Screening Room: ‘Escape from Kabul’

The new documentary Escape from Kabul premieres this Wednesday on HBO.

My review is at The Playlist:

Jamie Roberts’ terse, painfully precise documentary “Escape from Kabul” zooms right in on one episode—the massive last-minute airlift of Afghans and remaining American personnel from Kabul in August 2021—and never looks away, even when you might wish that it did. It’s a close-quarters kind of war film that moves in tight and leaves little room to breathe. This seems an appropriate stylistic decision for a movie that is mainly about tens of thousands of people trying to escape a country as it is being reclaimed by medieval fanatics whose promises of equitable treatment were not widely believed…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Billy Wilder’s Rules

After Cameron Crowe failed to convince director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd., too many other classics to mention) to play a small role in Jerry Maguire, the two struck up a friendship. That turned into a series of conversations. That turned into a book.

That book contained Wilder’s rules for writing. They mostly involve getting attention, not letting up, and then grabbing people’s attention again. He specifies it’s for screenwriting specifically, but many if not all apply to most any kind of fiction:

  • 1: The audience is fickle.
  • 2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
  • 3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  • 4: Know where you’re going.
  • 5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  • 6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  • 7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  • 8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  • 9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  • 10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Screening Room: ‘See How They Run’

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan head up the superb cast of the new mystery caper See How They Run, which opens next week.

My review is at Slant:

Set in London in 1953, the film busily corkscrews a whodunnit and a narrative about mismatched cops into the behind-the-scenes machinations around a planned movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, then only a few months into its 70-or-so-year run. After the adaptation’s potential director, the blacklisted and highly opinionated drunk Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), is found murdered and deposited on the theater stage, the police—pert and eager Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), depressed and cynical Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell)—set about determining which of the cast or crew did the deed…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Compassionate Spy’

A Compassionate Spy is the latest documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams). This time, he tells the story of Ted Hall, the most consequential spy at Los Alamos most of us have never heard of. It’s making the festival rounds now and should be released later in the year.

My review is at Slant:

A gentle piece of work that’s about as far away from cloak-and-dagger skullduggery as could be imagined, A Compassionate Spy is in part the story of an idealistic teenager who risked the electric chair in order to keep American hegemony at bay. But even though Ted isn’t a household name, that story was largely told already by interviews Ted gave before his death in 1999 and a 1997 book, Bombshell, whose authors are interviewed here in order to fill in more background detail. Given that, James focuses more intently on Ted’s character and family…

Screening Room: ‘Nope’

Jordan Peele’s Nope opens this week. It’s like Get Out and Us … only not.

My review is at Slant:

In writer-director Jordan Peele’s chilling Nope, a struggling, Black-operated ranch that supplies horses for Hollywood productions faces an additional threat in the form of an extraterrestrial being that likes to suck animals and people up into the clouds. The Haywood ranch is a family-run operation, with OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) doing most of the work with a glum diligence while his upbeat sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), handles the people-interfacing duties. Though the siblings are hardly on the best of terms, when it comes time to face down the alien presence, they unsurprisingly rediscover a familial bond…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

In the romantic comedy, Cha Cha Real Smooth, a charismatic-ish slacker (played by writer/director Cooper Raiff) falls for an older woman (Dakota Johnson) while sort of trying to get his post-graduate life together.

Cha Cha Real Smooth has been playing some festivals and will be available on Apple TV this Friday. My review from the Tribeca Film Festival ran at PopMatters and dealt with, in part, the movie’s “bullying need to be liked.”

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Northman’

The Northman opens next Friday. It has Vikings, Bjork, and a story sort of derived from Hamlet. My review is at PopMatters:

A revenge thriller with an elevated horror heart and an anthropologist’s eye for detail and ritual, The Northman is a witchy and weird piece of work. But despite the layered imagination that went into recreating this ancient world, it is still the most conventional work yet from Eggers, director of old-time Americana oddities The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). The Northman features operatic scope and magical imagery that will be burned into your retinas for quite some time…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Donbass’

My review of the new Ukraine-set black comedy Donbass, which opens next week, is at The Playlist:

Winner of the 2018 Un Certain Regard award for Best Director at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but only getting released in the United States now, “Donbass” makes for eerie viewing coming just weeks after the Russo-Ukrainian war entered a new phase following the Russian invasion of late February 2022. Set at some unspecified time after Russian-backed separatists carved off the Donbass region of southeast Ukraine in early 2014, the film provides a glimpse of what life is like in (as the on-screen titles term it) “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine.” From what we see here, day-to-day life appears to be some combination of Cossack ”Mad Max” cosplay, throwback Soviet-era corruption, smashmouth nationalism, and gangster’s paradise…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Outfit’

In Graham Moore’s new Hitchcockian thriller The Outfit, a shy-seeming tailor is wrapped up in a tense game of wits with a passel of paranoid gangsters.

The Outfit opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

On the surface, the film’s story couldn’t be more different than that of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, for which Moore won an Oscar for his script, though both films share a love of nattily attired Englishmen puzzling out problems in life-or-death situations. The Englishman in this case is the suit store’s owner, Savile Row-trained tailor Leonard (Mark Rylance). He makes his living not just by crafting bespoke suits but looking the other way when members of the Boyle crime family show up to use the message drop box in the backroom. Leonard drinks his tea, cuts his cloth, and avoids thinking about the elephant in the room…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘America, We Have a Batman Problem’

How many Batman movies is too many? It seems like we are finding out.

My article, ‘America, We Have a Batman Problem’ is at Eyes Wide Open:

Batman’s appeal to artists and audiences is understandable. His immense wealth, traumatized childhood, and schizophrenic relationship with the villains he hunts provides a buffet of dramatic possibilities. Batman’s need (trauma) and ability (wealth) to act is as bottomless as his inability to avoid questioning his actions. Still, isn’t it time to give the man a rest?

Screening Room: ‘After Yang’

In After Yang, the new film from Kogonada (Columbus), a couple living in the near future has to confront a host of unexpected issues ranging from grief to questioning what it means to be human when their android Yang, purchased as a companion for their daughter, malfunctions.

My review of After Yang is at PopMatters:

Kogonada’s latest is a stately tea ceremony of a film that imagines an artfully designed future many would love to inhabit and others would find enervating. After Yang uses a dreamy and empathetic strain of science fiction to explore the idea that its extremely human-seeming android has a greater appreciation for the life it has been given than its owners and creators do of their own. This is not an especially original insight but it is at least thoughtfully and beautifully rendered…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Velvet Underground’

Somewhere in the great cultural ferment of 1960s New York, a band came together that changed the face of rock and roll. Nobody really noticed but other musicians. But to paraphrase the old saying, every one of those musicians who loved the Velvet Underground went off and formed their own band.

My review of Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, playing now on Apple TV+, ran at PopMatters:

To recreate the crashing symphony of experimentation that birthed the Velvet Underground, Haynes turns his documentary into something that looks like it could have been projected on a bedsheet tacked to the wall of a rat-trap art gallery below New York City’s 14th Street. It’s an immersive bricolage of frame-within-frame visuals and overlapping dialogue and audio clips occasionally studded with reminders that you are watching a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll band when something like “Venus in Furs” comes blasting out of the speakers with a banshee howl…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic Dune has been pushed back from theatrical release almost as frequently as the last Bond. Chances are, it will have a little more staying power, even if Timothée Chalamet’s take on Paul Atreides is not the most memorable acting you will see this year.

Dune opens this week. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Herbert’s Paul is one of science fiction’s original Chosen One characters. Like later iterations from Luke to Neo who the character inspired, Paul is a quasi-Christ figure who combines unmatched warrior skill with a certain mystifying Zen insight that sets him apart from and ultimately above the humans who surround him…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Bergman Island’

In Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, a filmmaker couple plans a vacation to the island of Faro, writing their next movies in Ingmar Bergman’s old house. His shadow looms large while their imaginations start to overtake their quiet domestic squabbles.

Bergman Island opens this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

The island’s serene vistas of breeze-ruffled trees and the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea suggest a relaxing hideout from the world. But the ghost of its most famous resident, the four-times-married Ingmar Bergman, looms large. As the housekeeper at Bergman’s estate (which has a private cinema stocked with 35mm prints of his work) half-jokes about showing them 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, the film that “made millions of people divorce” …

Here’s the trailer: