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Understanding Screenwriting #3: Transsiberian, The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #3: Transsiberian, The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, & More

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.

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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.

3

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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.

2

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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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Film

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.

2.5

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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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