I. Spreading the Word
I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think heâs too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, “We know what heâs saying, but we canât figure out how heâs saying it”). Heâll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think youâve got him, whereby heâll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharekâs description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (“Oh, yeah, just one more question…”). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.
Language, more than I realized at first, plays a crucial role in The Last Temptation of Christ, which premiered 25 years ago on August 12, 1988 (incidentally, right around the same time my father helped me load up a U-Haul for my freshman year at college). Actually, it may be more accurate to say words play the same role in Last Temptation as they do in Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, right down to the controversial contemporary elocution, which, to me, even on first viewing, emphasized the point that the characters, as far as words are concerned, are forever fumbling for them. Unlike the Christ of the Bible and prior Christs of cinema, the Jesus in Last Temptation begins his mission tongue-tied. His Sermon on the Mount is painfully awkward: “Iâm sorry,” is his unpromising start. Still he trudges forth, convinced that God will do the talking for him. He tells a story (“The Parable of the Farmer”) that concludes with the moral that love is the answer to societyâs ills. Many in his initial audience remain skeptical, even hostile, yet gradually he gains a few followers. They find him persuasive. I found him moving.
Seeing Last Temptation at the age of 18 appealed to both the still-evolving movie buff and would-be rebel in me: What occurred onscreen was heady stuff, and what was fomenting offscreen made crossing a mild-mannered picket line feel like taking a bold stand (for more harrowing examples of the controversy surrounding the filmâs release, see David Ehrensteinâs excellent Criterion essay. Back in the 1980s, reading Roger Ebertâs unwavering enthusiasm for Scorseseâs workâan exception, ironically, being his previous film, The Color of Money, whose success helped get Last Temptation green-lit after prior false startsâconvinced me at that I knew more about his movies than I did. Certain portions of the general public, however, knew nothing. As often happens when thoughtful reflection squares off with dead-certain hostility, the collective rhetoric by opponents of Last Temptation was so extreme that it obscured what the movie itself was trying to say.
II. The Valley of the Sun
My father, an agnostic (I suppose, although heâs never used the word), and my mother, a privately devout refugee from an evangelical church, raised me in the urban desert of Arizona. “God is not alone out there,” Jesus is warned in Last Temptation, before venturing forth to confront his demons in the badlands. And the same was true about Phoenix: If Satan wasnât around, there was certainly no shortage of his incompetent minions. One summer day our next-door neighbor, a strutting mailman named Paul, sauntered over to challenge us on an irrigation dispute. My father sidestepped a punch and gently squeezed his bigger, heavier assailant into a headlock below his knees (the mailmanâs wifeâs indelible reply was, “Paul doesnât want to hurt you….”).
My upbringing was largely secular, with occasional forays into Sunday school. Once we attended a church-sponsored musical where eternally-damned sinners snapped their fingers and sang, “Itâs hot in the furnace, man…” a catchy ditty that had the effect of making Hell look like a groovy place. Yet it wasnât until the sixth grade when my parentsâfor educational reasons more than spiritual onesâtransferred me from a local public school to Ss. Simon and Jude, an academically respectable Catholic elementary, that I began to encounter religious belief on a more regular and, frankly, more interesting and thought-provoking basis. Having that experience prepped me for viewing films like Last Temptationânot with an open mind so much as an active one.
I wonât guess what the nuns who taught me at Ss. S&J went on to think of Scorseseâs movie, if they ever saw it, or Kazantzakisâs original novel, if they ever read it. But they practiced the kind of belief that I admired about both film and book, engaging intellectually in spiritual endeavors and spiritually in intellectual endeavors (Kael was stirred by Scorseseâs “passionate thrashing around” as well). I saw Last Temptation years before I read it, and having seen the movie a few more times since, I now recall the dialogue being more in synch with the images: Jesus stalked by an invisible entity who pins him to the ground (“Who are you? What do you want?”), his encounter with André Gregoryâs fire-and-brimstone John the Baptist (”He sounds like the Messiah,” Judas notes), Pilateâs reasoning behind Jesusâs death sentence (“Itâs one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want to change how they think, what they feel”), Lazarusâs pithy description of the afterlife (“I was a little surprised. There wasnât that much difference”), and the print-the-legend justifications of the Apostle Paulânot to be confused with the Mailmanâfor preferring the Divine Christ to the mortal version (“You know, Iâm glad I met you, because now I can forget all about you”).
Although most Christians are baptized very young, Jesus, according to Scripture and the Apocrypha on which Kazantzakis based his book, wasnât officially blessed until he was 30. I, on the other hand, was between infancy and adulthoodâ12 years old in the spring of 1982âwhen the Sisters at my new school gently pushed to save my soul. My parents, wanting me to fit in, agreed. I wish I could say I thought long and hard about such a weighty matter. In Last Temptation, Jesusâs request to be baptized feels meaningful. I suspect my reaction was more along the lines of, “Sure, what the hell…why not?”
In Scorseseâs depiction, Jesus arrives at the Jordan River among other seekers of The Baptist, some of them naked and caterwauling. The soundtrack goes memorably silent during this sequence (My Baptism with Andre), leaving audible only the dialogue between Jesus and John (after Gregory pours a handful of water down Willem Dafoeâs face, the surrounding din returns). My own christening, somewhat more subdued, took place at Ss. Simon and Jude Church. An older student in my motherâs art class, whom I knew as “Mr. Boylan,” agreed to be my godfather. Mr. Boylan, whose first name was John, was a retiree-turned-aspiring-actor who had once given me a shard of breakaway-glass from an episode of The Fall Guy, on which he had been an extra (John Boylan would go on to play Mayor Milford on Twin Peaks, and the elevator man who takes Meg Ryan to the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle). It was a lovely ceremony. My peers wrote heartfelt well-wishes that were collected in a scrapbook. I tried to be heartfelt as well in my commitment. I wasnât cynical about religious belief. Deep down, I think I just wasnât feeling the devotion. At best, I gave faith a whirl.
Unsurprisingly, I wasnât a very good Catholic. Over the years I have acquired plenty of more dedicated friends, including a gregarious ex-seminarian who, whenever a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties knocked on his door to talk about God and Jesus and salvation, would invite them inside for a friendly debate over spiritual matters. I hadnât the patience for even the fundamentals of faith. My church attendance was erratic; my confessions unforthcoming. Nevertheless, I stayed in Catholic schools all the way through college. And it was at Marquette University, in the early fall semester of 1988, where I was able to see Last Temptation.
III. The Good Land
That Marquette is a Jesuit institution may suggest to some an unflinching rigidity, and admittedly, at times, that quality was there. Eight years and two degrees later, I still felt, in essence, like an outsider. Yet the atmosphere could be open in surprising ways. I hadnât a prayer of seeing the movie in Nashville, where I had just graduated from high school. And even if by some miracle a print of Last Temptation had been smuggled into the state (as The Simpsons taught us, “Tennesseeinâ is Tennebelievinâ”), I likely would have had to go it alone. Earlier that summer Iâd been accused of enjoying “innerlectual movies,” after I coerced a couple of pals into seeing Daniel Petrie Jr.âs playful romantic thriller The Big Easy instead of their choice, Disorderlies, starring the Fat Boys (if my friends were indifferent to the celebrated Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin sex scene, I can only imagine their bewilderment toward Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hersheyâs hallucinatory fornication). Marquette was in Milwaukee, the northernmost city I have yet to inhabit, in a state that had been home to the likes of Hank Aaron, Fighting Bob La Follette, and Peter Bonerz (not to mention Joe McCarthy, Kato Keilin, and, living only six blocks from campus when I was there, Jeffrey Dahmer). Nationwide, however, the release of Last Temptation was in such doubt I wasnât optimistic about my chances anywhere, even in the region whose Algonquin heritage Alice Cooper spoke of so fondly.
As it happened, though, a few weeks into the fall semester, Last Temptation was scheduled to play at Milwaukeeâs Downer Theater ,beginning on Friday, Sept. 23, 1988, and for that weekend a bus had been arranged to take anyone from campus who wanted to see it. I donât know the reason behind the field trip other than that, possibly, the organizers (who were MU faculty) were as curious as I was. I hopped on the bus with maybe 20 other students, and it dropped us off in front of the theater. We wended our way through an outnumbered dozen or so protesters, who wielded signs but didnât hassle us. Inside, we joined an at-capacity audience and watched the movie.
Apparently, that sell-out crowd wasnât a fluke. Thomas R. Lindlofâs Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars reports that Last Temptation “was extraordinarily popular in its two-month run” at the Downer, “the cumulative total of more than 20,000 moviegoers breaking the house record” (Lindlof adds that the film appeared in the deep South after all, most prominently in Atlanta, “sneaking into town like a thief in the night”). Still, the success of the movie in limited release shouldnât obscure the fact that that release remains limited to this day. The movie endures. But, to a degree, so does the impact of the rhetoric.
IV. Grace Notes and Rough Edges
I admired the movie despite a few awkward passagesâor, rather, I found the awkwardness oddly admirable, with lyrical images caught seemingly on the fly (consider the haunting expression on Harvey Keitelâs face when Judas witnesses Jesus restoring the slaveâs ear during his arrest at Gethsemane). My only serious debate about Last Temptation occurred the following summer with a sneering friend back in Nashville. He hadnât seen the film and didnât seem to hold any moral objection against it, but he claimed that Siskel and Ebert hated it and therefore it must be lousy. He was thinking of Lyons and Medved. Both Siskel & Ebert & the Movies and Sneak Previews aired the same clip, wherein Jesus confronts the moneychangers in the Temple (culminating with a striking image of coins tossed in the air), as evidence that the movie was, depending on your viewpoint, a masterpiece or an atrocity.
Last Temptation remained divisive enough that I was unable to rent it from Blockbuster, and I didnât see any part of the film again until Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebertâs 1997 extended conversation of the directorâs career at The Ohio State University in Columbus (transcribed in Scorsese by Ebert). I had invited my father to attend. Based on the comments from a group seated behind us, the audience was comprised of a significant portion of mucky-mucks who were there to honor Scorsese (that yearâs recipient of the Wexner Prize) without having more than the dimmest idea who he was. After the event, the audience shuffled out quieter than when they entered.
Ebert presented a barrage of the bloodiest scenes from Scorseseâs movies to much squirming and discomfort among the crowd, and a woman sitting a few rows to our right fainted during Last Temptationâs crucifixion sequence, when the camera arcs around Willem Dafoe as he shouts, “Why have you forsaken me?” (She recovered.) My father, who had yet to see the film in its entirety, had no discernible reaction. For me, it remained a powerful moment. And I canât help but suspect that, if Scorsese had worked with the originally approved, larger budget, and if Last Temptation had been more polished, like much of his later work (which is too polished, at times, if you ask me), the end result would have been less powerful than it is.
V. Every Day a Different Plan
This story (“The Parable of the Knock at the Door”) will sound apocryphal. But I swear it is true. My father, as you may have gathered, doesnât suffer fools. Using words for weapons, I have seen him eviscerate plenty of adversaries over the years. He and I have had our share of skirmishes as well. Sometimes, in conflict, he can be hilariously wry; at other times, frighteningly explosive (“Itâs hot in the furnace, man….”). This is why I wonder sometimes if I respond to Keitelâs Judas in Last Temptation not only on account of the actorâs performance, or the characterâs conception (immeasurably more interesting as the only disciple strong enough to betray Jesus, rather than a stock villain motivated by petty avarice), but because this Judas, unlike any other on screen before or since, feels intimately familiarâquick to both ire and sentiment, set in a particular system of belief, frustrated whenever plans change unexpectedly, yet always striving to understand.
A few years after seeing Scorsese at OSU, I watched Last Temptation with both of my parents, when I managed to snag a DVD from a privately-owned video store in Columbus. An intense theological discussion followed. By “intense” I mean riotous, and by “theological” I mean my father twisting brilliantly insightful knots into the notion of Christ (“Oh, yeah, just one more question, about that time he pulled his heart out….”). It wasnât quite along the lines of Rowan Atkinsonâs “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigot” from Four Weddings and a Funeral, but suffice to say he had us in stitches. Iâm not sure if he liked the movie or not, but it seemed to have intrigued him. My mother started cobbling together a shopping list during the climactic 40-minute dream sequence but liked everything up to that; the ex-evangelical in her appreciated the film for trying to tell a familiar story in a fresh way. The three of us talked in the living room for a while before arriving at our respective summations.
“I donât believe in God,” my father announced.
“I donât believe in God either,” I declared.
“I donât know if I believe in God or not,” my mother opined. Even though, of course, she did. On cue, at that moment, there was a knock at the door. My father rose from the couch and opened it to a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties. They were very polite. They had come to save us.
Sometimes I wish I had that much faith. But the truth is I need to see things in order to believe in them. In terms of eternity, Iâm neither enticed by metaphorical carrots nor threatened by figurative sticks. “The Word” alone has never convinced me, regardless of who delivers it. So whenever I have sought transcendence, Iâve gone to the movies. And every now and thenâlike in the final scene of Last Temptation, when the ineffable “is accomplished” and Christâs resurrection implied by the filmâs refusal to depict itâthey deliver. Yet, in the real world, when I have been in pain, when I have felt alone or let down, when “The Plan” (if there ever is one) has changed so often that none of the divergent paths seem to matter, Iâve been left with the nagging sensation that movies arenât enough. When the final image in Last Temptation turns overexposed, when we are reminded that we are watching only a movie, perhaps even Scorsese is suggesting he senses this too.
Consequently I have come to find myself longing for grace without ever expecting it. So after those nice young men finished their sales-pitch about God and Jesus and salvation, I braced myself for the inevitable. My father hates unwanted visitors. He would put them in their place. First, he would yell at them. And then he would slam the door. And then he would rage about the encounter for a long time afterwards. And thenâ
“Thank you, but weâre not interested. Have a nice day.”
He said it with love.
Review: For Leigh Whannellâs The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point
The thrill of the filmâs craftsmanship is inseparable from its main characterâs abuse.1.5
Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannellâs The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If itâs easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, thatâs because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.
That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesnât really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrianâs clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But thereâs a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her characterâs pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.
With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchiseâs trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film thatâs less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that itâs okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.
The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside Jamesâs house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.
But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that sheâs capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that heâs aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.
Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannellâs mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, itâs still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, heâs consistent. Through to the end, you canât get off on the thrill of this filmâs craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Manâs cruelty is the point.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor
Writer-director Jason Lei Howdenâs humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.1.5
For much of Jason Lei Howdenâs Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.
Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the filmâs groan-inducing comedy. Heâs also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports âoffensive content.â When he goes to Skizmâs chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organizationâs facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, âIâm going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,â because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Milesâs punishment.
Most of Guns Akimboâs dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks âso HDâ because, with gun-hands, he canât go outside with his face in his phone.
The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Milesâs sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Milesâs unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style thatâs always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except heâs not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.
Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isnât one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And itâs weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weavingâs character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the storyâs backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They arenât bolted to the couch and the remote isnât nailed into their hands; theyâre free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment
The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.3
With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts smallâthrowing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hoursâcan blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of âdoing what theyâre told.â
With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that itâs almost impossible to tell if itâs morning or night. By 8 a.m., sheâs been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends offâa privilege that Jane isnât accorded.
In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melvilleâs âBartleby, the Scrivener.â This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Greenâs moral schematic.
The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (heâs never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Janeâs co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if sheâs not quite real. When Jane eats, itâs quickly and without pleasure, and sheâs always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks heâs reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.
Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogulâs office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that weâre watchingâfrom the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit personâa parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Greenâs grasp of Janeâs indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.
Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huangâs similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the scriptâs anger. Thereâs also something insidious about Greenâs evasion, as the mogulâs absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, StĂ©phanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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.
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