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The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
The End of the Affair
A story we have seen many times before - woman destroyed by love - but one with which the director of The House of Mirth both has a particular affinity and invests with that dreamlike, almost somnambulist, melancholy and clear-eyed, even-handed candour in his representations of the key players: desperate romantic wife, wronged but dignified husband, selfish but droll lover, stern yet empathetic landlady. As a result the familiar turns of the narrative matter less than the exquisitely observed pathos of their enaction. Davies messes with chronology, too, so that we begin at story's end and are never sure how close together the two suicide attempts come. The final shot is a chilling pan onto a burnt-out shell of a house, at once proleptic and symbolic of the protagonist's utter desolation, like something from a David Lynch movie.
It ain't no Hustler.
Neat title this - L'arnacoeur - invoking the Paul Newman classic The Hustler (L'arnaqueur in France), but the present film in fact resembles the more recent Hors de prix, both in setting and in its narrative arc. A former boxer joins forces with his brother and sister-in-law and together they offer the service of breaking up intended couples who are unhappy, even if they do not know it. When debts force him to use his seductive powers against a woman who is really in love, he finds himself challenged morally as well as professionally. It is all quite preposterous but works rather better, partly because it packs in some great visual gags along the way, partly because there is actually some chemistry between the stars. Also, when interest flags in the central 'will she, won't she?' set-up, the film-makers wisely put in some schtick involving the versatile Ferrier and Damiens. Another commercial success for the lithe and athletic Duris, but is he in danger of being typecast?
Dumb and Dumber meets Die Hard
A witless spoof of Die Hard, and other movies when it runs out of ideas, one of France's top 2001 box office draws feature the inexplicably popular TV comedy duo of Judor and Bedia, who have seemed to model themselves on the Dumb and Dumber sub-genre of comedy. The effect is rather like watching Norman Wisdom in the same film as Jerry Lewis while each tries to slow down and dilute his schtick to make the other look better. One excruciating routine has one of them repeatedly failing to notice as the other dirties the window he has just cleaned. The rather cute Foïs has her features fixed in an expression of contempt throughout, though it might be boredom, and Riaboukine is wasted in the Alan Rickman role. The hardware and production values are in fact pretty well matched to the Die Hard films (even the colour processing is the same), but it only makes one long all the more for someone to either shoot or defenestrate these two cretins and put us out of our misery. In brief, this one definitely does not travel.
Mille mois (2003)
Striking glimpse of life in Morocco
A woman in a remote village struggles to raise her son with her father-in-law, while they await the trial of the boy's father on political charges. We do not get very close to the characters (close-ups and medium close-ups are used sparingly if at all) and this is not a film in which one is likely to feel caught up in the plight of its protagonists, save on a representative level, because very real people like them exist; moreover, the ending, which shows them leaving for the city, begs many questions. What is interesting here, though, is the wealth of sociological detail: the value placed on furniture (the boy carries a chair to and from school, for the teacher, who does not feel important enough without one); the kaïd who must collect wives wherever he goes (he is so corrupt he can afford them); the farmer who ferries water to a patch of land like Jean de Florette, even though it has been appropriated by the government; the wife contemplating union with another man who visits furtively by night, because she has to support herself and her child somehow. A film, in short, which repays close attention but will not overwhelm.
Man on Wire (2008)
Twin Towers remembered
A real treat, especially for documentary lovers, this film will undoubtedly resonate for all of us around the anniversary of September 11th 2001. It tells of tightrope-walker Philippe Petit (the French have a wonderful word, funambule) and his obsession with conquering the Twin Towers. And yes, I do mean what you think I mean. Having strung a wire between the towers of Notre Dame de Paris, and then between those of the Sydney Harbour bridge, and proceeded to walk, kneel, lie down, turn around and juggle on them, Petit and his accomplices planned the spectacular and all but impossible challenge of doing the same for WTC North and South towers. It is of course illegal to do this sort of thing, but they had got away with it before. Interweaving documentary footage, reconstruction and talking head reminiscences of the participants Petit himself is infectiously enthusiastic Marsh fashions a film which tantalisingly revisits the progress of events on the day and then leaves us dangling (sorry) to go back and explain or amplify earlier events and preparations. Despite the security challenges, the dangers of cross winds, wire oscillation and tension, not to mention the difficulty of getting an extremely heavy length of cable up a hundred flights and getting it two hundred feet to the opposite tower, the group pulled it off. It's a breathtaking viewing experience, conveying something of the awe the event inspired in bystanders back in 1974, and this despite the lack of moving images depicting the coup itself.
The Duchess (2008)
More fun in corsets
The latest slice of period drama to grace our screens is this biopic on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who during the 1770s was patroness of the Whig party and prisoner of a marriage which made her, among other things, suffer the indignity of having her husband's mistress living under the same roof. These heritage dramas are an industry all by themselves; the armies of prop hirers, wig and costume makers, researchers, production designers, location scouts and (mostly) British actors who go to make them must find themselves in almost permanent employ. The BBC does them, the Americans have a go at them, and the public can't seem to get enough of them. The Duchess is a superior example of the genre, though nowhere in the league of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, and combines the spectacle of Keira Knightley looking glamorous in a range of frocks and wigs, while at the same time honing her acting talents (no more those rictus grins), with the guilty pleasure of following the uncomfortable parallels between the fortunes and indiscretions of the ancestress of Lady Diana Spencer with those of the Princess of Wales herself. Lowering over the whole proceedings is the truly superb presence of Ralph Fiennes's Duke of Devonshire, Fiennes an actor who can convey polite discomfiture or threatening ire with slightest twitch of the mouth. In his hands the Duke becomes far less a melodramatic villain than a product of his time, and you almost feel sorry for him. Go and see The Duchess; only those who have had children will balk at the liberties taken with childbirth and breastfeeding. But not even that will spoil the fun.
The World's Fastest Indian (2005)
Some slow reels about fast wheels
Whatever image comes to mind on reading the title of this film, know that the 'Indian' is an extraordinarily designed motorcycle of the 1920s, emanating from Springfield, Mass. With its body mouldings and low-slung position for the driver it resembles more a coffin on wheels than a conventional bike, and it occupies the mythic sort of ground one equates with such screen antecedents as Herbie the VW beetle, Indiana Jones's whip or, more obscurely, James Caan's sidearm in El Dorado: old-fashioned and crude it may appear, but we know in the audience that it's going to wipe the board. It is, I suppose, a character in the film on the same footing as its enthusiastic and loving owner, Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins). Set in the early 60s, the film tells of Munro's realization of his long-held ambition to attend Speed Week on the Bonneville salt flats, Death Valley, and see what his bike can really do when it is opened up. Naturally there is no end of obstacles that attend this quixotic mission, and naturally no one (except us) expects him to set a new world record. Writer/director Roger Donaldson, returning to New Zealand after a patchy career in Hollywood, sets a leisurely pace, clearly relishing a project close to his heart, while Hopkins, a well publicized solo driver and appreciator of wide open spaces, throws himself into the role: he cries, he dances for joy, he gives off that shout of a laugh that he has, he does everything except master the New Zealand accent (which slips at times into Cockney or Welsh). Whether he is melting down old parts to make new pistons for his bike, filing down his toenails with a power tool or overcoming prostate problems by washing down ground dog's bones (an Indian, as in Native American, remedy he tries in desperation), we believe in this chap and his overriding passion, his willingness to live in a garage and burn the skin of his calf to fulfil a dream. Probably we've all met someone like him; secretly we would like to be him. Of course before he can overcome prostate and heart problems, financial difficulties, a fragile, temperamental, not to mention unsafe, motorcycle, and general ignorance of the North American way of doing things, he must first convince an awful lot of people that he is actually a good egg. And if I had one criticism of the film it would be the finely stacked odds that determine how most of the time the people he meets are sympathetic to his cause, prepared to go the extra yard for him and, in the women's case, take him to their hearts. Some of us like our 'feelgood' messages a little less candy-wrapped than here, but nevertheless the image of Munro hurtling across the floor of Death Valley at approaching 200mph is one that will be with me for a long time, and that's because, like him, we've been made to earn it.
Hable con ella (2002)
Benigno and Marco are both lonely men, Marco because his lover, a woman bullfighter, is in a coma, Benigno, a thirty-year old virgin Momma's boy, from habit. Both are in love, too (Benigno, a male nurse at the clinic, slavishly tends Alicia, a comatose accident victim, for a living). It is he who gives Marco, with whom he strikes up a friendship, the eponymous advice: talk, and your heartfelt monologue will be more meaningful and therapeutic than any marital dialogue.
Seeing Almodóvar's latest film was one of the most pleasurable cinema experiences I have had for some time. He has over the years amassed the technical skill and maturity to put across quite complex stories in a deceptively simple language. From the shock tactics and punk aesthetics of Pepi, Luci, Bom, y otras chicas del montón (1980), to the Oscar-winning melodrama of All About My Mother (1999), he had already come a long way. Here, finally, was an interweaving of the lives of disparate characters that was not only unabashed in its excess (it always had been), it actually made you care deeply.
At first sight Hable con ella looks like being another case study in that famously offbeat, not to say queer, book of life according to Pedro. Almodóvar's scenarios have been no strangers to sex, drugs, and heartrending canción (a particular brand of overwrought singing which knows no real Anglo-Saxon equivalent). In Hable con ella we have bullfighting, a theme he used as an excuse for kinky sex in Matador, given a contemporary treatment in the person of 'torera', Lydia (female bullfighters are indeed beginning to compete in a man's profession). Here too we have the apparently off-the-wall and by now notorious scene from the film-within-the-film, El Amante Minguante, in which a shrunken hero takes refuge in his lover's vagina for protection. But neither is gratuitous gesture: Lydia is designed to counterpoint Marco's almost feminine sensitivity, and the latter sequence, far from being there to shock, is a metaphor to spare us a far more harrowing, and morally problematic, plot truth. The ability to turn kitsch into art is increasingly one of Almodóvar's defining features.
While he often refers to other artforms in his films (reality TV in Kika, Ruth Rendell in Live Flesh, canción in High Heels), since All About My Mother the technique has become more assured. Where that film was a paean to female suffering, via All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire, in Hable con ella we have two men sharing a tear over a performance by the dancer Pina Bausch. Other references are the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, who sings at a party attended by (uncredited) Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes (from Mother), and Michael Cunningham, whose novel The Hours similarly has a tripartite structure where each section deepens and sheds light on the others ('tunnels in caves'). In other words the post-modernist borrowing is rendered invisible by being absorbed into the drama: it is not post-modern any more.
Almodóvar's choice to make a film about the loneliness and longing of men is a courageous one for a very private celebrity, a gamble to follow what might have been the peak of his career, and one which whets our appetite for what is to come.
La règle du jeu (1939)
A critique of French society between the wars
A weekend party assembles at the château of the Marquis de la Chesnaye. Among the guests André, an aviator, is in love with the Marquis's wife, Christine; the Marquis himself is conducting an affair with Geneviève; Octave, an old family friend, is also secretly in love with the Marquise. Meanwhile a poacher, appointed servant by the mischievous Marquis, comes to blows with the gamekeeper over the latter's flirtatious wife.
The set-up may remind one of The Shooting Party or Gosford Park, but the debt is naturally in the present film's favour. Rather, the upstairs-downstairs intrigue, the mingling of comedy with drama, and the setting prior to cataclysmic social/political change owe much to Beaumarchais's Le mariage de Figaro. Which explains the hostility of audiences and government alike on the film's release; it was cut, then banned outright, and not reconstituted until well into the 1950s.
To tap the source of the disquiet aroused by this superficially fluffy piece of bedroom farce ('Surely just the French doing what they do best?'), one must look beyond the typical observation that it was 'socially insidious because it was a clear attack on the haute-bourgeoisie, the very class who would shortly lead the troops against the Germans'. The auto-critique goes deeper than that.
Consider. The lower orders are no better than their irresponsible masters: the women are no less immoral, the men just as concerned to preserve their foreheads from cuckoldry. This is the culmination of Figaro's contract with the Count: he enjoins the latter to behave like an honest man, as befits his station; two centuries later, not only has the nobility welshed on the deal, it has brought the servant classes down with it. Renoir serves up for the French a portrait of a society which is rotten from top to bottom. 'The Rules of the Game' are: keep up appearances, and somehow the whole charade will be preserved indefinitely (barring Adolf and his Panzers, that is).
André, the aviator, the crosser of the Atlantic (distance, perspective), is the one who threatens the edifice. Being Christine's lover is not enough; she must elope with him, it must be 'honest'. If she does this she will be showing that feelings matter more than money and position. The choice is too much for her and she runs for cover with Octave, and thus sets in motion the mechanism by which everything ends in tragedy but the status quo is maintained, for now.
The working out of this theme in Renoir's hands leads to some striking juxtapositions of tone. Renoir the 'humanist', like Octave whom he plays, was a lover, and forgiver, of humanity. It was not in him to condemn without affection. In one scene the gamekeeper chases his rival through the drawing room discharging a pistol, while the guests barely look up from their cards: he is merely playing by the rules, after all. It was perhaps the coexistence of farcical sequences like this with the wanton slaughter of wildlife in the hunt scene that audiences found hard to take. Renoir himself wrote: 'During the shooting of the film I was torn between my desire to make a comedy of it and the wish to tell a tragic story. The result of this ambivalence was the film as it is.' Amen.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
The Pride of the Passion
Now that the critical dust has settled over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I thought it might be time to reflect on the artistic success of this controversial venture.
Much ink has been shed over the perceived anti-semitism of the film; put simply, the Romans didn't kill Jesus, the Jews did.' My personal view is that this chimes pretty much with my reading of the gospels: the Pharisees arraigned Jesus first, and then took him to Pilate, and the latter is presented as a weakish man who gave into the crowd's bloodlust for the sake of avoiding civil unrest. The verse from St Matthew's gospel, His blood be on us and upon all our children', which is cited as evidence of Gibson's insensitivity and which the Vatican has explicitly avoided since the early 1960s, is indeed spoken but not subtitled (the entire film is in Aramaic and Latin, in case you didn't realize). True, Pilate's wife is added, a kind of convertee in the making, who has had ominous dreams and provides Mary with clean towels to mop up her son's blood.
But when I viewed the film, I was above all aware that I was watching a movie, and I use the word advisedly. The above concerns, about which I had read already, were at the back of my mind. And therein lies the danger of the film, critics will say. The whole apparatus of the production - the extreme violence, the rhetorical flourishes of slow motion and close-up, the emotional string pulling of telling details such as Pilate's wife's towels and, later, the Turin shroud scene everything is directed towards two basic plot themes: the unworthiness of humanity next to the dignity and courage of this man/god, and the unbearable suffering of a mother who sees her offspring undergo such torture and is not only powerless to stop it but knows it has to be.
These are also, incidentally, two aspects of the Christ story with which the mass film-going public is most likely to identify. Which is why there is none of Pasolini's radical demagogue (The Gospel According to St Matthew, 1961) in this film, indeed little of Christ teaching at all. Instead Gibson bludgeons his audience into submission by using a language they understand (violence in the movies) but to the point where it hurts, (and one might unkindly add that he dresses it up by using two that they don't.) It is a bravura piece of filmmaking, totally effective in its aims (witness its enormous commercial success); it left me shaken, and somehow elated.
Proverka na dorogakh (1986)
Suppressed masterpiece of a war film
During the Second World War a Russian soldier, previously forced into collaboration with the Germans, escapes and joins the partisans but first has to prove his reliability. One of a number of films to re-emerge in the mid 80s, having been suppressed for being too challenging. The particular sin of this war film was to suggest that Stalin's policy of automatically shooting POWs on recovery was callous and ignored questions of conscience, treating all soldiers as potential traitors. It also shattered the idea, long upheld, of a united Soviet Union fighting the German devil: here the peasantry would prefer to be left alone by both sides since association with one brings reprisals from the other.
French musical comedy of the old school
A patchwork of elements from Hollywood melodramas and musical comedies of the most banal kind supports this veteran of the 'spectacle', once complimented by Edward VII for her legs, but a little broad of beam for this kind of material by now.
Pussyman 4: The Celebration (1993)
Medium gloss porno, beautiful girls
A mansion full of hot babes await a visit from the by now, one assumes, legendary Pussyman, who is vetting girls for his next movie.
Wow! A film within the film, I hear you exclaim. What a novel idea! At least, it must be said, our intrepid hero does not film the events himself as he goes, Buttman style. The production on this film is considerably glossier than on so-called Gonzo flicks, with a steady camera, fair lighting and some imaginatively erotic angles. The scenario is no more than an excuse, of course, for a string of set pieces, a fair number being of the lesbian variety and the best involving an outdoor pool by night. The girls are by and large delightful, the fellas look like plumbers' mates.
Vénus beauté (institut) (1999)
French slice of professional life with a disappointing ending
Angèle works in a Paris beauty salon with the ingénue-like Marie and cynical Samantha. Their boss is the supportive but businesslike Nadine (an extremely funny and perceptive performance by Ogier, one of Buñuel's bourgeois in Le Charme Discret
and the dominatrix of Schroeder's Maîtresse) who has years of experience in broken hearts and knows how to keep a professional distance. The film charts Angèle's own progress from embittered divorcée to feeling human being through her pursuit by the love-smitten sculptor, Antoine.
We first see Angèle chatting up a total stranger in a railway buffet. This is what she does. She picks up men for casual sex because her faith in the possibility of love left her when her marriage failed (actually she shot her husband, though not fatally). It is ironic, therefore, that a strikingly similar crime of passion causes a turnaround, but enough said for now.
What delights most of all in this film is Nathalie Baye's performance. Having had to make do for much of her career with Adjani-type roles such as those in Le Retour de Martin Guerre or La Balance, she has matured to the point where at last she is being offered more interesting work. She invests Angèle with the vulnerability that we have glimpsed in the past, but which carries before it a prickly resilience necessary for survival.
Another great pleasure is the portrait of the beauty salon milieu, which lays bare -rather than covers up - human foibles with typical Gallic frankness. This is not the ersatz world of Cher in Mermaids, nor does it adopt the feminist critique that beauty products are emblems of women's self-enslavement to men. Instead it allows both humour and melancholy to let individual cases speak for themselves. The salon is a self-contained world, with its naggingly distinctive door jingle, where different solutions to the single woman's predicament are offered by employee and customer alike. Nadine tells Angèle: 'When you're not a girl any more, you'd better decide not to be a girl any more.' Samantha is promiscuous but, unlike Angèle, allows her disappointments to affect her professional life, which brings her into conflict with Nadine. But significantly when she tells Nadine where to go, while we may sympathise more with Samantha, Nadine is not made to look petty by comparison (it is possible to imagine how an American film would handle this scene very differently). Marie has a liaison with an injured pilot (Sixties matinée idol Robert Hossein) many years her senior, something Angèle finds it hard to understand until she is turned on by witnessing their nocturnal tryst. Meanwhile Angèle's provincial aunts (Micheline Presle, the director's mother and star of Boule de Suif and Le Diable au Corps, and Emmanuelle Riva, most famously of Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour - both too briefly glimpsed here) co-exist in a domestic routine which is comparatively idyllic but envy Angèle's independence and ability to live it up in the big city. No one is happy.
Clearly the sculptor, with his undemanding love, is the key for Angèle (and many another single female, no doubt!) but just how the film makes the transition from her morose rebuttals to melting acceptance is one aspect in which you may feel it betrays its Mike Leigh-style realism by opting for an ending which is too whimsical. We hope this does not spoil the many other qualities of Marshall's film.
By the same director: If you enjoy Vénus Beauté you would certainly like Tonie Marshall's earlier feature, Pas très catholique.
The Insider (1999)
Another Mann classic
Mark Kermode in his March 2000 Sight and Sound review said:
The Insider ought to walk off with a basket of Oscars in March.' He goes on to say, of course, that it won't (and it didn't) and that Michael Mann and his movie should be proud to be outsiders.'
The fact is that the reason The Insider did not gain a single Oscar was because it was too risky. It treated a subject (whether or not the tobacco industry was involved in chemically treating its cigarettes to enhance their addictive properties) which was in its way as political as the equally neglected, and equally brilliant, Bulworth last year. It used as its basis a current affairs article and named names. Result: few people in Ipswich, or elsewhere outside London, can have had a chance to see this film, which was rapidly eclipsed on its release by the admittedly arresting American Beauty and the trivial efficiency of The Talented Mr Ripley.
A word about Michael Mann. Famous, some would prefer infamous, as the creator of Miami Vice, his feature film work has lent towards more challenging themes while retaining the surface sheen of that cops and robbers series. Manhunter (1988) anticipated The Silence of the Lambs in being a film about serial killers with Hannibal Lector as touchstone, but had a cop who was as screwed up as his quarry. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) brought visceral excitement to the costume adventure and Heat (1995, also with Pacino) returned to the hunter/hunted identification of Manhunter while returning the urban thriller to the chic of Bullitt after years of French Connection grittiness. All his films demonstrate Mann's qualities as a stickler for detail, a director ready to take a chance with a shot, holding it for longer than most would dare, and someone who likes to get inside the psyche of the macho male (pardon the tautology). The classic Mann shot has one of his characters silhouetted against a landscape, set below an evening sky in contemplation of his destiny, all with sensuous electronic music over the top. He is the thinking man's action movie director.
The Insider is in a way a change of direction: this is not an action film but an investigation, in the manner of All the President's Men or JFK . The setting is TV and the programme Sixty Minutes. Bergman (Pacino), the show's producer, receives anonymous documents casting dubious light on the tobacco industry and approaches Wigand (Crowe), a recently fired research and development employee for Brown and Williamson. And so it goes, the familiar twists and turns followed with precision and without condescension to melodrama or hyperbole. B&W sweat and threaten, CBS loses its cool, individual integrity is on the line. We've been here before, as so often in the movies, but rarely with such conviction and professionalism.
Pacino continues his recent spate of plum roles with a super performance as the man at the controls, a part he has made his own since The Godfather Part Two. Russell Crowe, in a part quite different to that in this Summer's Gladiator, is a stocky, greying, reluctant hero, and more than fulfills the promise of LA Confidential. The supporting cast, from Plummer's unctuous presenter to Gershon's acid corporate lawyer, all pull their weight, no doubt glad to be speaking a literate script for a director with a vision.
L'oeuvre au noir (1988)
Not quite The Name of the Rose...
A doctor in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century is caught up in the conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland.
Solemn treatment of a distinguished work of literature; the essence of the book just does not seem to come through.
Poussière d'empire (1983)
Curious amalgam of stories
In Vietnam in the 50s, before Dien Bien Phu, a sergeant and a sister show religious films to the peasantry but are surrounded by Viet Minh in a rainstorm and later shot. Meanwhile a North Vietnamese soldier tries to get a message through to his wife in Saigon.
Curious amalgam of stories which completely changes direction halfway through. By looking at the Vietnamese suffering in microcosm it achieves a certain vividness and a touch of mysticism.
Stylish documentary on the painter's work
Documentary on the painter's work, covering all the territory with a certain sense of style.
Revelatory (for laymen) but a little high-flown in its commentary and too brief in its analyses.
Plyumbum, ili Opasnaya igra (1987)
A schoolboy becomes an ace detective...
A schoolboy proves so helpful to the police that they take him on as an undercover detective, but he is incapable of distinguishing the letter of the law from the human frailty it is there to defend.
Thoughtful, watchable comment on blind subservience to 'the code', with a precocious hero whose innocence is at once the reason for our sympathy and his major fault. A possible allegory about fledgling democracies, or even Communist states, succumbing to ruthless idealism.
Full Body Massage (1995)
Another angle on Full Body Massage
A gallery owner is surprised when her home masseur sends a replacement, from whom she receives intellectual and spiritual, rather than sensual, treatment. Essentially a long conversation about art, life and relationships, broken up with the director's customarily intriguing montage, and in which the star bravely exposes herself physically as well as emotionally. Compelling viewing.
La 317ème section (1965)
Synopsis and Comments on La 317e Section
In 1954 Vietnam, at the time of Diên Biên Phu, a French unit on patrol under the command of an inexperienced lieutenant is gradually depleted by Vietminh until only an ex-Wehrmacht Alsatian adjutant remains. He is to die, a title informs us, in Algeria in 1960.
Semi-documentary in style, this is an effectively low-key appraisal of the difficult choices with which war confronts its soldiers. As so often in Vietnam films the enemy is only glimpsed from a distance, the camera remaining a disembodied observer among the group. Bertrand Tavernier acted as co-writer on the film.