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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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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Henry is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Henry’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brad Smith, Jeff Pope, Andra Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy

The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

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The Art of Self-Defense
Photo: Bleecker Street

Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.

Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.

Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.

The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.

Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sword of Trust Is an Amiable Look at Southern Disillusionment

Marc Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives the film, despite its missed opportunities, an emotional center.

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Sword of Trust
Photo: IFC Films

Like most Lynn Shelton films, Sword of Trust is amiable and humanistic almost to a fault. The filmmaker has a gift for oddball humor, and for allowing her actors to form memorable and moving rapports, yet with the exception of Your Sister’s Sister, there often seems to be little at stake in her work. Sword of Trust often feels similarly slight, even though it’s about the legacy of the American Civil War and the “post-truth” crisis that’s currently plaguing the country. An engaging tension between tone and theme animates the film, but you may wish that Shelton had approached her material with more focus.

Much of the film is set in an Alabaman pawn shop presided over by Mel, who’s played by Marc Maron and who resembles every character the actor-comedian played since enjoying a career resurgence with his series Maron (episodes of which Shelton directed). Like Maron himself, Mel is a lovable curmudgeon, a recovering addict who utilizes his past troubles as a signifier of his hard-won wisdom and humility, which he laces with acidic humor and sharp timing. Since Maron, a spin-off of his “WTF” podcast, Maron has grown astonishingly as an actor, with a rumpled charisma that suggests 1970s-era legends like Elliott Gould. Unlike most comedians acting in films, Maron isn’t afraid to slow down his performative biorhythms, which is especially evident in a lovely early scene in Sword of Trust when Mel sees an ex (Shelton) and silently trundles toward the front of the shop closer to her, clearly weighing his words.

Shelton takes her time acclimating the audience to life in Mel’s pawn shop. Mel has a lackadaisical millennial assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), who’s enthralled with internet conspiracy theories, and he enjoys ice teas with Jimmy (Al Elliott), an elderly African-American man who runs a nearby restaurant. These loose observational moments are Shelton’s specialty, and she subtly allows us to grasp the sadness of her characters. These people have forged a kind of liberal bohemian idyll in the middle of a red state, but they’re lonely, drifting through life. Maron telegraphs this loneliness in how he has Mel appraise objects, with a weariness that suggests a need for both connection and money.

Kicking the film’s plot in gear is a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit from Cynthia’s deceased grandfather a Union sword that a cult of truthers believes to be evidence that the South won the Civil War. This is a spectacular idea for a satire of our modern age—in which memes and online mythology warp discourse—that Shelton reduces mostly to an inciting incident and a MacGuffin. Cynthia and Mary partner with Mel to sell the sword to the cult, which leads to a few surprisingly scary-flaky scenes that momentarily jolt the film’s easygoing vibes. Particularly eerie is a scene with Hog Jaws, a truther henchman who’s played by Toby Huss with an unusually casual sense of menace. This is a man who doesn’t need to threaten people because he understands he’s inherently threatening.

Given its narrative involving a Jewish man pretending to take reactionary Southern values seriously, Sword of Trust at times suggests a kind of sketch-TV version of BlackKklansman. Shelton sees the truthers as bigoted buffoons, as symptoms of people’s current need to follow their own ideology, regardless of facts and carefully nurtured online, but with few exceptions, she doesn’t bring the tension between the liberals and the good-old-boys to a head. The filmmaker comes very close to suggesting that everyone has their reasons, even hateful fanatics—a potentially explosive implication in itself that, in this context, deflates the satire. One wishes that the film’s political textures had been nurtured, as they are essentially window dressing for what becomes a miniature coming-of-age road-trip comedy, the sort of indie that used to be common in the ‘90s. Yet Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives Sword of Trust an emotional center despite its missed opportunities.

Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Lynn Shelton, Al Elliott, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas Director: Lynn Shelton Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton, Michael Patrick O’Brien Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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