Coming Up In This Column: Transsiberian; The House Bunny; Tropic Thunder; Silent to Sound; Transformers; In Plain Sight; Mad Men, but first:
Mailbag: Well, I certainly seem to have ticked off the graphic novel crowd, haven’t I? As “futurefree” and “JJ” noted, I was careful to doubly qualify my comments, and I did that because I was aware there have been some fairly good films made from graphic novels. One that some readers mentioned was From Hell, and one that I am surprised nobody mentioned was A History of Violence, which was terrific until it went a little funny in the head in the last third.
My point, that several readers such as “futurefree” and “Ed Howard” picked up on, is that the form does not necessarily lend itself to complex characters. It is not just a question of panels, but that the images are static, so you do not get the nuances you do in actors’ performances in films.
I have been meaning to admit since US#1 my dirty little secret, which is that I am not a fanboy. As a kid in the ‘40s and early ‘50s I read comic books, but as I hit adolescence I gave them up, with of course the obvious exception of Mad Magazine; some things are sacred. I never got back into comics or later graphic novels, and the older I get, the less interest in mythical kingdoms I have. I can certainly understand people, particularly in the last seven years, who much prefer to live in mythical kingdoms rather than the real world. But I just find the jumps in logic one has to make a little much. At the risk of driving off all my readers, I have to admit that I have seen only the first Lord of the Rings movie and not the other two. I have not seen any of the Harry Potter films, and only the first Matrix, which struck me as one of the stupidest movies of all time. I avoided Batman Begins (I am a little too old for yet another version of the origin story) and The Dark Knight (even though a friend whose judgement I trust said I had to see it because it was “as if Kubrick had directed The French Connection”). I do try to see one comic book/graphic novel movie a year and this year it was Iron Man. I kept wanting to see a) the outtakes of Downey Jr. and his stunt man trying to move in that outfit, and b) that cast (Downey Jr., Bridges, and Paltrow) in a real movie.
Now then, have we got any readers left? The other issue in the readers’ comments on US#2 was the use of exposition. “JJ” wrote, and I think he is right, that a lot of exposition is so obvious because studio executives are afraid audiences will not understand subtlety. Partly that is because films are so expensive to make that studios are afraid of losing a single viewer. Often when you see a film, you wonder why they made that script. The answer is usually that it is not the script they started out to make. In the notorious development process, the edges get rounded off and the most interesting material gets dropped. It is also a question of the executives themselves not being able to read and understand a script.
Two general rules about exposition:
1. How much do you need? The correct answer is less than you think. Audiences will pick up fairly quickly what is going on. At some point you have probably walked into a film after it started. Think about how easily you picked up on what was going on.
2. When does the audience need to know something? Put it as late as you can in the screenplay.
There is also a tendency among writers and others to assume that exposition is only what somebody says. Not true. Look at how much we think we learn about Jeff in Rear Window from that wonderful pan around his apartment. (And then listen to the phone dialogue in the next scene between Jeff and his boss that ties all those visuals together.) One thing I have always loved about Chinatown is that virtually everything anybody says in the first half hour is a lie. The first Mrs. Mulwray is not Mrs. Mulwray, Hollis is not having an affair with the young girl, and the real Mrs. Mulwray seems unable to tell the truth until Jake slaps it out of her at the end of the film.
Before we get into this episode’s films and television shows, a brief scheduling note. When I agreed to do this column for HND, I told Keith that I could probably only manage to do it once a month. If you have followed it so far, you know I have done one a week. The day after Labor Day I start teaching at Los Angeles City College, which will slow down both my moviegoing and my time to write. So it will be a few weeks before US#4 appears. On the other hand, the Olympics are over and I may be able to get my wife out to see the growing list of films she wants to see, so who knows?
Transsiberian(2008. Screenplay by Brad Anderson & Will Conroy. 111 minutes): In his comments on US#2 Joel asked for a view of this film, but this is not a response. I had already done the first draft of this when the notes came in.
This is a first-rate addition to one of my favorite genres, the thriller on a train. In a couple of ways it is even better than the grandfather of them all, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner’s script for the 1938 version of The Lady Vanishes. In the earlier film the lady vanishes and we know it is foul play. In the current film, when a major character vanishes, we assume, because we have been watching The Lady Vanishes and its many imitators, that it is foul play. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But Anderson and Conroy are using our genre expectations to keep us on edge. Late in the picture when one of the characters says she is going to the dining car to get some sugar for coffee, you know that no good will come of it. And it doesn’t, but in a way you probably do not expect. One thing that always bothered me about The Lady Vanishes is that just before the big finish, the train stops. I know there is a big shootout, but if you have a movie about a train, it ought to move. Look at how they play with that here.
Another way the current script is better is that Anderson and Conroy get into the characterization in more depth than Gilliat and Launder did. I know the earlier writers were writing for a rather shallow director, but still. We get the Russian police inspector in the opening scene investigating a murder, so we know there will be thrills. But having set that up, the writers can spend time establishing the characters. Shakespeare uses the father’s ghost at the beginning of Hamlet in the same way. The characters on the train are so evenly balanced it is well into the picture before we figure out who the main character is. They have written a great part for Rumpole’s granddaughter, Emily Mortimer (her father, the author John Mortimer, is the creator of Horace Rumpole, Q.C.), and she gives her best screen performance. The characters who are supposed to be suspicious are, but often we are suspicious of them for the wrong reasons. And they are written so the twists in their characters make sense with what we have seen or heard.
This is particularly true of the ending. At first it seems like a conventional sentimental happy ending. A couple is flying home, all cozy and safe. But then we get one more scene with another character. What she does tells us that the last—of several—things we were told about her are not exactly true. So the film ends on a darker, and I thought, more satisfying note.
The House Bunny (2008. Written by Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith. 98 minutes): Lutz and Smith are developing their own mini-genre: women who at first seem dumb turn out not to be so dumb and win the day. Their establishing script of the genre was Legally Blonde and this one follows that template. I could even see it turning into a Broadway musical like the earlier film.
Speaking of verbal exposition, listen to how quickly they establish Shelly before we even see her. We hear her version of a variety of fairy tales, told in wonderfully fractured language that sets up her character in terms of rhythm and phrasing. The writers’ comic rhythms carry through the film in many scenes. Listen to some of the first scenes between Shelly, the Playboy bunny who becomes a sorority housemother, and Natalie, the leader of the sorority girls.
A defining scene in a female empowerment film is the makeover scene. Here we get two. The first, and most obvious, is that Shelly gives the unattractive sorority girls cosmetic makeovers, but Lutz and Smith throw in the makeover of the ramshackle sorority house as well to throw us off balance. This first makeover scene happens relatively early in the film. The second one, about an hour into the film, blew my mind. The whole thrust of most makeover scenes here, and in reality television, is that the women will use makeup, buy new clothes, and attract men. One should not be surprised that Lutz and Smith go beyond that. Shelly goes out on a date with a nice guy and tries all the tricks she has taught the girls. And they don’t work. How transgressive can you get? If the tricks don’t work, the entire cosmetic makeover, self-help, “how to get a man” mythology falls apart. So Shelly decides she needs to be smarter. And we get a mental makeover scene, with Shelly actually in classes. And in a funny bit in the library with a bunch of books. With a lot of books. And it works. She gets the guy; this is a Hollywood comedy, after all.
The transgressive nature of the film is not over. The sorority girls realize that after their makeover, they have become just as snobby as the girls in the other sororities. And they decide to go back to their original selves. Well, not all the way. They can’t quite decide whether they should be 50-50 or 60-40.
One other point. The Rating code will let you use the “f” word once, in a non-sexual way, in a PG-13 film. The House Bunny gets my vote for this year’s Best One-Time Use of “Fucking” in a PG-13 Film.
Tropic Thunder(2008. Story by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux. Screenplay by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen. 106 minutes by Variety’s and my count, 117 minutes by imdB): When I saw the trailers for this film, it looked like fun. When I looked at the scenes the actors brought to talk shows, it seemed flat. Seeing the movie, I had both feelings. The concept of the film is a smart one: a group of actors making a Vietnam War film are let loose in the jungle by a frazzled director who thinks he can shoot it documentary-style with hidden cameras. The actors run into a drug running operation, which they think is part of the “film.” There is a lot that could be done with the idea, and there is a lot the writers do. There is a fair mix of comedy and action, with maybe more of the latter than is needed. The characterizations of the various actors are dead-on right, as are the characterizations of the studio boss and one of the actor’s agents. On the other hand, some of the “inside baseball” stuff is so “inside” that the film stopped dead in its tracks, even for the Santa Monica audience I saw the film with, which probably had enough people connected to the industry to get at least some of the jokes. Although I must also say there were a lot more patrons under the age of 18 than there seemed to be parents or guardians in attendance. So much for the “R” rating. But even kids in Santa Monica know a lot about the industry, and if the film was too inside for them, it way well be for those east of the 310 area code.
The main problem comes in the writing of the individual scenes, or rather the lack of it. As often happens in comedies, particularly those directed by actors (Ben Stiller in this case), the actors have been encouraged to improvise. This is not always a good thing, and Tropic Thunder is Exhibit A for the prosecution. Improvisations are often very hysterically funny for the cast and crew and especially the director, but it takes a ruthless director to make sure those improvisations work in the context of the film, which here they very often do not. If you “had to be there” to get the humor, it’s not going to work on film. Actors, there is a reason Billy Wilder would not let his casts riff on his scripts.
Examples of the problem are the now-famous scenes (there is a lot more to it than just a cameo part) with Tom Cruise (not as unrecognizable as the publicity would have it) as a profane studio executive. Again, the idea is good, but what appears to be Cruise’s improvisations come out flat. The character is mostly foul language, and one is reminded of the famous story about Mark Twain. Twain swore a lot, and his wife tried to break him of the habit once by swearing back to him. Twain shook his head sadly and said, “Livvy, you got the words, but you ain’t got the tune.”
Which brings us to a look back at film history:
Silent to Sound: I had occasion recently to look at some films made in the late twenties-early thirties (hey, I’m a film historian; I do stuff like that) during the transition from silent films to talkies. The UCLA Film Archive had a double feature of two films they have restored. One is the silent version of Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (1929) and the other is the sound version from the same year. Lloyd started it as a silent film, then decided to do it as a sound film. The silent version was released to those theaters not equipped for sound. Even though the sound version was Lloyd’s most financially successful film, both it and the silent version are mediocre.
In his famous essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” James Agee said of Lloyd that “out of his thesaurus of smiles he could at a moment’s notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity and still remain tremendously likable.” Maybe in the mid-twenties, but by the time of Welcome Danger the prissiness and asininity had taken over. It is a problem in the silent version, and an even bigger problem in the sound version, where he adds a verbal prissiness as well. The storyline of both films is a mess: something to do with him being the son of a famous police chief and therefore called in to stop drug traffic in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The dialogue in the sound version, credited to Paul Gerard Smith, is very flat and “on the nose.” It is written in the style of silent film titles, that is, carved down to only the most basic information, expressed in the simplest language possible. Unlike good screen dialogue, it gives the actors nothing to play. Like Cruise’s arias in Tropic Thunder there is very seldom any discernible rhythm to it, although there is a brief exchange between Lloyd and the great Edgar Kennedy (who was added to the cast when sound was added) that has a bit of comic rhythm to it. Smith, and other writers of the period, did not realize how important each line of dialogue should be and how limited it needed to be. In the sound version, there are many scenes where the script just has the actors babbling on, although some of this may be dreaded improvisations as well. It will a few more years before Robert Riskin, Preston Sturges, and Nunnally Johnson get the balance right on screen dialogue.
The filmmakers of the sound version at least make an effort to use sound creatively, as in a chase scene in a drug den where the lights keep going out. This is a slightly longer version of the scene in the silent film, and they use the dialogue in the darkness effectively.
Not only is Lloyd hampered by his verbal prissiness, but Noah Young, who plays a dumb policeman in both versions, seems stupider in the sound version because his voice is used to over-emphasize his stupidity. Several of the puns of the silent titles simply do not work in sound. Young’s policeman admires a decision Lloyd makes and calls him a “King Sullivan” as opposed to King Solomon. It works when you read it, but not when you hear it. There is another one later, when Lloyd’s character, who has developed a great interest in fingerprinting, is called “the Finger Prince” by another one of the cops. Again, it works in titles, but not in sound. I had a similar problem with the character of Alpa Chino in Tropic Thunder. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it took me hearing it a couple of times to get the reference.
By the time Lloyd did Movie Crazy in 1932, he should have improved more then he did, but the dialogue, while better, is still too “on the nose,” and there is too much of it that does not make a particular point. The writers and Lloyd have not worked out the balance between the words and his reactions, which still tend to be busier than they need to be. Something similar happens to Clara Bow in her best talkie, Call Her Savage, also in 1932. A great star in silent films, she did a few talkies, although the microphone scared her to death. In Call Her Savage, the screenwriter Edwin J. Burke, adapting a novel by Tiffany Thayer, has written a great part to help Bow make the transition from flapper to grownup. Bow handles it well, but Burke, Bow, and the director still do not have the balance right. There are dialogue scenes, but then long reaction shots with Bow in which she goes through the kind of wonderful reactions that made her a star in silent films. Bow has a perfectly good speaking voice and gives a great performance, within the melodramatic limitations of the story, but she shortly thereafter gave up acting. A great loss.
The problem of the balance between the visual and the verbal continues to bedevil filmmakers, particularly those working with a lot of slapstick. I happened to see the 2007 film Mr. Bean’s Holiday the day after I saw Movie Crazy and it struck me that Rowan Atkinson was running into the same problem Lloyd had. If you are going to write in a lot of visual humor, then you have to write the dialogue, if you have any for those scenes, very sparingly and very carefully. If you are going to interrupt a good piece of slapstick with words, they had better be essential, not the kind of nattering that Lloyd and Atkinson do. After all, the best interruption of a silent film with a line of dialogue was simply one word in Silent Movie (1976). I’m not going to tell you what it is. If you have seen the movie, you know, and if you have not, then I won’t spoil it for you.
Transformers (2007. Story by John Rogers and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Based on the Hasbro Toys. 144 minutes): I deliberately waited to see this one on cable for the same reason that I waited to see The Doors on videotape in 1991. When you watch a film at home, you can turn down the overbearing soundtrack, which you cannot do in a theater.
If you are writing a movie based on toys, then you have to create characters for your script. One of the limitations of this script is that there is very little characterization for the Transformers. Presumably kids who have been playing with them for years will know who’s who, but the rest of us do not. There is a scene about an hour into the picture where the characters of the Transformers are finally introduced, but they are not given much characterization. And we get so little of their characterization later in the film that in the final showdowns, I was still lost as to who was who.
The writers also give us nothing but cliches for all but one of the human actors to play. For an example of what you can do with characterization in this kind of movie, look at the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Here Sam is a typical teenager, and his parents are typical stupid parents, which is a criminal waste, particularly of Julie White as his mom. The one semi-exception is Mikaela, the teenage beauty who tags along with Sam. At first we think she is just a stuck-up rich girl, but it turns out she is trailer-park trash, who naturally knows how to fix a car. A lot more of this could be made of this in the writing, especially since the actor playing her, Megan Fox, has either decided not to or has not been directed to have a little white trash fun with the part. Where is Jaime Pressly when you need her?
In Plain Sight (2008. Various writers): In US#1, I mentioned that the new series In Plain Sight spent way more time than it needed on the family life of Mary, the federal marshal who watches over people in the witness protection program. The series then went off the rails completely by focusing in the last two episodes on the problems of Mary’s sister, her drug-dealing boyfriend, and Mary’s mom. The final episode was more a family drama than a crime drama, and since the family was never as interesting as the witness stories, the air went out of the series. It may be retrievable next season.
Mad Men (2008. Episode #5 “The New Girl.” Written by Robin Veith): One way you tell us about character is what decision they make, especially when they are under pressure. In this episode, Don Draper is in an auto accident with Bobbie Bartlett, the wife of a comedian he is dealing with. He does not have the $150 he needs to pay the bail. Who does Don Draper call? He can’t call his wife. Any of the guys at SC would be obvious choices, but they would tell all the other guys at work. Joan, the head secretary? Word would get around even quicker. So he calls Peggy, the junior copywriter. Why her? Veith uses this choice to tell us a bit more about what Peggy was up to between season one and season two, and how Don was involved in that. And we see how Don and Peggy are similar, which leads to Bobbie suggesting to Peggy while Peggy is hiding her out at her apartment, that Peggy ought to think of herself as Don’s equal. Later Peggy stays in Don’s office after a meeting and politely requests repayment of the loan for the bail. When he gives it to her, she says, “Thanks, Don.” Look at how much Veith gets out of having her say “Don” rather than “Mr. Draper,” and how well we have been prepared for that.
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.
Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings
The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.
Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.
Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”
Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.
Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.
It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:
“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”
Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.
Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.
Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion
The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.1.5
Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.
For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).
Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.
As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.
Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.
Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils
In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.3
The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.
The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.
Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.
There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.
A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.
Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria
Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.3
Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Wade Muller’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?
Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.
By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.
Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.
Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.
Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, that work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a languid opening drone shot of the skyline of Al Ghouta, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool and distanced perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.
As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.
Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging
Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.1.5
The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.
With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.
In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.
In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe
The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.3
Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.
The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.
Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.
The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.
The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”
An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.
Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.
All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.
That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.
Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Gemini Man Erects a Cardboard World Around Its Special Effects
Whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, the film is just another assembly-line reproduction.1.5
In centering its action melodrama around the confrontation between its main character and a duplicated version of himself, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man joins some dubious company: the forgotten Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Replicant, the late-pre-governor-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Sixth Day, and Richard Lester’s abortive superhero sequel Superman 3. These films relied on split-screen techniques and misleading cuts to split their respective heroes in two—tricks that had, in essence, existed since Georges Méliés. New digital technologies appear to have spurred this old Hollywood hobbyhorse back into action, as Gemini Man’s preternaturally gifted, recently retired secret agent Henry Brogan (Will Smith) confronts not just a clone, but a younger clone, logically dubbed Junior and also played by Smith, de-aged via facial scanning and semi-automated digital animation.
If the special effects industry has devised some new tricks, however, Gemini Man is hardly evidence that Hollywood screenwriters have. Co-written by Billy Ray, Darren Lemke, and David Benioff, the film never successfully redirects our attention from its naked exhibition of advanced CG and toward some sort of meaningful conflict. The broadly sketched attributes that define Brogan are either totally utilitarian (he has a bee allergy, which comes into play in a manner so haphazard that one suspects that the payoff was added at the last minute) or completely unexplored (such as his insomnia). Sometimes, the script’s sense of characterization also betrays its undercooked thinking about its ostensible main subject. To wit, the film dwells both on how Brogan’s traumatic upbringing shaped his psychology and on how different Junior’s youth has been, but then it has Brogan assemble a precise and specific psychological profile of Junior based on his own mind. Nature or nurture? Whichever one, apparently, is convenient to producing a teary-eyed Will Smith in a given scene.
Given Benioff’s writing credit here, it’s also hard not to draw a connection between the phony female badassery of HBO’s Game of Thrones and how Gemini Man treats Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the agent sent to surveil Brogan in his retirement. When Brogan, attempting to relax and do some boating, outs the attractive young woman working at the dock as an undercover D.I.A. agent (definitely not C.I.A., for whatever reason), he observes, ostensibly impressed, her distinguished record: how she never received a single demerit despite her expansive resume of operations throughout the globe. Brogan then spends the remainder of Gemini Man explaining standard spy procedures to her, like going on the lam, as if she were a rookie. (Lee, Benioff, and company also stage an egregious scene that sees Danielle the seasoned spy strip for an awkward pat-down from Junior.)
Junior has been sent to kill Brogan by Clay Verris (Clive Owen, doing his best to menacingly hit those American diphthongs), Junior’s surrogate father and the head of Gemini, a private military contractor. Brogan, it seems, constitutes a proverbial loose end for both the D.I.A. and Gemini, which cloned him in 1995 and now has his replacement ready to go. The seeming arbitrariness of Verris choosing Junior to assassinate Brogan is hardly accounted for by the film’s explanation, which has something to do with Brogan being Junior’s “darkness” that he must vanquish in order to…become a real man? It’s unclear, particularly as it appears that Verris didn’t want Junior to discover that they were actually the same man.
Perhaps appropriately, Gemini Man suggests a hybrid clone of Bourne, 007, and Terminator flicks. An internecine conflict between shifty agency types divided over what to do about Brogan plays out in dry cellphone exchanges, a pursuit through mostly random places around the globe provides the film with exotic backgrounds for motorcycle chases and extended fisticuffs, and a late-film revelation about Gemini’s ultimate goals raises the specter of a post-human world. Throughout, the action is underwhelming, as Lee uses rapid cuts and tight angles to disguise faulty CG—but to no avail. The problem is less Junior’s digitally altered face—which, while not perfect, can actually emote—and more the rubber bodies that bounce around the frame, rolling out of car accidents and flipping into karate kicks.
Gemini Man is an action movie whose attempt to carry emotional weight is betrayed by the utter weightlessness of both its spectacle and its narrative. There’s a story here about middle age and the loss of youth, the uncanniness of knowing you were once a person you no longer are—the existential discomfort of looking in a mirror and seeing someone else looking back. Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the film Lee thinks he’s making: Brogan avoids mirrors, as he avers on a few occasions, and interestingly, Lee frames close-ups almost frontally, the actors nearly staring into the camera, as in a mirror (or a Yasujirō Ozu film). There’s a self-reflexive element to Gemini Man, concerning the illusory preservation of youth in the cinema and the way Hollywood reflects ideal selves back to us. But Lee can’t do much with this idea, and even a soulful pair of performances from Smith can’t enliven the cardboard world erected around the special effects at the heart of the film. In the end, whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, Gemini Man is just another assembly-line reproduction.
Cast: Will Smith, Clive Owen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Douglas Hodge, Theodora Miranne, Linda Emond, Ralph Brown Director: Ang Lee Screenwriter: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: The Dead Center Is an Atmospheric Study of Human Futility
The film is in tune with the need to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity.3
People who work in intense environments, such as police stations, social services offices, and hospitals, are familiar with the strain of needing to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity. Primarily set in a hospital over a few days, writer-director Billy Senese’s The Dead Center, which follows a handful of medical professionals as they grapple with something that symbolizes their fear of succumbing to their patients’ sickness, is profoundly in tune with this sense of strain.
Senese and cinematographer Andy Duensing capture the hard white and sickly yellow light of a hospital in the middle of the night, as well as the eerie alternation of droning white noise and silence that can define such a setting. The filmmakers allow this hospital, especially the psychiatric ward, to creep into our bones. (It certainly helps that the staff here isn’t composed of actors who appear to be out of central casting, as they suggest truly harried and exhausted members of the working class.) Occasionally puncturing this nocturnal twilight are the piercing sounds of patients in crisis, and Senese expertly captures this ebb and flow between the expectation of violence and weathering it. At its best, The Dead Center exudes some of the concentrated lo-fi intensity of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.
The Dead Center has a horror-movie hook, which often lingers at the narrative’s margins and screams of Chekhov’s gun. The film opens with an ambulance delivering to the hospital a John Doe (Jeremy Child) who sliced his wrists and chest. Senese films the ambulance’s trip from a god’s-eye view, suggesting a supernatural presence that might not be all that friendly. Later, after John Doe is toe-tagged and bagged, he sits up, and Senese springs an unforgettably creepy sound effect: the crinkling of the body bag, which suggests the crackling of electricity. And this effect is complemented by the poignant sight of the quivering John Doe rising from the bag and wandering the hospital and slipping into an empty bed for warmth. In this moment, Senese grounds resurrection in the textures of a very realistic setting.
John Doe is discovered by the hospital’s staff, and psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) is charged with discerning his identity and illness, though Forrester, a renegade with considerable emotional issues himself, doesn’t get far with this endeavor. Carruth invests a familiar type—the hotdog professional with little personal life—with a haunting and unusually opaque vulnerability. He keys us into Forrester’s desperation to hide his own weaknesses from his staff, though his pain is only partially explained. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative thread, medical investigator Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) investigates John Doe’s origins. This trail leads him to a motel room drenched in blood, and, in another bone-chilling detail, Graham drains a tub of blood to reveal a spiral carved at the bottom. Uncovering John Doe’s identity, Graham discovers a man marked by death, who has become a corporeal Grim Reaper.
The Dead Center is ultimately an atmospheric study of human futility. John Doe might be a monster, but he’s also the ultimate incurable victim, who destroys any degree of control that Forrester and Graham fight to assume over their surroundings. Not unlike H.P. Lovecraft, Senese allows his audience to feel as if it’s only seeing but a tip of a malign iceberg, and that ineffable impression of vastness is existentially frightening.
Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely Director: Billy Senese Screenwriter: Billy Senese Distributor: Arrow Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Mary Quickly Squanders Its Promising Horror-Movie Hook
Michael Goi’s film comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats.1.5
With Mary, whose title refers to an ancient ship with a history of drifting off course and losing its crews, director Michael Goi and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski have settled on a fertile setting for a haunting. This isn’t a grand ship in the vein of either version of Ghost Ship, but a vessel that’s intimate with seemingly little in the way of the sort of nooks and crannies that are integral to games of supernatural hide and seek.
As the latest doomed crew boards the Mary, with the purposes of turning her into a tourist boat along the Florida coast, Goi derives some suspense by implicitly prompting the audience to wonder where the bad stuff can happen, given the constriction of the setting. Intensifying this unease is the film’s one unnerving image: of the boat’s masthead, which is a wooden carving of a beautiful woman with wide, accusatory eyes—presumably Mary, a siren.
At first, it seems as if Mary is going to be a riff on Stephen King’s Christine, in which a young man became romantically obsessed with a vintage vehicle, a 1957 Plymouth Fury. Just as Christine beckoned to its next victim from a junkyard, as a seemingly innocuous antique, the Mary calls to David (Gary Oldman), from a distance as he’s scoping another boat at an auction. Like Christine, the Mary seems impractically beat up, which is a part of the seduction, as they both play into the hero complexes of emasculated men. In David’s case, he’s attempting to break free of a life as a captain for another man’s business, and to help his family rebound from a domestic crisis that isn’t revealed until late in the film. Which is to say that Mary has a promising hook to go with its setting: Initially, it appears that it will tell a story of David’s undoing, of his obsession with a haunted ship that destroys him with promises of redemption.
Astonishingly, Goi and Jaswinski drop that hook immediately. David, who has the most invested in the ghost ship, is shunted off to the film’s sidelines as the Mary works his family over in predictable ways. The man’s wife, Sarah (Emily Mortimer, who’s every bit as game as Oldman), is plagued by nightmares, while their little daughter, another Mary (Chloe Perrin), draws creepy pictures of a mystery woman. Tommy (Owen Teague), the boyfriend of David and Emily’s older daughter, Lindsey (Stefanie Scott), is driven insane almost immediately, while Lindsey is batted around as a victim between various infected parties.
With Goi and Jaswinski unwilling to explore a kinky, psychosexual bond between a man and his demonic lady ghost-boat, Mary comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats. The film’s momentum is further stifled by a framing device—seemingly ported over from a generic cops-and-robbers television show—in which Sarah is interrogated about what happened aboard the Mary. The filmmakers are attempting, via this framing device, to impart a sense of mystery and inevitability upon the narrative, but it serves to make Mary feel as if it’s half over before it even began.
Cast: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Owen Teague, Stefanie Scott, Chloe Perrin, Michael Landes, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jennifer Esposito Director: Michael Goi Screenwriter: Anthony Jaswinski Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: First Cow Aims, and Often Strains, to Illuminate the American Experiment
Its themes are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.2.5
The best Kelly Reichardt films strike a sublime balance between character study and socioeconomic critique. First Cow—a mostly 19th-century-set drama co-written by Reichardt and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, and based in part on his 2004 debut novel The Half-Life—is one of the director’s shakier efforts. The film begins with an especially incisive William Blake quote (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”), and its themes of systemic exploitation, the enduring vagaries of the free market, and the alternately tender and tempestuous bonds of male camaraderie are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.
That isn’t to say Reichardt, who’s edited all of her films since Old Joy, has lost the ability to create multilayered, gently provocative imagery. First Cow’s opening scene, set in the present day, is particularly beautiful, visually and thematically. A young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog uncovers a pair of skeletons beside an Oregon river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames the bones in a steady, un-showy composition (the film is photographed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio) so that it takes a few seconds to realize what you’re looking at. The slow-dawning revelation of the moment epitomizes Reichardt’s tendency in First Cow, as well as in many of her other films, to let drama emerge steadily and organically.
How did these bones get here? Reichardt is content to leisurely amble toward the answer to this question, and that approach does intrigue in the early going. In the Pacific Northwest wilderness of the 1820s, a cook named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) accompanies an aggressive group of trappers as they head toward an Oregon Territory outpost. One night he discovers a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), hiding naked in the nearby brush. King-Lu is apparently on the run from some Russian ruffians, so Cookie hides him among the trappers’ belongings. The pair reconnect again at the outpost, where they become drinking buddies and, eventually, partners in fortune-seeking crime.
The outpost’s wealthiest resident, a haughty Englishman referred to only as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has just brought in the first cow to grace the territory. Figowitz and King-Lu decide to steal the cow’s milk—under cover of night, and as often as needed—which they then use as the key ingredient in artisanal pastries that become a lucrative staple of the outpost’s thoroughfare. Their unwitting benefactor finds out about the treats (though not, at first, about their underhanded procuring methods) and offers them a handsome sum to bake pastries for him personally. And so the cycle of exploitation, righteous and not, continues—until it can’t.
None of that summary quite captures First Cow’s gravelly ambience. The outpost itself is as vividly realized and lived-in a location as the mining town in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film Reichardt nods to here via both Anthony Gasparro’s mud-strewn production design and the presence of Rene Auberjonois as a scarecrow-thin eccentric with a crow always on his shoulder. The sense of a nascent community rising up out of the primordial muck is palpable, so it’s unfortunate that Figowitz and King-Lu ultimately feel outside it all.
This isn’t the fault of Magaro or Lee. Both performers have a pleasing and often very funny rapport, especially whenever they exchange conspiratorial glances over a shared bottle of whiskey. However, Reichardt sees Figowitz and King-Lu, first and foremost, as the bag of bones they will become (abusers and victims both of capitalist injustice), rather than the men they are in each given moment. Their all-too-apparent endpoint supersedes their tragically flawed existence, which has the adverse effect of diminishing their humanity, reducing them to paper-thin symbols. This wreaks havoc with a finale that grasps for a profound elementalism akin to one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lushly ardent fantasias, but instead comes off with the contrived ambiguity and labored didacticism of lesser John Sayles.
There’s more insight into economic, racial, and social inequities in the offhand, unsubtitled exchange that Reichardt captures between two Native American women (one played by Lily Gladstone, the breakout star of Certain Women) as they converse among themselves in Chief Factor’s home. It’s the supporting cast and the side details that really sing in First Cow, both giving a sense of the alternately hopeful and despairing qualities of the American experiment that Reichardt aims, and too often strains, to illuminate.
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, Rene Auberjonois, Jared Kasowski Director: Kelly Reichardt Screenwriter: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt Distributor: A24 Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen Is a Haunting Meditation on Grief
Review: Indivisible Conjures Up Nostalgia Without Being Derivative
Review: Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Review: Catherine the Great Is an Alluring, If Shallow, Dip Into Russia’s Golden Age
Review: Chromatics’s Closer to Grey Resplendently Charts the Passage of Time
Review: Pixar’s Toy Story 4 on Disney Blu-ray with Alternate Ending
Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings
Review: Living with Yourself Is a Lesser Version of What It Could Be
Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion
Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils
- Music6 days ago
Review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen Is a Haunting Meditation on Grief
- Games6 days ago
Review: Indivisible Conjures Up Nostalgia Without Being Derivative
- Video7 days ago
Review: Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
- TV3 days ago
Review: Catherine the Great Is an Alluring, If Shallow, Dip Into Russia’s Golden Age