Most dedicated film lovers are familiar with the elegiac â50s family dramas of Yasujirô Ozu, classics like Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953). Much as they are cherished and respected, even his most fervent admirers have admitted the sameness of these films, in which a constantly smiling Setsuko Hara beams from her tatami mat and says, “Life is certainly disappointing!” After her pronouncement, Ozu cuts to a boat chugging along a river; he then cuts back to Hara, who has a measured shot/reverse shot conversation with one of her parents. Mom or Dad smiles finally, then reflects, “My dreams of youth are gone!” Then Ozu cuts to laundry flapping in the breeze against a mackerel sky, etc. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Ozu prefers to suffer and understand rather than to fight and enjoy. His Zen resignation is like a drug to some, but it must be said that Ozuâs basic attitude can seem complacent, even maddening, especially to American viewers whose birthright has always been the urge to tell someone off, make a change, start again. Of course, this “anything is possible” point of view has led to a lot of pain for most of our ambitious American strivers, so a pinch or more of Ozuâs philosophy can be beneficial to us.
Ozu made a lot of films in the â30s, many of which are silent, some of which are lost, and these early films are seldom screened, so the new Eclipse series release, “Silent OzuâThree Family Comedies”, is valuable in that it lets us see the genesis of his refined late style. The initial movie in the set, Tokyo Chorus (1931) has been identified by some writers as Ozuâs first really mature work, and it does have a cohesiveness that some of his other â30s films lack. Chorus opens with a bunch of schoolboys being drilled in marching formation; one of the boys is rebellious, sticking his tongue out at the headmaster and making a face at him. This boy is also dreamy and contemplative: we see him sitting and staring at trees shivering in the wind, an image that haunts the rest of the movie. Then thereâs a jump ahead in time, and the boy (Tokihiko Okada) is now an office drone with a wife and two small children. Okadaâs daughter is played by a seven-year old Hideko Takamine, who grew up into a major actress for Mikio Naruse and other Japanese directors in the fifties. Takamine is instantly recognizable here; itâs startling to see her famously pinched, wary face on top of a little girl body. And sheâs already a nag: “Daddyâs a liar!” baby Takamine whines, at one point.
Thereâs an earthy, even scatological humor in Tokyo Chorus that Ozu would gradually pare away from his films, by and large, but his sense of resignation was present from the beginning. As Okada sits in a park, at loose ends and out of a job, a friend tells him that a bear has escaped from a nearby zoo. Okada smiles at his excited pal and says, “A bear getting out isnât going to change our lives.” This “what will be will be” vibe is fine for some situations, but Ozu always takes it too far. After all, the bear might be right behind Okada and ready to eat him; the least he could do would be to get up and leave the area, but no, it doesnât matter, he says, for nothing matters to him at this moment. At its worst, Ozuâs seemingly serene acceptance of life is actually close to do-nothing, harmful nihilism. Still, itâs hard to argue with the long scene where the desolate family tries to forget their problems with an extended game of patty cake; we can actually see Ozuâs anxious cheerfulness visibly burning away his charactersâ worries. In the end, though, Ozu asks us to weep for his hero, forced to take a demeaning job with his old schoolmaster. Naruse also knew that his people had to make sacrifices to go on, but Iâll take the grown-up Takamineâs wry, almost humorous confrontation with her hated job at the end of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) over Ozuâs more adolescent and not at all funny look at defeat in Tokyo Chorus.
I Was Born, But… (1932) is Ozuâs best-known early film, and it fully deserves its reputation. We watch two young boys doing ordinary things like cutting school and playing with other kids for a while before the real subject of the movie rears its ugly head. About an hour in, the boys sit and watch their wage slave father, Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), make the same dumb faces and gestures over and over again, in movies that are being projected for some of his co-workers. Watching the co-workersâ reactions, Yoshiiâs sons understand instinctively that their father is a figure of fun to the other adults. To a kid, especially a boy, thereâs nothing worse than a realization like that, and their violent reaction at home later on is both grueling and fair. “You tell us to become somebody, but youâre nobody!” one of them shouts at Yoshii. Their father doesnât defend himself, and their mother is an even weaker presence. “I give up,” says Yoshii, grabbing a bottle of liquor, as many Ozu men will do in later films. This scene of fatherly self-deprecation is unthinkable in an American movie, and it says a lot about Ozuâs essential despair, just as the final, small act of kindness on the part of one of the boysâ friends, which ends the film, says a lot about his appreciation of lifeâs small mercies.
The third film in the set, Passing Fancy (1933), is nowhere near as good as the first two movies. It really wants to be a talkie; there are too many titles for all the conversation scenes, and the setpiece sequence, a confrontation between a boy and his drunken, good-for-nothing father, suffers in comparison with the tougher, similar scene in I Was Born, But…; what was true and moving in that film seems maudlin here. Passing Fancy ends with the contemplation of some trees, bringing us full circle back to the daydreaming image at the beginning of Tokyo Chorus. This was a director who stressed such continuity: Ozuâs technical skills are already impressive in these three early films, and his way of looking at life and people is as firm at age thirty as it would be at age fifty. Let us enjoy and even learn from Ozu, but letâs not accept all of his ideas about human forbearance without a dash or two of our own American “get up and go,” seasoned heavily with Naruseâs hardboiled black humor.
Image/Sound/Extras: Tokyo Chorus is the most visually innovative of the films, so itâs unfortunate that the image is so badly damaged; the entire movie is fighting against a veil of print decay. Donald Sosinâs piano score for Chorus is upbeat and sprightly even when things look bleakest for the characters, which works well at first, but begins to seem strange as the film goes on. I Was Born, But… and Passing Fancy look fine, and Sosinâs scores for both are excellent. No extras, since this is an Eclipse no-frills release.
Blu-ray Review: Anders Jacobssonâs Evil Ed on Arrow Video
This single-disc release of Evil Ed is more manageable than Arrowâs previous three-disc edition.3
Anders Jacobssonâs Evil Ed doesnât just wear its influences on its sleeve, it plasters them all over the walls. Posters for the filmâs spiritual forebearsâincluding David Cronenbergâs The Fly, John Carpenterâs Prince of Darkness, and Dan OâBannonâs The Return of the Living Deadâfigure prominently in practically every scene of this mildly likable but quickly exhausting exercise in gonzo gore. But no influence looms larger over the project than the Evil Dead series, whose madcap mix of over-the-top violence and goofy gags serves as the template for Jacobssonâs film. Itâs no surprise, then, to find the poster for the legendary second entry in Sam Raimiâs series in an early scene, but when the exact same poster crops up again minutes later on the wall of a completely different set, itâs an early warning sign that the film is never going to break free of the shackles of its antecedents.
The rest of Evil Ed more than bears out that fear. Seemingly every other line or image in the film is cribbed from some superior source, be it a demon modeled on the Lord of Darkness from Ridley Scottâs Legend or a Gremlin-like creature hanging out in a refrigerator or jokey quotations from everything from Stanley Kubrickâs Full Metal Jacket to George Romeroâs Night of the Living Dead toâsurprise!âEvil Dead II. Itâs clear that Jacobsson and his fellow semi-amateur filmmaking colleagues have a great affection for the films theyâre cribbing from, but thereâs no identifiable purpose to any of these references. Worse, they seem to have little idea about what makes their filmâs forebears work so well on the level of plot and pace.
Evil Ed settles for the quick sugar rush of over-the-top violence. Admittedly, the filmâs makeup effects and action sequences are executed with a scrappy panache that recalls some of the more entertaining Troma efforts. If Jacobsson, makeup artist GĂ¶ran LundstrĂ¶m, and editor Doc have picked up anything from Raimi, itâs how to pull off an outlandish splatter sequence on a tight budget. Particularly memorable is an outrageous scene in which a crazed killer saws off a scantily clad prostituteâs limbs as prodigious amounts of blood squirt in all directions.
That scene comes from the film-within-a-film Loose Limbs 5, an entry in a slasher series from which Evil Edâs protagonist, Edward Tor Swenson (Johan Rudebeck), is tasked with removing all offensive content. A censor working for a Swedish film company, Edward is used to snipping brief clips of nudity from Bergmanesque art films, so his transfer to the companyâs Splatter and Gore Department isnât an easy one for him. The deeper he gets into the job, which he carries out at the eerie suburban estate of the companyâs sleazy executive, Sam Campbell (Olof Rhodin), the more his grip on reality becomes loosed. First, Edward starts to hallucinate visions of demons, monsters, and savage brutality, and before long heâs violently murdering anyone and everyone whoâs unfortunate enough to show up on his doorstep.
This premise, inspired by Swedenâs long-running censorship practices, is rife with satirical potential. But outside of a few moments, such as Samâs explanation for why a scene of a woman being raped by a beaver should be allowed to stay in one of the Loose Limbs films, Evil Ed never really settles on a point of view. The film isnât really interested in commenting on censorship or the ubiquity of violence in media or anything else. It is, though, concerned with packing as much zany carnage into its frames as it can. If films like Peter Jacksonâs Dead Alive have shown that approach can pay dividends, the result here is a shambling assortment of increasingly monotonous gore and overwrought comedy loosely stitched together with arrhythmic, dawdling scenes consisting mostly of unfunny jokes delivered in poorly dubbed English. For a film that features so much of everythingâaction, horror, comedy, monsters, nudity, creatures, dream sequencesâEvil Ed ultimately amounts to so little.
âNinety minutes of condensed sex and violence!â shouts an incredulous Edward at one point to a fan of the Loose Limbs series. âYou call that a great movie?!â His outrage is obviously intended as the filmâs winking, self-effacing commentary on itself. But itâs unfortunate that the sentiment rings all too true. Evil Ed may be more knowing than the â80s slashers it parodies, but that doesnât mean itâs got anything more on its mind.
Shot on 16mm in mostly overlit nighttime interiors, Evil Ed isnât the prettiest of films, but it does have a certain distinctively exaggerated look, which is reproduced with care and fidelity on Arrow Videoâs Blu-ray release. The textures of the filmâs moody color paletteânamely its deep, shadowy bluesâreally shine through. If thereâs some visible grain in some scenes, that feels true to the productionâs scrappy, low-budget origins. The sound levels are slightly inconsistent, with sometimes slightly muffled dialogue scenes giving way to abrasively noisy action sequences. These disparities are particularly evident in the discâs stereo mix, while the sound levels are more evenly dispersed on the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Overall, however, both image and sound are more than acceptable, with any audio-visual issues mostly being the product of the semi-amateur nature of the film.
This single-disc release features only the 99-minute âSpecial ED-itionâ cut and doesnât contain the original version of the film. Jettisoning the theatrical cut doesnât constitute much of a loss, particularly considering that the additional scenes only amount to about six minutes of inessential material. The 45-minute making-of documentary You Keep âEm Heads Rollinâ offers a fun, breezy history of the filmâs arduous production; turns out that the story of Evil Edâs making is more compelling than the film itself. A few shorter featurettes offer largely superfluous looks at the preparation of the new cut, the early filmmaking endeavors of Anders Jacobsson and his crew their careers post-Ed. The disc also contains a brief breakdown of the scenes added in the âSpecial ED-itionâ cut, a self-satisfied introduction to the film by Jacobsson and Doc, deleted scenes, trailers, and an image gallery. Despite the absence of an audio commentary, Arrow has still loaded this disc with a generous helping of extras.
Arrow Videoâs single-disc release of Evil Ed is more manageable than its previous three-disc edition, but itâs still probably more than this Swedish genre curio can really withstand.
Cast: Michael Kallaanvaara, Olof Rhodin, Hans Wilhelmsson, Anders Ek, Memory Garp, Christer Fant, Odile Nunes, Johan Rudebeck, Ulf Landergren, Jenny Forslund Director: Anders Jacobsson Screenwriter: Anders Jacobsson, GĂ¶ran LundstrĂ¶m, Christer Ohlsson Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 1995 Release Date: February 4, 2020
Review: Benh Zeitlinâs Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan
Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.2
Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlinâs sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The filmâs modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elementsânotwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as âmother,â who may hold the secret to reversing timeâalso play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrieâs classic. But Zeitlinâs brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities weâve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.
Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, thereâs a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creatureâs brief appearances, and to Wendyâs initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her familyâs rundown diner. But Wendyâs whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romerâs incessantly rousing score to Wendyâs breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the filmâs dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohortsâ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; itâs almost as if theyâre performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.
Unlike QuvenzhanĂ© Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.
Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, theyâre uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlinâs relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that âto grow up is a great adventure,â one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.
As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what itâs trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than sheâs back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. Itâs as if she, much like the film, canât seem to settle on whether Peterâs a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesnât change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.
Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: Philippe Garrelâs The Salt of Tears Forecloses Feeling for the Sake of Fantasy
Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple without humor or wit.1.5
Two strangers, a man and a woman, meet at a bus stop in Paris. Heâs from the countryside and has come to the city to live out his fatherâs dreams, which in Philippe Garrelâs The Salt of Tears means taking an entrance exam for a top carpentry school. He insists on seeing her again, and they meet for coffee after his test. They want to make love but have nowhere to go; he seems upset that she canât host, and ends up taking her to his cousinâs place. She isnât comfortable with all his touching, perhaps afraid that if he makes love to her right away heâll have no reason to come back. Indeed, she seems more invested in the future of their encounter, what it can become, than in the encounter itself, whereas he sees no reason for her to stay if she wonât put out. By the time he kicks her out, sheâs already in love.
The strangersâ names are Luc (Logann Antuofermo) and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but they might as well be called Man and Woman. Thatâs because The Salt of Tears unfolds like an archetypal narrative of heterosexual impossibility where Luc is the everyman and Djemila is interchangeable with GeneviĂšve (Louise Chevillotte), Lucâs subsequent fling, or whatever woman comes next. He seems fond of collecting rather than replacing lovers. In the course of his brief encounters, which are nevertheless always long enough for the women to get attached and promptly burned, Luc is inoculated from heartache. His only emotional allegiance seems to be to his father (AndrĂ© Wilms), which tells us a thing or two about heterosexualityâs peculiar tendency to forge male allegiances at the expense of women, who circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency.
Weâve seen, and lived, this story a million timesâin real life and in cinema. You, too, may have waited for a lover who never showed up after making meticulous plans for an encounter, wrapped up in the sweetest of promises, like the one Luc makes to Djemila when he says, âFor the room, Iâll refund the whole amount.â Itâs then that she takes the train to see him. At a hotel, she puts on her prettiest nightgown, powdering her face in preemptive bliss. But Luc never shows up. And when Djemila goes to the hotel lobby to ask for a cigarette from the night porter (Michel Charrel), we see that the scenario, the woman who waits, is quite familiar to the man as well. âIâve seen women wait for their men all their lives,â he tells her.
And yet, despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Bergmanâs Scenes from a Marriage to Rohmerâs A Summerâs Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrelâs use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe itâs in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe itâs in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity.
Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc, he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride.
Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, AndrĂ© Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi, Michel Charrel, Stefan Crepon, Lucie Epicureo, Alice Rahimi Director: Philippe Garrel Screenwriter: Jean-Claude CarriĂšre, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Greed Is an Unsubtle Satire of Global Capitalismâs Race to the Bottom
The film takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie, but itâs brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness.2.5
A morality tale about a piratical fast-fashion clothing entrepreneur, Greed takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie. Each time, though, itâs brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness. That uneven mixture of tones, not to mention its easy and somewhat restrained shots at obvious targets, keeps writer-director Michael Winterbottomâs film from achieving the Felliniesque excess it strives for.
Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard heâs polished to a sheen in Winterbottomâs The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed âGreedyâ by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the âking of the high street,â peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos.
While McCreadie plans an extravagantly tacky Gladiator-themed 60th birthday for himself featuring togas and a seemingly somnolent lion, the film skips back in time episodically to show how this grifter made his billions. Although specifically inspired by the life of Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Top Shop (and who was also investigated by Parliament for the bankruptcy of one of his brands), Greed is meant as a broader indictment of global capitalismâs race to the bottom. Cutting back from the somewhat bored birthday bacchanalâWinterbottom does a good job illustrating the wallowing âis this all there is?â dullness of the ultra-rich lifestyleâthe film shows McCreadieâs ascent from Soho clothing-mart hustler to mercantilist wheeler and dealer leveraging a string of tatty bargain emporiums into a fortune.
Linking the flashbacks about McCreadieâs up-and-comer past to his bloated and smug present is Nick (David Mitchell), a weaselly hired-gun writer researching an authorized biography and hating himself for it. Thinking heâs just slapping together an ego-boosting puff piece, Nick inadvertently comes across the secret to McCreadieâs success: the women hunched over sewing machines in Sri Lankan sweatshops earning $4 a day to produce his cheap togs. The Sri Lanka connection also provides the film with its only true hero: Amanda (Dinita Gohil), another of McCreadieâs self-hating assistants, but the only one who ultimately does anything about the literal and metaphorical casualties generated by her bossâs avarice.
With McCreadie as a big shining target, Winterbottom uses him to symbolize an especially vulgar manifestation of jet-set wheeler-dealers who imagine their wealth has freed them from limitations on taste and morality. That means giving McCreadie massive snow-white dentures, having him yell at the lion heâs imported sending him storming out on the beach to yell at the Syrian refugees he thinks are spoiling the backdrop for his party. Heâs the kind of man who, when his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) calls him out for cheating by using his phone to look like heâs reciting classical poetry by heart, shouts proudly and unironically, âBrainyQuote!â
Greed isnât a subtle satire. But, then, whatâs the point of going small when the target is the entire global clothing supply chain, as well as the consumerism and celebrity worship (âadding a bit of sparkle to a $10 party dress,â as McCreadie puts it)? Despite his deft ability to authentically inhabit numerous geographical spaces without condescension (the scenes in Sri Lanka feel particularly organic), Winterbottom often has a harder time summoning the kind of deep, gut-level emotions needed to drive home an angry, issue-oriented comedy of this kind. But even though he isnât able to balance buffoonery and outrage as effectively as Steven Soderbergh did with his Panama Papers satire The Laundromat, Winterbottom at least knew to pick a big enough target that it would be nearly impossible to miss.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson Director: Michael Winterbottom Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: With Saint Frances, the Rise of the of the Abortion Comedy Continues
It has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.2.5
Even for American liberals, abortion has long been a touchy subject. âLegal but rareâ is the watchword of cautious Democratic candidates, and popular film has long preferred to romanticize the independent women who make the brave choice not to terminate a pregnancy (see Juno). With Gillian Robespierreâs Obvious Child and, now, Alex Thompsonâs Saint Frances, we may be seeing the emergence of something like the abortion comedy. The very concept of such a thing is probably enough to make a heartland conservative retch, which Thompson and his screenwriter and lead actress, Kelly OâSullivan, no doubt count on.
Bridget (OâSullivan) is a white Chicagoland millennial who, like so many of her generation, finds herself still living the life of a twentysomething at the age of 34. Messy and a little irresponsibleâqualities that could be largely chalked up to the inert decade of post-college poverty sheâs enduredâshe struggles to admit in conversation with her ostensible peers that she works as a server at a greasy diner. In the filmâs opening scene, a tidy encapsulation of the tragicomedy of being an underachieving hanger-on in bougie social circles, sheâs brought to the verge of tears when a yuppie dude sheâs chatting with loses interest in her after her age and employment come up. She immediately pounces on Jace (Max Lipchitz), the next guy who talks to her, after he casually reveals that he, too, works as a waiter.
Fortunately, Jace turns out to be an indefatigably cheerful and supportive 26-year-old who comes across as perhaps a tad too perfect until the precise moment in Saint Frances that the filmmakers need him to come off more like a Wrigleyville bro. At some point during their initial hook-up, Bridget gets her period, and the couple wakes up fairly covered in blood. (Bridgetâs nigh-constant unexpected vaginal bleeding and the stains it leaves will serve as both metaphor and punchline throughout the film, and it works better than you may think.) Amused but unphased by the incident, Jace will also prove to be a supportive partner when Bridget chooses to terminate her accidental pregnancy later in the film, even though Bridget remains openly uncertain about whether or not theyâre actually dating.
In the wake of her abortion, Bridget is taken on as a nanny for Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), a mixed-race lesbian couple who need someone to look after their unruly daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), while Maya cares for their newborn. Frances is a self-possessed kindergartner whose dialogue sometimes drifts into âkids say the darnedest thingsâ terrain, even though it can be funny (âMy guitar class is a patriarchy,â she proclaims at one point). But OâSullivanâs screenplay doesnât overly sentimentalize childhoodâor motherhood for that matter. One important subplot involves Bridgetâs motherâs (Mary Beth Fisher) reminiscing that she sometimes fantasized about bashing the infant Bridgetâs head against the wall, a revelation that helps Maya through her post-partum depression.
Maya and Annie live in Evanston, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, and Bridget counts as an alumna of sorts, though in conversation she emphasizes that she was only there for a year. She clearly views the town as the epicenter of her shame; underlining this is that the coupleâs next-door neighbor turns out to be Cheryl (Rebekah Ward), an insufferable snob who Bridget knew in college, whose âlean inâ brand of upper-class feminism doesnât preclude her from treating her erstwhile peer like an all-purpose servant. Francesâs smarmy guitar teacher, Isaac (Jim True-Frost), also embodies the moral ickiness of the privileged, as he takes advantage of Bridgetâs foolhardy crush on him.
Bridgetâs relationship with Frances and her parents changes her, but the film isnât making the point that she learns the majesty of child-rearing and the awesome responsibility of parenthood. Itâs that Bridget finds strength in intersectional and intergenerational solidarity, emerging from the isolating cell sheâs built herself out of quiet self-shame. If that approach sounds academic, itâs true that at times Saint Frances is staged too much like dramatic enactment of feminist principlesâa public confrontation with an anti-public-breast-feeding woman ends up feeling like an after-school special about conflict mediationâbut it has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.
Cast: Kelly OâSullivan, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz, Jim True-Frost, Ramona Edith Williams, Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, Rebecca Spence, Rebekah Ward Director: Alex Thompson Screenwriter: Kelly OâSullivan Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill Is a Well-Sustained Trick of a Thriller
What distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Albert Shinâs ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details.2.5
Throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill, director Albert Shin nurtures an atmosphere of lingering evil, of innocence defiled, that shames the ludicrous theatrics of Andy Muschiettiâs similarly themed It movies. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film opens with its finest sequence, in which a young girl, Abby (Mikayla Radan), runs into a frightened boy in the woods. One of the boyâs eyes has been gauged out, and he wears a bloodied white bandage over it. (Perversely, the square shape of the bandage and the red of the coagulated blood make it seem as if heâs wearing a broken pair of 3D glasses.) The boy gestures to Abby to keep quiet, and soon we see pursuers at the top of the hill above the children.
Much of this scene is staged without a score, and this silenceâa refreshing reprieve from the tropes of more obviously hyperkinetic thrillersâinforms Shinâs lush compositions with dread and anguish. Just a moment prior, Abby was fishing with her parents (Tim Beresford and Janet Porter) and sister, Laure (Addison Tymec), so we feel the shattering of her sense of normalcy. The boy is soon scooped up, beaten, and thrown in the trunk of a car, never to be seen again.
Years later, the thirtyish Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) has yet to settle into herself, as sheâs a loner who haunts the nearly abandoned motel that her deceased mom used to run. By contrast, Laure (Hannah Gross) has married a sensible man (Noah Reid) and has a sensible job as a security manager at the local casino, which looms above the town surrounding Niagara Falls like an all-seeing tower. The casino, run by the all-controlling Lake family, is in the process of acquiring the sistersâ motel. Looking through old pictures, Abby finds a shot that was taken the day she ran into the kidnapped boy, and she becomes obsessed with solving the case, descending into the underworld of her small, foreboding community.
Shin and co-screenwriter James Schultzâs plot, and thereâs quite a bit of it, is the stuff of old-fashioned pulp. But what distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Shinâs ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details. A local conspiracy theorist, Walter (David Cronenberg), is introduced bobbing up and down in the water behind Abby as she investigates the site of the kidnapping, emerging in a wet suit from a dive to look for potential valuables. Itâs a hell of entrance to accord a legendary filmmaker moonlighting in your production, and it affirms the filmâs unease, the sense it imparts of everyone watching everyone else.
When Abbyâs sleuthing leads her to a pair of married magicians, the Moulins (Marie-JosĂ©e Croze and Paulino Nunes), they memorably turn the tables on her smugness, using sleights of hand to intimidate her and illustrate the elusiveness of certainty. And one of Shinâs greatest flourishes is also his subtlest: As Abby surveys the hill where the boy was taken in the filmâs opening scene, a bike coasts across the road on top, echoing the movement of the kidnappersâ car decades prior, suggesting the ongoing reverberations of atrocities.
Shin does under-serve one tradition of the mystery thriller: the unreliable protagonist. Abby is understood to be a habitual liar, a fabulist whoâs either a con woman or a person wrestling with issues of encroaching insanity. Given the luridness of the boyâs disappearance, and the way it conveniently meshes with Abbyâs unresolved issues, the notion of the mystery as a terrible, self-entrapping fabrication is credible and potentially revealing and terrifyingâsuggesting the wrenching plight of the doomed investigator at the heart of Martin Scorseseâs Shutter Island. But for Shin, Abbyâs fragile mental state is ultimately a red herring, relegating Abby to an audience-orienting compass rather than a true figure of tragedy. Which is to say that Disappearance at Clifton Hill isnât quite a major thriller, but rather a well-sustained trick.
Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Marie-JosĂ©e Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Tim Beresford, Mikayla Radan Director: Albert Shin Screenwriter: James Schultz, Albert Shin Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity
While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.2
Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixarâs storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studioâs latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gemâand the self-assuranceâneeded to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.
Ian and Barley Lightfootâs (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Dannaâs drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the filmâs emotional heft.
Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood thatâs a cross between Tolkienâs Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that âlong ago the world was filled with magic,â but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontownâs fall from grace. Whatâs left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. Heâs nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the filmâs supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)
Itâs Ianâs 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boysâ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dadâs lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barleyâs beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads âonward.â Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.
Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesnât make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Momâs cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sonsâ trail.
Onward doesnât have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixarâs trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlonâs Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. Thatâs still a neat trick, but itâs no more novel than Ian and Barleyâs experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral thatâs at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love
Itâs to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.
Itâs to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros DâSa and Glenn Leyburnâs drama about a couple tested by the wifeâs breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.
Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.
The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the filmâs limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joanâs tender marriage to life.
Lesley, youâve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. Iâm curious, to start, whatâs your favorite of his performances and why?
Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! Iâve got to say the right thing here. I wish Iâd have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindlerâs List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldnât have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.
Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?
Liam Neeson: Iâve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, âOh, thatâs someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.â She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.
Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?
Manville: Sometimes itâs hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldnât predict that until weâd met. Weâre quite similar as actors, really, we see whatâs on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationshipâŠyou just have to plow in and do it. Weâve both lived a fair amountâ
Neeson: We didnât really âplanâ anything. Thereâs a saying, âIf it ainât on the page, it ainât on the stage.â That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.
Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?
Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didnât we?
Neeson: Yeah, we did.
Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.
Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didnât ârehearseâ rehearse it, did we?
Were they more like chemistry sessions?
Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!
Liam, youâve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something thatâs less like a character and more like yourself?
Neeson: I think if youâre playing a character thatâs not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, thereâs a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, thereâs a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if itâs supposed to be German, I donât care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.
I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, itâs a whole process we do before I do a heist job. Itâs a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, Iâm supposed to go ârawr-rawrâ to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, âLiam, youâre doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be âwoof-woof,â use the back of your throat.â I thought, âSheâs pulling my leg! The dogâs that size [puts hand barely above the ground].â But she meant it.
Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesnât she?
Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went âwoof-woof.â
When youâre playing characters who are âordinaryâ or ânormal,â as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?
Manville: Certainly, for me, thereâs a lot about Joan thatâs not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, thereâs this woman, theyâve had this tragedy in their lives, theyâve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existenceâitâs all about the ordinary stuff. And then youâve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because Iâtouch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]âhave not been through breast cancer. Iâve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, âThereâs Joan, and youâve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.â Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But itâs almost not conscious. Iâve had a lot of lifeâa lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. Thatâs nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and theyâre there to call upon if we need to.
Neeson: Yeah, thatâs a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingĂ©nue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, âYou walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.â That was always his answer. Itâs true.
Thereâs a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, Iâm curious, do you believe her at that moment?
Manville: Yeah, because youâre always you, no matter whatâs happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect itâs going to really alter you, shift you, but actually itâs still you underneath. Because itâs just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, itâs you.
Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?
Manville: I think thereâs enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothingâwhich color pill. But itâs bound to happen. Theyâre a great couple, yet something gives way because thatâs human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.
We donât really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?
Neeson: Thereâs one scene where he visits their daughterâs grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But heâs âmanâ enough to put up a kind of front that everythingâs going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But heâs terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. Iâve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the familyâvery, very wrenching. Itâs a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.
Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.
Itâs nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.
Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.
Youâve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?
Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interviewâforgive me for jumping in, darlingâthat you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. Youâre not, âWhat was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven SpielbergââI donât do that.
Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, theyâre expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.
In this more recent stage of your career, youâve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the InternetâLiam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?
Manville: I didnât know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.
Neeson: What is it? I honestly donât know. Iâve heard the word, but I donât know what it means.
Manville: They just take a bit of a performanceâŠ
Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.
Neeson: Oh, I see. Like ârelease the kraken.â
Or âI have a very particular set of skillsâ from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.
Manville: Apparently, Iâm a bit of a gay icon. So thatâs new. Never thought Iâd reach my age and be that. But Iâll take it!
Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?
Manville: No! Listen, I think thereâs a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. Youâre just not! Youâre having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when Iâm working, Iâm working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.
Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic
The filmâs avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.3
The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack Londonâs The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Greenâs dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make Londonâs story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.
Itâs worth recalling that Londonâs vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times itâs literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy masterâs California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buckâs initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.
Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Greenâs adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in Londonâs novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buckâs sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buckâs last and most beloved master, isnât revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.
The filmâs avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of Londonâs story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buckâs palpable presence, as well as the scriptâs frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the filmâs special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz KamiĆski, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.
In the filmâs first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buckâs education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buckâs best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.
This is a welcome change from Londonâs depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buckâs ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buckâs relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.
A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet thereâs a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book
Review: Daniel Roherâs Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Robertsonâs sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.2.5
Toward the end of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights movement and the counterculture in bloom, art was about taking political and aesthetic sides. As such, one can understand how Bob Dylanâs electric guitar could be met with violent boos, as it signified a crossing of the bridge over into the complacent mainstream, to which folk music was supposed to represent a marked resistance. In this context, one can also appreciate the daring of the Band, whose music offered beautiful and melancholic examinations of heritage that refuted easy generational demonizing, while blending blues, rock, and folk together to create a slipstream of American memoryâAmericana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldnât be reduced to editorial battle hymns. Complicating matters of identity even further, the prime architects of Americana are mostly Canadian. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all from Ontario, while Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is concerned mostly with celebrating the Bandâs early rise and influence on American culture, as well as their sense of connecting the past and present together through empathetic lyrics. Holding court over the film is Robertson, the dapper and charismatic songwriter and guitarist who looks and sounds every inch like the classic-rock elder statesman. Airing sentiments from his memoir, Testimony, Robertson mentions his mixed heritage as a citizen of the Six Nations of Grand River reservation who also had Jewish gangster relatives, and who moved to Canada at a formative age. Richardson learned his first chords on the reservation, and began writing songs professionally at 15, after he met Ronnie Hawkins and Helm. Hawkinsâs group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.
Director Daniel Roherâs glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorseseâs Band concert film The Last Waltz, signifies that Once Were Brothers is going to steer clear of controversy. Was Hawkins bitter to have his band usurped by the teenage prodigy Robertson? Even if he wasnât, such feelings merit exploration, though here theyâre left hanging. The documentaryâs title is all too apropos, as this is Robertsonâs experience of the Band, rather than a collective exploration of their rise and fall. To be fair, Danko, Manuel, and Helm are all deceased, the former two dying far too young, though Hudson perhaps pointedly refused to participate in this projectâanother event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this storyâRobertsonâs intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helmâis broached only in an obligatory fashion.
Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the formerâs view of things, as he maintains that much of the group succumbed to drugs and booze, leaving him to write most of the music and to shepherd their joint career as long as he could. (Robertsonâs wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Bandâs collective influence on musical arrangements merited a bigger slice of royalties all around. Robertson and various other talking heads remind us of these grievances, though Roher quickly pushes on to the next plot point. Robertson is a magnificent musician and subject, but his devotion to his side of the story renders him suspiciousâa cultivator of brand.
For these omissions and elisions, Once Were Brothers is a slim, if ultimately enjoyable, rock testimony. The highlight is the archival footage of the Band practicing and recording, including a privileged moment with Dylan after one of the controversial electric concerts, as well as interludes at the pink house in Woodstock where they recorded their defining Music from Big Pink, an album that included their classic âThe Weight,â which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertsonâs idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertsonâs sadness, his sense of having witnessed friends and collaborators get washed away by bitterness and addiction, was more fulsomely evoked by Scorsese in The Last Waltz, as he looked at the Band and saw an entire group, a dying unit, rather than Robbie Robertson and the other guys.
Director: Daniel Roher Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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