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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned.

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

Jason Bellamy: For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned. Serendipitously, we selected films that the other person had yet to see. You elected to champion 2004’s Undertow. I selected 2002’s Solaris. These films have few similarities, and so there will be no attempt to connect them beyond our feeling that they are deserving of increased discussion and praise.

Thus, we begin with Undertow. Prior to seeing this film, I knew exactly four things about it: 1) Its director is David Gordon Green; 2) Its star is Jamie Bell (or as I usually call him, “The kid from Billy Elliot”); 3) It’s set in the South; 4) Roger Ebert loved, loved, loved it. That’s it, and that’s all. I vaguely remember the film coming out and being interested in it. Yet somehow I never got to it until now.

If Undertow was maligned (I’ve avoided checking Metacritic to this point), I don’t remember that. Overlooked seems right. Mention of Green usually inspires reference to Undertow predecessors George Washington and All the Real Girls. I’m sure you and Ebert aren’t Undertow’s only fans, but I can’t say I remember anyone else so much as mentioning it.

Am I surprised? Having seen Undertow a few days ago, I can’t say that I am. Not even five full years since its release, Undertow strikes me as the typical forgotten film: not brilliant enough to be considered great, not faulty enough to be worthy of venomous derision, not complex or ambiguous enough to inspire endless debate. I have multiple thoughts on the film, but for the most part I’d like to approach this discussion through your views, and I’ll start by asking you a question: Did you submit Undertow for examination here because you think the film is criminally misunderstood or because you think it’s criminally unknown (or something else in between)?

Ed Howard: I wanted to talk about Undertow largely because it’s been forgotten: you’re right that almost no one brings it up these days in talking about Green, who’s mostly known for his first two films and now the Judd Apatow collaboration Pineapple Express. Ebert’s rave aside, I believe Undertow got decidedly mixed reviews upon release, including its fair share of very negative ones, but on the whole I wouldn’t say it’s maligned so much as simply overlooked. That’s unfortunate, because in my opinion it is Green’s best film thus far, the film that comes closest to fulfilling the tremendous promise he’s displayed in all his features. It’s not a perfect film by any means, not a masterpiece, but in its own strange way it is “great,” a baroque fable about the loss of childhood innocence and the totemic power of family. I don’t use that word “fable” lightly, either. I think Green is quite consciously tapping into the language and aesthetic of fables and children’s stories, especially the darkness running through the Grimm fairy tales or, in movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. This is what I like so much about this film. All of Green’s films are fables to one extent or another, heavily stylized fantasy visions of the South. It’s tempting to call George Washington or All the Real Girls “realist,” or maybe “poetic realist,” but in fact they only give the impression of realism. The rhythms of these films approximate the slow rhythms of life, with lots of start/stop conversations and languid pauses, but the language and aesthetic choices distance the films from ordinary reality.

Undertow is the first of Green’s films to fully embrace this tendency, to revel in the artificiality of his vision of the American South. The film contains realism as just one mode among many, one choice that the director might make for a time before shifting to something else. There’s a lovely, moody silent sequence in which Green cuts back and forth between the brooding John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) smoking in his den, and his rebellious son Chris (Jamie Bell) constructing a rough wooden toy for his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan). This is Green’s poetic realist moment, as is the mumbled, halting conversation between John and Chris afterwards, but the quietly realistic sensibility of these moments jars against, for example, the cartoonish performance of Josh Lucas as John’s bitter brother Deel, or the exaggerated idiot savant behavior of the paint-eating Tim, or the barrage of filters and effects applied to the opening credits. The film shifts genres fluidly: the credits seem to promise a darkly comic farce, a rural parody of 70s cop TV, while later the two brothers move from a low-key domestic drama to gory horror to a chase thriller drawn heavily from The Night of the Hunter. This is Green’s loosest and most imaginative film. Here he discards the urge toward realism that ran through his earlier films, and finally admits, “this is a myth.” And it’s a poignant, affecting myth, centered around the relationship between two young brothers and their desire for family, safety, security and love.

JB: Ebert’s review makes similar observations. He ends his assessment saying: “Films like Undertow leave some audiences unsettled, because they do not proceed predictably by the rules. But they are immediately available to our emotions, and we fall into a kind of walking trance, as if being told a story at an age when we half-believed everything we heard.” That’s right on the money. It’s to Green’s credit that Undertow shifts genres as “fluidly” as it does, and yet I wonder if these transitions are too seamless for their own good. I imagine that watching Undertow made many moviegoers feel like WALL-E in the scene when the robot goes to file away one of his latest detrital treasures and realizes with confusion that the utensil in his hand doesn’t belong in the cup of plastic spoons or the cup of plastic forks, because it’s a spork. Right or wrong, audiences and sometimes even critics tend to file cinematic sporks in the waste bin of filmmaker gaffes. But there’s no question in my mind that Green is confidently and intentionally crossing genre lines here. He’s a filmmaker who isn’t rebellious so much as he is liberated from such restrictions to the point that he almost seems oblivious. That’s a compliment.

As for the notion that Undertow is Green’s best film, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. George Washington is the kind of picture that should (and did) make people drop everything and take notice of a filmmaker in his 20s, but there’s an intentional aimlessness about that film that I find overwhelming. In Ebert’s Undertow review he cites the moment when the girl asks, “Can I carve my name in your face?” and I laughed reading that, because George Washington is a collection of similar non sequiturs (not all of them spoken). By comparison, All the Real Girls is far more conventional, and it’s the closest Green film to my heart, because of the effortless and understated way in which Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel paint a heart-rending portrait of young love. That said, I’m not convinced that Green has made a “great” film as yet, though he’s certainly done enough to convince me that he’s a great filmmaker.

EH: That “carve my name” moment that both you and Ebert mention is a very good example of what Green is aiming for. As I believe Ebert points out, no one ever expresses themselves in quite that way, and yet everyone has felt the kinds of things that are being expressed: the confusion and potential pain of love, the angst of adolescence and puberty. The line is funny just because it’s so bizarre, so completely unexpected, and yet it’s not just an empty non sequitur. It’s a way of summing up, in a single line, the awkward, weird tensions of young love and desire. You get the feeling that these kids don’t know how to express themselves yet, don’t know what they want or what they mean to one another: they’re saying things, and doing things, they don’t fully understand. As good as they are, both George Washington and All the Real Girls sometimes feel self-consciously quirky, and I think Undertow is the first of Green’s films where the off-putting weirdness of his aesthetic is more purposeful. This film is a fable because fables are universal, they express feelings and fears we all have in stylized form. The distrust of strangers runs through the grisly tale of Hansel and Gretel, the desire to be able to transcend oneself drives the mermaid who wants to become a human, and Undertow is motivated, above all, by the need for family structures, for comfort and security.

When the film opens, Chris is alienated from his father, feeling trapped and confined by life on the isolated farm that John moved them to as a way of escaping from the world. When Deel arrives, Chris initially sees in him a potentially more promising father figure, something he hungers for so desperately that he doesn’t note the more sinister undercurrents of Deel’s persona. Of course, soon enough we learn that Deel is probably Chris’ biological father, and that he’s no more worthy as a father figure or role model than John is. The rest of the film continues this search for family, the desire to find someplace to simply fit in and make a comfortable home. The episodic structure allows Green to explore this central idea in several different contexts. First, Chris and Tim settle in with a black couple (Eddie Rouse and Patrice Johnson) who are badly affected by the premature death of their own child some years ago, but who are obviously deeply in love and remain joyous and appreciative of life. They provide a model for Chris and Tim, who barely remember their own mother and never experienced anything like the fun and humor that these people infuse into their clearly poor but nevertheless vibrant household. Later, the two boys attempt to create a familial structure among the homeless teens living in a kind of open-air hippie commune in the woods.

And in one of the film’s best scenes, Chris and Tim actually construct their own home from the detritus lying around a junk yard. The “Home Sweet Home” mug they place within this rusted metal structure is a bit much, an example of Green making his point too obviously, but the scene as a whole is nonetheless affecting: these two kids are so desperate for some shred of normality that they try to build a home from discarded car parts. In a lot of ways, Undertow is about America’s abandonment of its kids, the disinterest that so many people today seem to show in raising their children, providing them with the love and attention they need. The film is full of kids simply wandering, left to their own devices, saddled with parents who are either completely absent or absorbed in themselves or, at best, fiery clichés like the shotgun-wielding overprotective father who chases Chris during the opening credits. Because this is a fairy tale, Chris and Tim finally find what they need at the end, in the form of the kindly grandparents (Bill McKinney and Thelma Louise Carter) who accept them and take them in. But this happy ending doesn’t erase the violence and abjection that preceded it, the harrowing journey that these kids must take just in order to finally find a family.

JB: It’s certainly a harrowing journey. Emotionally, Undertow’s greatest triumph is the tactile vulnerability of Chris and Tim. Of all the genres that Undertow explores, from its Dukes of Hazzard meets Mark Twain opening to its Night of the Hunter-esque premise, horror isn’t one of them. Nothing goes bump in the night here—every threatening moment happens in broad daylight. And yet my stomach was in knots for Chris and Tim, even though the Southern-fried buffoonery of Deel suggests that he’s only slightly more competent than Rosco P. Coltrane. The latter half of the film is saturated with dread.

Thus, my disappointment with Undertow stems from the fact that there isn’t much else to it. In his mostly negative review for Variety, Scott Foundas notes that while “Green’s partisans claim he lyricizes the South… what Green does is more fetishization than lyricization. He wallows in the dirt, mud and sweat…piling the twangy Southern accents on extra-thick and filling the soundtrack with the incessant sound of hogs squealing.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly is in the same ballpark when he calls Green “an artist so sensitive that he savors every moment, to the point that you occasionally wished he’d savor it a little less.”

I’m all for meditative films, and I don’t think a picture needs to be epic to be “great” or “classic.” Still, Green’s films have a way of looking at puddles as if they are oceans. After splashing around for a while it can be unsatisfying to realize that I’m only wet up to my ankles. As Gleiberman puts it in relation to Undertow: “By the end, you realize there’s not much beneath that surface.” I’d agree. Which isn’t to suggest that Undertow is some sort of dismal failure—I have a hard time imagining how someone could get that worked up over it—it’s just to say that Undertow isn’t a film that suggests I’ll find more within it on a repeat visit.

Am I undervaluing Undertow? Let’s be direct: In your opinion, how great is it?

EH: In my opinion, yes, you’re undervaluing Undertow. Maybe I just like what Green finds in the puddles he’s looking at. Maybe I don’t think that looking at puddles is inherently less valuable or interesting than looking at oceans. After all, it’s just water either way, and by looking at puddles we might learn something about oceans. To unpack the metaphor, Green’s films locate universal truths and themes within seemingly prosaic events and characters. Basically, I don’t agree that there’s nothing deeper or more substantial to Green’s films, and to this one in particular. Beyond its genre pastiche (and would you really argue the central gory murder isn’t horror?) and its lyrical mood, the film gets at universal ideas and fears in very interesting ways. The dread we feel for Chris and Tim isn’t just—or even primarily—about Deel catching up to them. It’s more an existential dread, a fear that things aren’t going to work out for these drifting, parentless kids, that they won’t be able to find a place where they can fit in and be allowed to grow up normally.

As much as Green’s style is structured around disruptions and disjunctions, very showy intrusions of artifice, the film is emotionally complex and layered, not only in the bond between the two brothers, but in the distant, deceit-based relationship between Deel and John, the subtle parallels between the two generations of the family we see here, and the conflicted emotions of John, who seems to want desperately to be a decent father to his sons without quite having the emotional resources to carry through on it. The emotions in this film are small and subtle—in direct contrast to the outsized performance of Deel, inspired as much by Wile E. Coyote as anything else—but no less potent for their quiet simplicity. I already mentioned the scene of John contemplatively smoking while Chris assembles a wooden airplane out in the shed, but it’s a perfect example of the way Green infuses such simple moments with deeper subtexts. By fading back and forth between father and son, each quiet and alone in his separate space, Green unifies them even while emphasizing the distance between them; the camera moves as though panning from one to the other within the same space, bridging the gap between them in a way their conversations never do.

There’s a similar emotional ambiguity to the scene of John staring at his family’s portrait on the wall, which at first seems like a straightforward expression of his longing for his dead wife and the united family he’s since lost. Later, however, when we learn more about that portrait and what secret it hides, in retrospect we begin to wonder what exactly John is feeling at that moment. Greed? Foreboding? Regret? Guilt? Nostalgia? All of the above? There’s a great deal of complexity to even deceptively simple moments like that, which are opened up and complicated by the web of relationships and conflicted feelings between the characters. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I feel the emotions that much more intensely, see the underlying themes with that much more clarity. It’s a film that is broad and obvious in its surface effects, but much subtler and quieter beneath the surface, a strange combination that has perhaps contributed to its overall dismissal from the film conversation.

JB: Interesting. Maybe it deserves another look. (Knowing me, it’ll get one either way.) But I think one of the reasons I felt underwhelmed by Undertow had to do with an inkling that I’d seen it before. Prior to introducing myself to Green on DVD just a few years ago, I often heard it said that Terrence Malick is one of his key influences. In George Washington and All the Real Girls, I saw hints of what people were talking about, but on the whole I thought comparisons to Malick were overstated. Having now seen Undertow, I understand. This film is like a perfect hybrid of Badlands and Days of Heaven, from its muddy young runaways drifting through a ghastly fairy tale, to its ambiguous idiot-savant dialogue, to its meditative pacing, to its fondness for voiceover and, of course, its reverence for lush naturally-lit compositions. Given that Malick is known for the succulence of his images, it seems like a twisted Hollywood in-joke that Green would borrow Malick’s aesthetic so blatantly for a film that includes a character who eats every filthy (yet somehow appetizing) thing in sight. That amuses me.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Green of thievery in noting his Malick emulation, and I’ve noticed that you have found numerous ways to praise the compositions of Green’s film without mentioning the edible deliciousness of its celluloid. Still, for someone who loves Malick, Undertow’s allusions are plentiful to the point of distraction, causing my mind to wander to Badlands and Days of Heaven—which is the same thing as wanting to watch those films immediately. If Undertow wasn’t so locked in to the palette and themes of those Malick landmarks, I might have settled into its mood more freely. Instead, Undertow struck me as a film that’s better to look at than to look into. I still enjoyed it more than not, but I didn’t find the emotional heft in it that you have, certainly in comparison to a Malick picture.

EH: Well, there’s no use arguing the Malick references, since he’s an obvious influence on Green—hell, he even produced this film, so the affinities between them are apparent. I think it’s interesting, though, that you’d call Undertow “a film that’s better to look at than to look into.” Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I could imagine that description applying just as easily to Days of Heaven, an undeniably beautiful film that I love in many ways, but which nevertheless leaves me with the impression that Malick is sometimes more comfortable filming wheat fields than people. Now, of course, this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek: there’s a lot of emotional depth to Days of Heaven, a lot going on in between its landscape shots. But on its surface it’s a rather conventional love triangle story that happens to be graced with some of the most sumptuous cinematography in the cinema.

I won’t go so far as to argue that Undertow is a better film, by any means, but I think you’re doing to Green’s film something similar to what I just did to Malick’s. It’s very easy not to look beyond the pretty surfaces of films like this, to be seduced by the beauty of the images or the cinematic allusions and miss out on the emotional undercurrents. I think a lot of people do the same thing with Tarantino: they get so caught up with trying to spot all the kung-fu movies he references that the emotional arc of Uma Thurman’s Bride across both volumes of Kill Bill simply doesn’t make the impact it should. So I guess the question is, is originality everything? And does Green simply regurgitate Malick like so many paint chips, or does he process his influences into something new? Clearly, I believe the latter, but I’ll throw it back to you for now.

JB: I’m glad you asked. I absolutely agree that since Green so closely approximates Malick that it’s fair to presume that the same criticisms I applied to Undertow could also apply to Days of Heaven or Badlands. Thus, in a very basic respect, Undertow’s biggest burden is coming second. No, originality isn’t everything, but, from an audience perspective, discovery is a hell of a lot. For example, I’m sure that when Saving Private Ryan came out and Steven Spielberg was receiving unrestrained praise for his epic D-Day sequence, fans of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One must have been wondering what the big fucking deal was. In this case, I wouldn’t fault Fuller followers for being emotionally attached to “their” beach storming sequence, nor would I fault those unfamiliar with The Big Red One for thinking that Spielberg had created something wildly unmatched. Those are both fair and just reactions. (And let me pause here to offer that Spielberg does just what he should with Saving Private Ryan: he borrows what works and then adds to it, enhances it, reinvents it. The influence of Fuller is undeniable, but the brushstrokes of Spielberg are recognizable, too.)

To use a different analogy, what I’m getting at is the idea that perhaps the second trip to the moon can’t possibly have the same emotional impact as the first. At the risk of implying that Green is some kind of rip-off artist, I see less enhancement and reinvention of Malick in Undertow than reflection of Malick. It’s close to being the same thing, but somehow Green’s implementation of the same techniques isn’t quite as poignant, in ways I’m not sure I could ever quantify. Essentially, it’s a gut feeling. So what’s interesting to me is that I agree with the idea you hinted at, that perhaps Green and Malick have the same fascinations or impulses or intentions. Underneath it all, maybe it’s an illusion that Malick’s films are somehow more genuine. But after falling for Malick’s artistry like I have, I can’t help but have a special reverence for it. Still, I’m open-minded enough to qualify that with this: Perhaps I’m making a mistake of Vertigo proportions. As we know, the brown-haired Judy is actually more authentic than the blonde Madeleine … but good luck getting Scottie to believe that. For him, Madeleine is the measuring stick, and always will be. The same goes for me and Malick.

Before we move on, I want to touch on your reference to Tarantino, because I was thinking of that very example as I was writing my previous comments. Without a doubt, there’s a similarity in my reactions above and those of Tarantino naysayers so consumed with identifying which films Kill Bill references that they overlook what it actually does. Also similar is that way that I’m criticizing Green for the same reason that Tarantino gets into trouble: because the emulation is so fucking skillful that it appears dangerously effortless, as if these guys are painting by number rather than creating from within. That said, I think there are two distinct differences between Tarantino’s emulation and Green’s, both of which come down to the plural vs. the singular. First, Kill Bill, to keep with the example, nakedly and wholeheartedly embraces the stylistic trademarks of multiple filmmakers, while Undertow stylistically references pretty much Malick alone. Second, Tarantino is one of many filmmakers to blatantly draw upon Sergio Leone, to pick one, while Green is the only filmmaker I can think of to so unabashedly (and adeptly) channel Malick. The result? Tarantino is like the musician who tries to emulate Dylan and the Beatles simultaneously. He’s part of a mob. He blends in a bit more. Green, on the other hand, is like the poet who is ballsy enough (or dumb enough) to write in lowercase. Just like I couldn’t possibly read that poet’s work without thinking of e.e. cummings, I can’t possibly look at Undertow without seeing Malick. I think it’s a special case.

EH: See, I don’t actually agree that Malick is the only cinematic touchstone for Green here. Maybe that’s true of George Washington and All the Real Girls, which is one of the things that makes me value them slightly less than I would otherwise, but in Undertow I see the first evidence of Green reaching beyond Malick’s influence, entering territory that his mentor never explored. Most obviously, we’ve already discussed the ways in which the film is a genre pastiche, drawing its basic story from The Night of the Hunter, visually referencing 70s cop shows, and incorporating disjunctive techniques borrowed from avant-garde film, like the freeze frames and color filters that are used most frequently during the credits but recur at key moments throughout the film.

If Green’s first two films might be reduced to Malick rip-offs—and as much as I find to like in those films, I wouldn’t disagree—Undertow cannot be dismissed so easily. With this film, he begins incorporating the influence of Malick into a larger, more idiosyncratic patchwork, becoming more like Tarantino in that he’s developing his own cinematic personality from the confluence of his influences. That’s my take on it, anyway. Though Undertow often visually recalls Malick, the texture of the film feels quite distinct from its antecedents. Most noticeably, Green subtly blends the languid moodiness of Malick with more jittery interjections, purposefully shattering the overall atmosphere with those washed-out and filtered inserts—the most powerful of which are the haunting, sustained shot of Chris staring into a bathroom mirror, and the credits shot that freezes on a closeup of Chris’ foot a half-second before he lifts it off the ground to run away. There are a lot of subtle touches in the film that owe little to Malick, that in fact show Green developing his own sensibility that incorporates Malick as only one influence among many. I think, in that respect, he has further to go from here, and I fully expect him to make better films than Undertow in the future, but for now this film is an intriguing, beautifully realized work in its own right.

And also a startlingly funny one. I don’t think we’ve touched yet on just how damn funny this film often is, perhaps because its humor is so jarringly at odds with the overall melancholy tone of its narrative that it’s easy to forget about it in retrospect. This is another crucial way in which Green diverges from Malick, who whatever else he might be, couldn’t really be called funny. There’s a streak of dark humor running throughout Undertow, but it’s not cynical mockery. It’s more like an appreciation that even the darkest, most macabre moments can look entirely different depending on one’s perspective. John phrases it best when he tells his son, “sometimes it’s the strange moments that stick with you.” That’s the closest I can get to pinning down a sensibility that’s distinctively Green’s. It’s the sensibility that stages the opening chase as an exaggerated farce in which Chris gets a nail stuck through his foot and hobbles around with a wooden board stuck to him, an image that is both painfully horrifying and, seen from an objective distance, kind of ridiculous. And it’s the sensibility that, after Chris’ dad picks him up from the police station, has the desk officer casually hand back the board to Chris as though it’s one of his possessions. There’s a real deadpan humor to this film, a sense that as dark as things are for the characters, they’re not yet so hopeless that laughter is impossible. Even Deel’s frenzied pursuit of the duo is frequently hilarious, especially when he runs into a succession of laconic rural types who might’ve been rejected extras for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. If nothing else, I don’t think Malick has ever made a film that’s this funny, nor one where the humor rubs so uncomfortably against the darker emotions at the story’s core.

JB: Well, giving credit to someone for being funnier than Malick is a little like patting someone on the back for being more somber than Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “Frequently hilarious” seems a bit far (though it certainly applies to the tow-truck scene), but I concede the larger point. Green isn’t explicitly tied to Malick, by any stretch; thematically he mixes his influences with the gusto of Tarantino. Visually, however, I maintain that Undertow is right out of the Malick portfolio, with mostly insignificant exception. In the same way that Tarsem’s The Fall seems made to sell Blu-ray players and high definition TVs, Undertow looks like it could be a late-1970s ad for Kodak film stock—albeit with dirty-fingered models. Ebert was too forgiving when he wrote that “we never catch [Green] photographing anything for its scenic or decorative effect,” because that presumes that only traditionally beautiful things can be ogled. Regardless, if Undertow’s only fault was being easy on the eyes, that would be no fault at all.

As I filtered through reviews at Metacritic over the course of our conversation, I noticed something that seems to further underline why the film has been overlooked. In the handful of reviews I sampled, Undertow was called a “fable,” a “Brothers Grimm tale,” a “thriller,” a “’balls-to-the-wall’ revenge story” and a “deep-fried piece of Sothern Gothic.” These aren’t necessarily antithetical descriptions, but they illustrate the difficulty with which someone might describe the film. All the Real Girls remains the Green film that I most cherish, and yet I agree that Undertow doesn’t deserve to be ignored. I’m thankful to have seen it. At the same time, I wait expectantly for the day when Green creates a film that cannot be forgotten.

EH: Although I obviously appreciate Undertow much more than you, we’re not entirely at opposite poles here, in that I’m also eager to see where Green goes next: I think Undertow is a promising indication of a great director breaking out rather than a mature masterpiece. It deserves to be remembered, and I hope there are others who love and enjoy it as much as I do, but more than anything I hope that Undertow serves as a stepping stone for even better work in Green’s future. And even if it means confounding those critics who want something they can easily describe, I hope that Green remains as unclassifiable and slippery as he is here. I’ve never bought into that old maxim about a story only being worthwhile if it can be summarized in a sentence. That doesn’t mean it’s a good story; it means it’s a simple one. That’s a screenwriter’s theorem for those who believe that a film’s strength lies in clearly and powerfully expressing a single idea, which is certainly a valid thing for a film to do but hardly the only valid thing. Green’s oeuvre thus far, particularly Undertow, is an eloquent rebuttal of this too-ingrained idea. It’s a film that deliberately contains traces of all the disparate attributes those Metacritic reviews mention, and yet it cannot be completely described by any of those phrases alone. To me, this evasiveness and restless creativity can only be a good thing, even if it isn’t the best way to attain commercial success. Like you, I look forward to watching Green develop further as a filmmaker, but I think I’ll always have a soft spot for the bizarre, messy pleasures of Undertow.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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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.

2.5

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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.

4

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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, JĂĽri 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.

2

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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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