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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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Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a trans-national sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be pre-requisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

3

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially driven by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain for a few minutes after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

3

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) and to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her, rather than Harriet, whose match with Martin she comes to accept, as it suits both Harriet’s social standing and the girl’s feelings. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her ever-cantankerous father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

2

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

3

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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