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Last Night to the Flicks: 1984

Orwell’s work cuts across the political spectrum as those on both the left and right freely channel him when excoriating contemporary examples of governmental power abuse.

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Last Night to the Flicks: 1984

“April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.”

So begins the diary of Winston Smith, arguably one of literature’s most famous journals, from 1984, written by Eric Blair—whose better-known pseudonym was George Orwell.

Orwell’s last fictional effort was published in 1949, only one year before his death. Terms like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “newspeak,” and “Room 101” are in our lexicon for totalitarianism because of 1984. Orwell’s work cuts across the political spectrum as those on both the left and right freely channel him when excoriating contemporary examples of governmental power abuse.

There’s a logical irony in this because Orwell’s own personal views seem contradictory by today’s standards and make it impossible to pin him neatly down to either side of the political divide. Even though “Ingsoc,” Oceania’s guiding ideology in 1984, was Newspeak for “English Socialism,” Orwell—pro-life, anti-gay, atheist—was an unabashed Socialist to the very end. Of 1984, he stated, “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions … which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism.”

Christopher Hitchens’ book on the author, Why Orwell Matters, discusses at great length how partisans of all stripes who would adopt Orwell as one of their own often do so on tenuous grounds. Or, as the New Yorker’s George Packer observes, “When writers use the word ’Orwellian,’ you can be pretty sure they’ve read very little of him.”

Although its protagonist, Smith, isn’t sure exactly what year it is, 1984 takes place in a future imagined by Orwell where the second world war didn’t really end. Civil unrest and sporadic nuclear conflicts have left three superstates in control. Smith lives in Air Strip One, a province of what is called Oceania (formerly the United States and Britain). The other two are Eurasia (Soviet controlled Europe) and Eastasia (an alliance of China, Japan, Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet).

Winston Smith’s job rewriting history for the ironically named “Ministry of Truth” gives him a unique vantage point into the workings of Ingsoc in Oceania. Under the banner of Big Brother, a fictional figurehead, Oceania’s oppressive government controls the population by maintaining an unending state of martial law and steady flow of propaganda. For Outer Party members, such as Smith, this includes the installation of a two-way telescreen in his home that pumps out a diet of misinformation and allows the Thought Police to keep a constant watch on him. While browsing in an antique shop, Smith buys a diary; an act of “thoughtcrime” that he predicts will lead to his downfall. Three characters play pivotal roles in his life. First, Inner Party member O’Brien, who Smith mistakenly sees as a kindred spirit that will initiate him to an underground revolutionary movement. Julia, a twenty-six year old fellow worker at the Ministry of Truth, with whom Smith enters into an unsanctioned sexual relationship. Finally, Mr. Charrington, the man who owns the antique shop where Smith bought the diary and from whom he rents a flat for his trysts with Julia. When it’s revealed that Charrington actually works for the Thought Police, Smith’s prophecy about the diary comes disastrously true. This diary is tactically used against him during weeks of torture in the Ministry of Love at the hands of O’Brien (who turns out to have only pretended to be part of an underground movement). In Room 101, faced with his worst fear (rats), Smith is ultimately broken, renounces Julia, and comes to realize that he has “won the victory over himself” and loved Big Brother.

Both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and Orwell’s 1984 portray dystopian societies that have taken their respective guiding principle to absurdly extreme levels. Capitalism is satirized in Brave New World as mass production has become a worldview and replaced religion with mantras encouraging new product consumption such as “Ending is better than mending” and “the more stitches, the less riches.” Cloning and genetic engineering factories have eliminated sexual intercourse as the primary method of procreation. However, the distraction of wanton casual sex, the accumulation of material goods, and other hedonistic pursuits have become the foundation upon which that social order is built.

In 1984, Orwell describes a socialistic society that disdains capitalism and discourages consumption through draconian rationing. A perpetual war with Eurasia and Eastasia is sustained to justify an economic system that leaves Oceania’s inhabitants in a state of constant squalor. Whereas in vitro engineering and Pavlovian conditioning are used to mollify the citizens of Brave New World, Oceanians are subjugated by their poverty along with a sense of forced patriotism drummed up by state propaganda. Referred to as “proles,” eighty-five percent of the population live under the worst conditions and are too distracted by their plight to even consider revolt. The Inner Party takes a puritanical stance on sexuality because the families potentially resulting from sexual activity lead to personal, not communal, attachments and, as such, are at odds with the precepts of Ingsoc. Therefore, “artsem” (artificial insemination) is one of the few technological advancements still being pursued in Oceania.

Just as some theologians argue that the book of Revelations is not meant to be a prediction of the future but, instead, a warning from its author on contemporary issues of the day, 1984, like Animal Farm before it, is, in large part, Orwell’s commentary on the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Big Brother and Joseph Stalin are both “black-haired, black-moustachio’d” men. Emmanuel Goldstein, a figure held up by the government as a traitor, but viewed by a few remaining dissidents as a savior, parallels Leon Trotsky (whose real name was Lev Bronstein). The three slogans of the party, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength” could be classic Marxist dialectics where contradictory ideas clash to form a synthesis.

Much of the political landscape laid out by Orwell in 1984 was derived from his concern for how a post-atomic age could actually make it easier for oppressive regimes to exist. Though he doesn’t often receive credit for it, Orwell coined the term “cold war” in his 1945 article “You and the Atomic Bomb.” The article prefigures what he will later fictionalize in 1984.

“More and more obviously the surface of the earth is being parceled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise or another, by a self-elected oligarchy.

…looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications—that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ’cold war’ with its neighbors.

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ’peace that is no peace’.”

There are many theories as to why Orwell ultimately chose the title 1984. One holds that as if to hold up a mirror to the times in which he wrote it (1948), Orwell simply reversed the last two digits of that year. Whatever the reason, Orwell’s use of numbers in 1984 does seem more than arbitrary.

A common motif in book is summed up in one of Smith’s journal entries that reads: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Later, during Smith’s interrogation in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien challenges this by stating that if the Party wanted it so, five could be the answer. This is a not so subtle reference to the Soviet slogan “two plus two equals five.” Meaning that the Communist Five-Year Plan could be achieved in four if the people tried hard enough. Furthermore, the date of Smith’s very first journal entry: “April, 4, 1984” is the fourth day of the fourth month of the fourth year of that decade. In addition to the diary, Smith buys a paperweight at Charrington’s shop. It is a piece of coral encased in glass which aesthetically appeals to Smith’s nostalgia for a time before Ingsoc. The price of the paperweight is four dollars. Thus, Orwell associates the number four with Smith’s quest for self-determination and freedom of thought.

Between bouts of torture, O’Brien confronts the idea of freedom of thought by explaining the Inner Party’s philosophy that, like a tree falling in the forest only making a sound if someone’s auditory system processes it; reality only exists as a construct in the human mind.

“Anything could be true. The so-called laws of Nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. “If I wished,” O’Brien had said, “I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.” Winston worked it out. “If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.” Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: “It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.” He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.”

Just as Goldstein’s fictional book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism was banned, in a case of life imitating art, Orwell’s 1984 was itself banned in Communist Poland. Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who suffered under Stalin, wrote about this in 1953:

“A few have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.

A few years after the book’s release, two television versions of 1984 were broadcast. The first, from 1953, had Eddie Albert playing Smith to Lorne Green’s “Big Brother” for Studio One. A BBC production from 1954 starred Peter Cushing. The BBC version is available on YouTube and is an interesting, if not flawed, interpretation.

Staging 1984 faithfully presents many challenges. Not the least of which is the temptation to treat the material more like science fiction than a vehicle for social commentary. This can be seen in the BBC version which, to a certain extent, plays up the gadgetry of Smith’s world in direct opposition to Orwell’s vision of arrested technological advancement. It’s also hard to imagine 1950’s television being able to faithfully depict the sadistic treatment Smith receives in the Ministry of Love.

This can also be said of Michael Anderson’s film version of 1984 (1956), which cast Edmond O’Brien as Smith. A number of shortcomings in this adaptation blunt the force of Orwell’s novel. First of all, Oceania doesn’t seem all that dreary a place. Again, the production designers succumb to the temptation of setting the story in a gleaming, futuristic environment. The cityscapes are clean, dome-like, glass houses, rather than the bombed out, deteriorating urban dwellings Orwell imagined. Furthermore, Edmond O’Brien is miscast. He’s far too healthy looking for the frail, sickly Smith as described. And his portrayal as the brave, would-be revolutionary is a bit too melodramatic when compared to the more tentative, fatalistic, paranoid Smith of the novel.

This is even more apparent when the Thought Police bust in on Smith and Julia’s love nest. Rather than being completely terrified, there’s a hint of defiance in Smith’s demeanor as soldiers surround the couple.

Finally, the torture scene, while still somewhat disturbing, is quite sanitized from the novel’s version.

The definitive film version of 1984, was actually produced in 1984. Michael Radford’s film, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is an extremely faithful adaption that perfectly captures the dark tone and texture of Orwell’s novel. John Hurt plays a sickly Winston Smith with the appropriate yearning for freedom tempered by a justifiable fatalism and sense of dread. Hurt’s Smith is no hero. Richard Burton, in his last film role, is equally well-cast as O’Brien. He brings a calm, quiet conviction to his role of a brutally uncompromising true-believer. Unlike Jan Sterling’s more romanticized performance in the 1956 film, Suzanna Hamilton as Julia displays the right level of mater-of-fact sexuality and pragmatic live for the moment demeanor.

Not that it really mattered, but, as the closing credits proclaim, Nineteen Eighty-Four was shot during the same time frame and in the exact locations as envisioned by Orwell. For example, the scene showing Smith making his first journal entry was actually filmed on April 4, 1984.

As opposed to the earlier attempts to dramatize 1984, Radford had a different challenge. Since the real world of 1984 didn’t resemble Orwell’s version, the temptation might have been to update the material and sidestep the discrepancies. A rumored Francis Ford Coppola adaptation was supposedly going to do just that. The film would have been set further in the future with some sort of explanation provided for the title. Fortunately, George Orwell’s widow, who disliked the 1956 version, would only sign over the film rights as long as a futuristic, sci-fi approach wasn’t employed.

The Radford film assumes that the audience can make a mental leap and accept that the world didn’t “turn out” as it did in the book. One comprise, albeit very minor, is Radford’s choice to present the title in its spelled out version (Nineteen Eighty-Four) rather than using the actual digits. Instead of looking forward, as previous adaptations had, Radford actually looks backward and creates a society that has more in common with the forties than the eighties. He also seems to assume that the viewer has read the book. For instance, the scene where Smith “rectifies” the Party’s incorrect chocolate predictions to make it appear that they exceeded expectations may not make sense to those without an understanding of the material beforehand. The film infuses Orwell’s voice in Nineteen Eighty-Four through the effective use of narrations from Smith’s diary and Goldstein’s book.

Except for inventions Orwell described in the novel (telescreens, speakwrite devices, synthetic food), there’s nothing in Nineteen Eighty-Four that appears more advanced than late 1940s technology. Smith even uses uses a rotary dial, rather than a touch pad, to call up information on his terminal. While the Eurythmics had recorded a soundtrack for Nineteen Eighty-Four, not much of it can actually be heard. The pop group’s synthetic sound was mostly buried in the background while Dominic Muldowney’s uber-patriotic anthem music figures more prominently (more details on the controversy between Radford and Virgin Films over the final soundtrack can be found here).

Highlighting Nineteen Eighty-Four are the Party propaganda pieces created for the film, as shown below in the “Two Minutes Hate” opening. They are themselves polished films within films, clearly inspired by works such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumpth of the Will. If there’s a silver anniversary DVD release of Nineteen Eighty-Four, one would hope for a special features section of just these telescreen broadcasts.

It’s worth comparing this version of Smith and Julia’s arrest with the 1956 version. That both are naked (something unlikely for a 1956 film) adds to the sense of intrusion and vulnerability in the scene. Also, unlike the 1956 version, Smith and Julia are, at that moment, clearly more focused on their individual predicaments than their love for each other. The telescreen voice parroting the couple’s words exactly save for the pronouns (“you are the dead” in place of “we are the dead”) plays out more eerily on film than in the book. For what it’s worth, the movie contains a line not from the book that sets the rent for Smith and Julia’s love nest at FOUR dollars.

Likewise, while the torture of Smith by O’Brien is perhaps a bit tame by today’s standards (Saw, Hostel), it’s still difficult to watch. Burton and Hurt really shine here as O’Brien explains the precepts of Ingsoc to the slowly deteriorating Smith.

Some final random thoughts:

1. Donald Pleasence, who appeared in both the BBC version of 1984 from 1954 and the 1956 film, was also in the similarly dystopian THX-1138.

2. Edmond O’Brien played an old West reporter in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance who lived by the mantra that could very well have also been found in Goldstein’s book: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.”

3. Nineteen Eighty-Four has a great scene set in a lecture hall where the speaker discusses how the elimination of the orgasm is a necessary aspect of Artsem as it relates to Ingsoc.

4. Cyril Cusack, Mr. Charrington in Nineteen Eighty-Four was also the captain of the fire brigade from the 1966 film verision of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 directed by François Truffaut.

5. John Hurt played a Big Brother like character in V for Vendetta.

6. A new version directed by Tim Robbins is due out in 2010.

Lastly, here’s a YouTube of the infamous Ridley Scott-directed 1984 Apple Super Bowl ad. In this clip, the ad was being screened for an audience. The irony is that it shows a crowd reacting wildly to a movie screen depicting a crowd reacting wildly to a telescreen:

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.

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Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s 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 Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.

It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s 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 Green’s 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 London’s 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, Buck’s 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), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.

The film’s 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 London’s 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 Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s 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 Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.

In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s 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 London’s 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 Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s 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 there’s 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

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Review: Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Robertson’s sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

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Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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 Dylan’s 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 memory—Americana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldn’t 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 Band’s 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. Hawkins’s group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.

Director Daniel Roher’s glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorsese’s 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 wasn’t, such feelings merit exploration, though here they’re left hanging. The documentary’s title is all too apropos, as this is Robertson’s 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 project—another event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this story—Robertson’s intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helm—is broached only in an obligatory fashion.

Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the former’s 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. (Robertson’s wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Band’s 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 suspicious—a 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 “The Weight,” which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertson’s idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertson’s 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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Review: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality

It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.

We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).

Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.

The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.

And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.

Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.

Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.

As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.

Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985

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Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith

It’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but he’s also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.

This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Daniel’s fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland that’s grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Daniel’s irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.

That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confession—by Googling, no less—and reciting Father Tomasz’s prayers, discovering that it’s easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the town’s official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the man’s place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But it’s one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.

The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Daniel’s own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, it’s the vehement young man’s dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagers’ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.

It’s a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoples’ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Daniel’s adversarial presence both shines a light on the town’s hypocrisy and their leaders’ corruption, his own duplicity isn’t overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyone’s behavior in the film.

Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, it’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stella Meghie’s The Photograph Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

The film is at its best when it’s focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

Near the middle of Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Green’s I’m Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Al’s dulcet tones, but it’s not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, it’s the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow “For the Good Times” smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michael’s seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.

The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, there’s a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one that’s judiciously tempered by their characters’ Achilles heels, be it Mae’s reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michael’s commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the film’s portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.

The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michael’s burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Mae’s estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks aren’t only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the film’s depiction of Mae and Michael’s relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.

The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film that’s at its best when it’s focused on Michael and Mae’s love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christina’s many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michael’s love affair, it’s rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Y’lan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Starring Dev Patel, Gets Teaser Trailer

Today, A24 dropped the trailer for haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery’s latest.

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

Jack of all trades and haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery is currently in pre-production on the latest live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney, which is bound to be full steam ahead now that The Green Knight is almost in the can. Today, A24 debuted the moody teaser trailer for the film, which stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain on a quest to defeat the eponymous “tester of men.” Scored by Lowery’s longtime collaborator Daniel Hart, The Green Knight appears to have been shot and edited in the same minimalist mode of the filmmaker’s prior features, which include Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Though it’s not being billed as a horror film, it’s very easy to see from the one-and-a-half-minute clip how Lowery’s latest is of a piece with so many A24 horror films before it.

According to A24’s official description of the film:

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

The Green Knight is written, directed, and edited by Lowery and also stars Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Barry Keoghan.

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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Review: Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists Stagily Addresses the State of a Nation

Tukel’s film doesn’t live up to the promise of its fleet-footed opening.

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

Taking place on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists begins, fittingly, with the sound of a woman crying. Alice (Christine Campbell) explains to her concerned daughter that she’s sad because half of the country has made the wrong decision, prompting the child to respond that her mother has herself been wrong before: “You were wrong when you thought that black man stole your cellphone.” Defensively writing off this past instance of casual racism as nothing more than an honest mistake, Alice sends the girl back to bed, after offering a weary “probably not” in response to her asking if she could be elected president someday.

In just a few lines of dialogue, Tukel exposes the moral blind spots and hypocrisy of otherwise well-meaning liberals, not to mention the irresponsible vanity of outrage and despair in the face of a stinging electoral defeat. This short scene highlights the emotional vulnerabilities that often underpin, and undermine, political convictions, and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of almost all of the film’s thematic concerns.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Misogynists doesn’t live up to the promise of this fleet-footed opening. Set mostly within the confines of one hotel room and featuring sex workers, a Mexican delivery boy, wealthy businessmen, and other roughly sketched characters from the contemporary political imagination, Tukel seems to be aiming for a broad comedy of manners in the key of Whit Stillman and early Richard Linklater, but there isn’t enough attention to detail, sense of place, or joie de vivre to make his scenarios come to life.

The narrative revolves around Cameron (Dylan Baker), a friendly but obnoxious Trump supporter. Holed up in the hotel room where he’s been living since breaking up with his wife, he invites various visitors to share tequila shots and lines of coke in celebration of Trump’s victory, while he holds forth on such hot-button topics as racial hierarchies, gun control, and gender roles. Baker delivers a spirited performance as Cameron, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional stand-in for a particular reactionary attitude, especially compared to the more nuanced and conflicted figures he interacts with. As the script isn’t bold enough to dig into the deeper emotional appeal of Trump’s nationalistic fervor and old-school machismo, Cameron’s smug, pseudo-intellectual cynicism is mostly unconvincing.

Tukel realizes one of his few visual flourishes through the TV in Cameron’s hotel room, which switches itself on at random and plays footage in reverse, transfixing whoever happens to be watching. This works well as a metaphor for the re-emergence of political beliefs most people thought to be gone for good, as well as the regression that many of the characters are undergoing in the face of an uncertain future. It provides a hint of the more affecting film that The Misogynists could have been had it transcended the staginess of its setup.

Though the film’s dialogue rarely offers enough intellectual insights to justify a general feeling of artificiality, it does effectively evoke the media-poisoned discourse-fatigue that’s afflicted us all since before Trump even decided to run for public office. The film shows people across the political spectrum who appear to have argued themselves into a corner in an effort to make sense of their changing society, and their failure to live up to their own beliefs seems to be contributing further to their unhappiness.

Going even further than this, one of the escorts, Sasha (Ivana Miličević), hired by Cameron offers up what’s perhaps the film’s thesis statement during an argument with her Muslim cab driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma). She insists on her right to criticize whoever she wants, claiming that “Americans wouldn’t have anything to talk about” without this right. This idea of conflict being preferable to silence ties into the ambiguous denouement of The Misogynists. Tukel ultimately seems to suggest that the freedom so many Americans insist upon as the most important value is, in fact, so lonely and terrifying that even the spectacle of the world falling apart is a reassuring distraction.

Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell, Nana Mensah, Rudy De La Cruz, Hemang Sharma, Cynthia Thomas, Darrill Rosen, Karl Jacob, Matt Hopkins Director: Onur Tukel Screenwriter: Onur Tukel Distributor: Factory 25, Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation

Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.

2

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human misery—shots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage aren’t exactly new, but Östlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, an Americanized remake of Östlund’s film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.

Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeure’s plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behind—though not before grabbing his phone.

This scene, which Östlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. It’s reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.

Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they don’t give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.

It’s hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the film’s premise, they’re mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrell’s clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s rubber-faced emoting.

Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billie’s emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, it’s Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that sticks with you after the film is over.

If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a man’s world. It’s apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Östlund’s film is that of the husband’s pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billie’s face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer

Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Today, Searchlight Pictures debuted the trailer for The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s first feature since 2018’s Isle of Dogs and first live-action film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. According to its official description, The French Dispatch “brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.” The city is Ennui-sur-Blasé and the magazine is run by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an American journalist based in France. The trailer, just a hair over two minutes, quickly establishes the workaday (and detail-rich) world of a magazine, a travelogue struggling with just how much politics to bring to its pages during a time of strife.

A French Dispatch is written and directed by Anderson, whose described the film as a “love letter to journalists,” and stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. See the trailer below:

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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Review: Sonic the Hedgehog Doesn’t Rock, Even After a New Paintjob

Throughout, any and all subtext is buried under the weight of Jim Carrey’s mugging.

1.5

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Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo: Paramount Pictures

It’s only fitting that director Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the belated big-screen debut for the eponymous Sega mascot, feels like a blast from the 1990s. Eschewing the emphasis on world building that pervades so many contemporary blockbusters, the film remains intensely focused on the personal travails of its supersonic protagonist (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and opts for telling a single, complete story over setting up a potential franchise universe. Indeed, despite Sonic being an alien from a distant planet, we only briefly glimpse other realms besides Earth throughout the film, and we only get enough of the blue hedgehog’s backstory to know that he fled his homeworld (modeled on the original video game’s starter level) after being hunted by other residents afraid of his superpowers.

Using rings that can allow him to pass through dimensions, Sonic ends up on Earth, settling in the woods around Green Hills, Montana. He remains hidden for his own safety but suffers from intense loneliness. This much is obvious from the way he darts around the outskirts of town, watching people from afar or spying on them through windows and pretending to have conversations with them. But Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly makes its hero reiterate his feelings in endless monologues and voiceover narration. If the best contemporary children’s films trust young viewers to follow at least some of the emotional beats of a story on their own, Sonic the Hedgehog is frustratingly old-school in its condescension, as the filmmakers constantly hold the audience’s hand in order to make sure that we understand why the hero looks so crestfallen as he, for example, plays group games all by himself.

Eventually, Sonic’s high-speed, energy-producing running causes a power surge, and after the Pentagon enlists a private drone contractor, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate the cause, the hedgehog finds himself in the government’s crosshairs. As originally conceived in the video game, Robotnik had little depth or motivation beyond providing a megalomaniacal impedance to the hero, but there’s something gently unnerving about how little updating had to be done to Robotnik’s simplistic backstory to credibly present him as a mercenary in a modern military-industrial complex wielding destructive drone technology without oversight.

Of course, that subtext is rapidly buried under the weight of Carrey’s mugging. As the actor is wont to do, he lunges at each line like a starving animal, pulling rubber faces and jutting his limbs in angular motions as he says every other word with an exaggerated pronunciation. In depicting a mad scientist, Carrey over-exaggerates the madness at the expense of the rare moments in which Robotnik conveys a more compelling kind of super-genius sociopathy, a tech-libertarian’s disregard for anything outside his own advancement.

Through a series of mishaps, Sonic accidentally opens a portal to San Francisco with his rings and drops the remaining transportation devices through it, necessitating a retrieval mission to California. To do so, he enlists Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local Green Hills cop, to escort him. Having Sonic travel with Tom is an obvious pretense to give the former his first true friend, but the pairing comes at the expense of all narrative logic. Sonic can sprint from Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back within seconds, yet he opts to tag along in a pickup truck doing 60mph for a mission where time is of the essence.

To Marsden’s credit, there’s a natural camaraderie between him and the computer-animated Sonic, which is impressive given that the critter was likely represented on set by a tennis ball on a stick. The jokes are almost all uniformly awful, following a formula of some zany thing happening and a character merely describing aloud what just happened in an incredulous voice. But Marsden impressively imbues Tom with a sense of pity as the man contemplates Sonic’s life on the run—one that finds the hedgehog living in the shadows and heading to new, sometimes miserable worlds to outrun forces that might exploit and harm him.

For a film that gained notoriety well before its release for how wildly Sonic’s original animation diverged from his well-established look, Sonic the Hedgehog does show a clear understanding of the source material and its essential nature. Sonic, fundamentally, is a goofy character with a specific power who just wants friends, and as exasperating as the film can be in its overbearingly clumsy humor, it at least never tries to make the character more complicated than he really is. But the lack of any greater depth to the core of the material limits the possibilities of making any of this meaningful to anyone.

Video games long ago began to reveal their cinematic aspirations, but the Sonic the Hedgehog series to this day continues to channel the old-school cool of platformers that prize gameplay—and testing the player’s hand-eye coordination—over matters of story. There’s plenty of potential for movies and games to inform one another, but perhaps the only aspect of video game culture that Sonic the Hedgehog brings to cinema is the trend of allowing preemptive fan outrage to necessitate overhauls from already overworked animators.

Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Neal McDonough Director: Jeff Fowler Screenwriter: Pat Casey, Josh Miller Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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