycle Thief and you will see the differences.

In an interview in Variety Alibar says the story is “about the heroism of learning to take care of someone.” I am not convinced that comes across, since the scenes never quite tell that story. Who is taking care of whom? It seems that Hushpuppy is taking care of Wink, but if so she is not doing all that good a job. Well, she is only six, after all.

Oh, the water buffaloes. You may remember last year I had a run of movies with water buffaloes what did not work for me. This film sneaks into a little magic realism late in the story. Hushpuppy has been telling us about the Aurochs, mythical beasts who roam the land. Sure enough they show up, courtesy of some OK special effects (the film is more expensive than it appears), but they look like water buffalo with horns attached. Given my past experience with cinematic water buffaloes, they did not help me like the film any better.

Frank Pierson

Frank Pierson: An Appreciation: Pierson died on July 12th this year. I suppose I should mention that Pierson won an Oscar for his screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). And that he started writing for television back in the early ‘60s for Have Gun, Will Travel, The Naked City and Route 66. His first feature was the very funny Cat Ballou (1965). I should mention his other screenplay credits include Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Anderson Tapes (1971) and Presumed Innocent (1990). I should make sure you know he served two terms as president of the Writers Guild of America (w), as well as being president of the Motion Picture Academy from 2001 to 2005. And you’ll want to know he contributed to Mad Men and The Good Wife as both a writer and producer.

But I can best tell you everything you need to know about Frank Pierson by his answer to a question from David Konow in an interview in the May/June 2003 issue of Creative Screenwriting. Konow asked him if the most famous line he ever wrote was in the novel the film was based on. Pierson replied:

“No, I made that up, and I don’t know where it came from. I was writing that scene and suddenly that popped into my head, and I put it down on the paper. I can still remember, I was sitting in my office out in Malibu looking out over the ocean. It was a bright, hot sunny day, and I thought, Damn it. I just know that everyone’s going to fight that line. The studio executives are going to say. “How does this high falutin’ language come out of this redneck prison guy?” I was afraid it was going to be attacked and I would have to defend it, so I was preparing myself to defend it. I stopped writing at that point, put a different sheet of paper in, and wrote a brief biography of the Strother Martin character, about how he’d come from a sharecropper family. He became a prison guard, then he got promotions, and in order to get promotions in the Florida state prison system—I had no idea if this was true or not—you had to take several hours of formal instruction in penology, which is the theory and practice of prison. He had actually gone to community college in order to get good grades and qualify for promotions, and that’s how he became captain. So that justified the line; he had a little exposure to an academic arena, and that’s where it came from. The fact of the matter is, no one every questioned it, so I never had to show the biography!”

If you don’t know what line that refers to, then all I can say is that obviously what we have here is a failure to commun’cate.

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton (2012. Stage play written by Vanessa Claire Stewart. Approximately 125 minutes.)

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton

Stage and Screen, Take One: Vanessa Claire met the actor French Stewart while he was doing a play at the Geffen Theatre. Stewart is best known for the five years he appeared in the television series 3rd Rock From the Sun. Like a lot of actors in successful shows he became typecast. Claire was impressed with his physical comedy skills in the play. They met after the show and talked, and Stewart mentioned that he was a big fan of Buster Keaton. He wanted to play Keaton, but felt he was now too old to play Keaton in his prime. Claire fell in love, married him and wrote this terrific play for him.

What has your wife done for you lately?

Claire Stewart loved history and researched everything she could about Keaton. But she realized that “In the Keaton stories, there are truths and there are legends that have been told. For our purposes, we are sticking to a lot of the legends that Mr. Keaton would have wanted told, but always with an undercurrent of truth…” (The quote and other details about the creation of the show are from her note in the theater program. If you want more information and reviews of the show, you can find them here.) As a film historian I should note that certain important people in Keaton’s life do not show up, such as the third Talmadge sister, Constance. But Claire Stewart only needs Norma (married to Keaton’s producer Joe Schenck) and Natalie (married to Keaton). Likewise, we do not get Irving Thalberg, whom Keaton fought with at MGM in the ‘30s, because she has Louis B. Mayer, who makes a better villain. Claire Stewart is jumping around in time from Keaton’s early years, when Buster is played by a young actor (Donal Thoms-Cappello), and the later years, when Stewart plays the part. Since Keaton retained a lot of his physical skills late in his life (look at him with the garden hose in Sergeant Dead Head in 1965, the year he turned seventy), Stewart gets a lot to do.

Claire Stewart is smart not to recreate the Keaton routines exactly, and very smart to use references to them. In one scene Keaton and his friend “Fatty” Arbuckle are having a meal at a table with the same food on hanging ropes as in The Scarecrow (1920). Later we get a scene of Keaton and Chaplin at two makeup tables getting made up for their joint appearance in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), which mirrors a similar scene in the film between the two old vaudevillians. My favorite steal is when Claire Stewart uses the changing seasons titles from the opening of Seven Chances (1925) to show the beginning of Keaton’s romance with his third wife, Eleanor. You don’t have to have seen the film to be charmed by it, but if you know the film, you will love the reference even more. The one Keaton bit he used a lot in vaudeville and his films is the housefront coming down around him. It is used here to show his world falling apart, and even though it is just a theatrical flat, it is just stunning to see it “live.”

Stewart and the rest of the cast are great, and I was particularly impressed with Tegan Ashton Cohan, who plays Natalie Talmadge. Natalie appeared in a couple of Keaton films, but she had none of the talent of her sisters. Claire Stewart makes Natalie more ambitious than she was, but this gives Ashton Cohan a lot to do, and she is brilliant, much more entertaining than Natalie ever was.

Oh, yes, one other thing. The small theater the world premiere is playing at in Los Angeles is about a block and a half away from Los Angeles City College, where Keaton made one shot for his 1927 film College. The theater is called Sacred Fools. Sacred indeed.

War Horse (2007. Stage play written by Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo. 155 minutes.)

War Horse

Stage and Screen, Take Two: July was a busy theater month in Los Angeles. The night after I saw Stoneface, I saw the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of the stage version of War Horse at the Ahmanson. About time it got around to Los Angeles. You may remember that I had a lot of quibbles about last year’s film version and I was curious how the play stacked up.

The play is better, for some curious reasons. I knocked the script for the film because the characterization was so shallow. I was “at a loss to explain why the characterization in this film is so bland and standard issue.” I suspect after having seen the play it is because the characterization in the novel is bland, etc. There is not more characterization in the play than in the film, and the play works better. Why? First of all, Spielberg loves actors and I think stayed on them too long in the film hoping that could deliver what is not in the screenplay. The stage version moves a lot quicker, and we get caught up in what the people are doing rather than what they are feeling. What also helps is that the play has a great sense of humor, which the film does not. Under Spielberg’s direction it is ponderously unfunny.

The play is conceived in very theatrical terms. The horses are not real horses, but puppets, each one run by three puppeteers. Several reviews and regular viewers have said they forgot completely the horses were puppets and “believed” they were real. That’s known in the trade as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” I was so fascinated by how the puppeteers did what they did that I was not as emotionally moved as some people are with the play. One of my snarkier comments on the film was that I couldn’t tell if the two main horses, Joey and Topthorne, were gay. Here there is no question they are straight, since the puppeteers give them strongly masculine, almost macho, attitudes as they play in their first scene together. There is a precision in the horses’ “acting” on stage that was not there on film, and that applies to the entire show.

The Exorcist (2012. Stage play by John Pielmeier, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty. 95 minutes.)

The Exorcist

Stage and Screen, Take Three: And two nights after I saw War Horse, I saw the world premiere production of this stage version of Blatty’s novel. The playwright is John Pielmeier, best known for his play and screenplay for Agnes of God (1985), which deals with many theological issues. Well, so does The Exorcist, so you can see why it occurred to somebody to match them up. And Pielmeier made the very high-minded decision to focus on the theology rather than the scarier elements of the book as the film. Unfortunately…do we really want a discussion of the issues involved? As Bob Verini said in his review in Variety, the play’s talk is mostly from “the pages [of the novel] you flipped past en route to the next outrageous set piece.” It is not very dramatic. Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow in the film, Richard Chamberlain here) becomes a sort of Greek chorus, explaining it all for us like Sister Mary Ignatius. So every time the story begins to pick up, we get him pontificating. Chamberlain is a wonderful stage actor, but there is only so much he can do.

Blatty’s screenplay to the 1973 film delved much more into the characters, as well as the horror elements, which makes the film much more compelling, even if director William Friedkin made it the gross-out champion of the decade. The play is directed by the inventive British director John Doyle, and alas, no, they do not play musical instruments as they act. I had gotten the mistaken impression a month or so ago that the play was going to be a musical and looked forward to what Doyle would bring to it, his having done a nice job on Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd a few years back. But Doyle’s direction is depressingly straightforward, and he often has the actors standing on opposite sides of the stage talking to each other about the issues. The only detail even vaguely resembling a special effect is a bit when Regan levitates about a foot above the bed. For that they went to the trouble of bringing in Teller, of Penn and… I am not asking for all the stuff in the movie, but the theater does have a long tradition going back a couple of thousand years of being able to shock audiences with the horror of a situation. The guys here could take a few lessons from Sophocles and especially Euripides, the William Peter Blatty of ancient Greece. Or they could go downtown (the play is at the Geffen in Westwood) and see how the National Theatre tells the story in War Horse. The Exorcist is going to need a lot of work before it goes anywhere else.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 158 minutes.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Second time around: My wife and I, having liked the Swedish version of this, kept intending to see this one when it was in theaters. We missed it because we tend to go to the late shows (my wife is a night owl), but given the running time I knew I would never stay awake all the way through a screening that started at 10 P.M. So I recently picked it up on Netflix. On Blu-Ray no less. My wife assumed that given the movies I watch I really needed a Blu-Ray, so after consulting with my friends who know about this stuff, we got a Sony Playstation 3. It has not been a joyous experience. Sony is not alone in this, but when did companies stop putting information on how to use their equipment in the little brochures that come with it? I noticed this first several years ago, when I realized the book of instructions for the Time-Warner Cable Box talked about all the wonderful things you can do with it, but at no point did it tell you how to do any of them. I would guess that Sony figured if you are buying a Playstation 3, you probably have had a 1 or a 2. Well, I haven’t. I tried when I first fired it up to use the controller that comes with it, and that caused nothing but confusion. I talked to my techie friends and they all had had the same problem. They advised me that you can get a regular TV remote that will do what I need to do. So I did, and it worked the first couple of times I tried it, but when I went to run Girl, it would not do anything. I finally figured out the batteries were dead. After only two previous uses. I eventually got it up and running, but one major flaw in Blu-Ray is that, unlike DVD, you cannot stop the film, turn off the player, and then come back and pick up where you left off. So it means you can only pause, which is useful if you need to go to the bathroom, but you don’t want to leave it on pause overnight.

So we eventually get going on Girl and it starts out badly with a title sequence that belongs in a James Bond movie: all liquid animation in blues and blacks. Guys, this is just a simple story of a girl, her piercings, her tattoos and her helping a reporter solve a forty-year-old mystery. Except that Zaillian’s script has shifted the focus to Mikael Blomkvist. I did not sit down with a stopwatch on both versions, but it felt to me that we spent more time with him than we did with her. My wife, who read the novels, says that the novel does spend more time with him than it does with her. But the Swedish film changed all that. Rooney Mara gives a good performance rather than the great, feral one Noomi Rapace gives in the Swedish version. Zaillian’s script seems to be going through the motions on Lisbeth rather than being invested in her.

The American version is only six minutes longer than the Swedish version, but it feels longer. After the Vanger case is solved, Lisbeth’s revenge on Wennerström takes way too long, much longer than it does in the Swedish film. At that point we are ready to wrap things up as quickly as possible. I was also disappointed that Zaillian does not do as much with the Vanger relatives as the Swedish film does. It is part of the Swedish texture that I missed here, although I should point out that my wife, whose mother was Swedish, loved the shots of the Swedish countryside.

Compared to the Swedish film, this one is incredibly over-directed by David Fincher. Especially on Blu-Ray, I found his soundtrack extremely annoying, with all kinds of whines drowning out the dialogue. You would have thought that one of the twelve credited producers, and Zaillian was one of them, would have mentioned this to Fincher. That’s part of the producer’s job: to keep the director from making a fool of himself. The guys failed the test here.

Anger Management (2012. Multiple episodes. 30 minutes.)

Anger Management

He’s Ba-a-a-a-ck: As I’ve written before, I was a great fan of Charlie Sheen’s acting on Two and a Half Men. He made doing that kind of comedy a lot easier than it looks. Needless to say, I was disappointed in his off-screen activities, especially since they ended up getting him kicked off the show. But he is determined to come back, so he now has a new show in which he plays a former baseball player who now is a therapist dealing with clients with anger management issues. That is maybe a little obvious, as in the pilot episode “Charlie Goes Back to Therapy,” written by the show’s creator Bruce Helford, which begins with Charlie talking to the camera saying things like, “You can’t fire me” and “You can’t replace me with another guy.” All very meta, but not as imaginative as it could be. He’s talking to a punching bag doll in front of his patients to show them how to deal with situations. Then we meet his patients. And they are pretty much standard issue, and would not have been out of place on The Bob Newhart Show back in the ‘70s. Charlie has an attractive ex-wife and a teenage daughter, again all standard issue. He also has a woman he occasionally sleeps with, Kate. We later find out that she used to be his therapist. Now he wants to go back into therapy, and both are insistent that they can no longer has sex if he is her patient. Guess how long it takes for them to get it on? Not even that long. That relationship has possibilities, but in the three episodes I have seen, the writers have not done much with it.

Sheen left Two and A Half Men because he was constantly fighting with the writers, but the writing quality on that show was much, much higher than it is so far on this one. Sometimes, Charlie, you just have to suck it up for the good of the show.

The Newsroom (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

The Newsroom

Well, it’s Aaron Sorkin, what the hell did you expect?: The reviews on this show, which premiered at the end of May were brutal. There is too much talk, it’s too political, it’s too liberal, it’s too self-satisified. Why didn’t Aaron Sorkin give us a nice, pleasant, non-political show like…uh, wait a minute, wasn’t this the guy that was acclaimed for The West Wing? Yes. And wouldn’t nearly all those complaints listed above apply to The West Wing? Uh, yes, well, they would. So what happened here? The easy answer is that Jeff Daniels is not Martin Sheen, and the less easy answer is that Will McAvoy, Daniels’s character, is not as warm and loveable as Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett. In the pilot episode (“We Just Decided To,” written by Sorkin) McAvoy, a television newsman, goes off on a college student who asks him what makes America the greatest nation in the world. He snaps at her all the reasons why it’s not, and he’s got a lot of reasons. As the series has progressed, he is obviously driven by a lot of demons, which makes him a fascinating character.

In the pilot episode, there is a lot of pontificating, but there has been less as the series continues. The pilot laid out who the major characters are going to be, but they are not as immediately compelling as the gang on The West Wing was after we go to know them. I particularly found the love triangles with the young whippersnappers less than interesting, although the characters are getting developed more in their newsroom scenes than in their romantic scenes. In “5/1,” written by Sorkin, the whippersnappers’ romantic problems drag down the main story of the night we killed bin Laden. The adults are already more interesting, and I am particularly taken with Charlie, Will’s boss. He is played by Sam Waterston, who gets to display his natural twinkle, which you never knew he had if you only saw him on Law & Order. Waterston gives great twinkle.

McAvoy, after the dustup with the college student, is brought back to a cable news network to head a nightly news show. His producer is his ex-girlfriend, Mackenzie MacHale, and they still have issues. We get, over several episodes, how the news show is put together, and what Sorkin and his team do is set it in a real time, with real news stories as the backdrop for each show. That means there is not only video coverage of the actual events, we often get clips of real people talking about the events at the time. (The standard disclaimer in the end credits about all characters being fictional is more of a crock than it usually is.) That sets up a degree of difficulty for the writers that even The West Wing did not have. And then Sorkin and the writers use it in a interesting way, not unlike what Frank Capra did in his World War II documentary series, Why We Fight. Capra figured that the best way to deal with the Nazis was simply to quote what they had said over the previous years. Sorkin does the same thing with the right wingers. In “I’ll Try to Fix You” (written by Sorkin), McAvoy is covering the stories he tells the viewers they should have covered more but did not. One of them is the dustup over how much Obama’s trip to India cost. Sorkin uses clips of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others and we see and hear how ridiculous they sound. More please.

Sorkin may well have been setting the show up to undercut the critiques about the self-satisfaction of the show. In the “Bullies” episode, again written by Sorkin, we see Sloan, the financial reporter, betray a friend by telling the audience what he had said off the record. McAvoy bullies a former campaign worker on Rick Santorum’s staff, and later admits to the bullying.

So all this, and Jane Fonda as well, playing the head of the company, and basing her performance not on her ex-husband, Ted Turner, but on Rupert Murdoch. She shows up in “The 112th Congress,” co-written by Sorkin and Gideon Yago, to remind Charlie that the corporation has its own rules. It’s a nice mano-a-mano between Fonda and Waterston. I look forward to more of them.

Political Animals (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

The Newsroom

Estrogen City: Elaine Barrish Hammond is the former First Lady who is now Secretary of State in the cabinet of the man she ran against in the primary. Hmm, remind you of anybody you know? But she was never a Senator, although she was a governor, and while her husband, Bud Hammond, did screw around on her, he has none of the intelligence and seductive power of Bill Clinton. He is more likely Lyndon Johnson was in private, but except here they have him behaving that way in public. It is a major miscalculation on the part of the show.

On the other hand, Elaine is played by Sigourney Weaver in one of the best parts she’s ever had. And boy is she up to it. She mostly goes head to read with Carla Gugino as Susan Berg, the reporter who broke the stories about Bud’s infidelities. Susan and Elaine almost seem to be forming an alliance, but I am not sure we should trust either one, which makes them fun to watch. Ellen Burstyn plays Elaine’s mom, who is a real pistol. And if that is not enough estrogen for you, Vanessa Redgrave shows up as the first gay Supreme Court judge.

Elaine has two grown sons and we get soap opera stuff about their lives. Like their counterparts on The Newsroom, the whippersnappers are the least interesting element of the show. And I do object to making the gay son the screwup (drugs, stealing money, etc.) What if he was the rock and the straight son was the screwup? Just for a change of pace.

Twenty Twelve (2011-12. Various episodes. 30 minutes.)

Twenty Twelve

How about if we get the Queen to jump out of a helicopter?: This show began last year in England, and it is an Office-like (way too much like) mockumentary about the “Olympic Deliverance Commission,” a fictional version of the London organizers of the Olympics. We got it only in the last couple of weeks before the actual Games. The problem was that real events had taken over, and as often happens, reality is better at satire. There is nothing in the show the equivalent of the company supposed to provide security acknowledging that they are several thousand people short of their goal. Or that the immigration workers at the airports threatened to go on strike just as everybody was arriving.

And then we have the harebrained idea that the Queen should jump out of a helicopter and skydive into the opening ceremonies. I doubt if anybody collected with Twenty Twelve would have dared to come up with anything that outrageous. But Danny Boyle and his team did, and they talked the Queen into it. I don’t know who wrote the film that led up to the jump, but it gets my vote for Best Original Screenplay for this year. It begins with typical British Heritage shots of a car driving up to Buckingham Palace. We don’t see who gets out of the car, and Boyle diverts us by showing kids on a tour more interested in the car than the tour. As the man from the car walks up the stairs inside, we know it’s James Bond, because it’s Daniel Craig in a tux. If he were in Bermuda shorts, we wouldn’t think Bond. And he does not have Judi Dench with him as M, since Boyle does not need her. One of the servants knocks on a door and announces “Mr. Bond.” Bond goes in and waits for the Queen to finish writing. She turns and it is the real Queen, not Helen Mirren. She says, “Good evening, Mr. Bond,” although the line is garbled (she is better at official speeches than dialogue). They leave, followed by her corgis, playing themselves. Everybody keeps a straight face, which is essential. There is not a bit of unneeded action in the scene. When we get outside, we are now with body doubles as they get into the helicopter and leave the palace behind, with a great shot of the corgis looking up at them leaving and Bond smirking down at them, a great detail. We get a flight over London, complete with Churchill’s statue waving at them, and cut to the live action as the stunt doubles of the Queen and Bond jump out of the helicopter to the music of the James Bond theme. And the real Queen shows up in the official seats, looking none the worse for wear. Beijing spent a lot more than Danny Boyle had, but they had nothing that was this inventive.

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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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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