Ed Howard: In all of his films, Todd Haynes takes elements of gaudy tabloid culture and warps them to his own purposes, because he sees—in the lurid stories about sexuality and decadence and violence that we like to tell ourselves, in the celebrity gossip rags and TV news and hyped-up movies—deeper truths about identity, gender, politics, entertainment and sexuality. Haynes finds, within the sensationalist and the melodramatic, a culture’s vision of itself, distorted by a funhouse mirror but nevertheless evocative of the unvarnished truth. Or maybe the truth really is as strange as the mirror suggests: entertainers as plastic action figures, made to be manipulated and posed; sexuality as a plague, terrifying and mysterious; suburbia as a deadening cage for the emotions; the past as a manufactured façade, rendered superficially safe by the suppression (or ignorance) of all those impulses that go unchecked in the present; identity as malleable and fluid, the true self supplanted by endless masks and games. Haynes’ appropriation of the language of media—the docudrama, the genre film, the educational documentary, all eras and styles collaged together in his cinematic blender—is an examination of the ways in which culture both disguises and probes the truths about individuals, their secret desires and fears and fantasies.
Haynes has so far examined these themes over the course of five feature films and a smattering of shorts, ranging from his suppressed short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) to his most recent feature, a kaleidoscopic semi-biography of Bob Dylan titled I’m Not There (2007). The fascinations and techniques that drive Haynes’ work are apparent even in his obscure second film, Superstar (his first, Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, is even more obscure and difficult to see). On paper, the premise of Superstar makes it sound like a cheap gag: it’s the story of the life and death of ‘70s pop icon Karen Carpenter, with all of the characters played by Barbie dolls and rendered in the style of a TV documentary. This description belies the film’s true depth, its emotional impact, and its surprising insights into anorexia, the strange intertwining of music and politics, and the pressures that are placed on those in the public light, particularly women. Even in the lousy bootlegged copies that are currently the only way to see the film—because of the harsh but predictable legal responses from both Mattel and the Carpenter Estate—it’s apparent that Superstar is a remarkable early work, an act of music criticism in film form, much as Haynes’ later Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There would be. It points the way forward to the rest of Haynes’ oeuvre, but it also stands on its own as a bracing, poignant look at body image and the rapaciousness with which America’s entertainment culture can devour vulnerable young female performers.
Jason Bellamy: Superstar is an excellent launch point for a discussion of Haynes’ career, not just because the short is one of the auteur’s early works but also because it’s perhaps the best encapsulation of who Haynes is as a filmmaker. In the film’s focus on Karen Carpenter we see Haynes’ fascination with celebrity and, in particular, musical icons. In its use of Barbie dolls as puppets we see Haynes’ mastery of genre forms, his vivid imagination and his knack for examining the world through the eyes of children. In its focus on anorexia we see Haynes’ interest in isolating human conditions, in the way things beyond our control—disease, sexual desire, skin color, etc.—don’t just influence our identities but actually define us, shaping our visions of ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Superstar also reveals Haynes’ curiosity for and identity with the female mindset. And, as a whole, Superstar demonstrates the intellectualism of Haynes’ work, a quality that, perhaps more than any other, unifies both his filmmaking and his films, and that I’ll argue is perhaps his greatest weakness as much as it might be his greatest strength. We have time for that discussion later. For now I’ll simply wrap up this line of thought by saying that perhaps the only predominant characteristics of Haynes’ oeuvre that Superstar, by itself, doesn’t reflect would be his comfort with nonlinear storytelling and his penchant for specifically exploring elements of homosexuality (which isn’t to imply that Carpenter’s closeted battle with anorexia doesn’t have overlapping themes with some of Haynes’ explorations of what it means, or has meant, to be homosexual in America).
Superstar is also a fun place to begin this discussion because it might be my favorite Haynes film. I admire it for some of the things that we’ve hinted at so far: its creativity, mastery of technique and cogent social commentary. But maybe the thing I like most about it is its surprising emotional depth. I watched Superstar for the first time in preparation for this conversation—it was actually the last Haynes film that I watched or rewatched, which might be significant (more on that later)—and I don’t think any other Haynes film has cut me so deeply for such a sustained period of time. Here’s a film that came out 23 years ago, that uses Barbies as puppets, that I encountered in the aftermath of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s gonzo marionette comedy Team America: World Police (2004) and that I watched on YouTube, which has become the go-to forum for all things sophomoric, and yet Superstar is decidedly unfunny. I don’t mean to imply that Haynes doesn’t exhibit a wry sense of humor with the film, just that it’s far from foolish, far from frivolous. It’s a movie that breaks your heart. In recent years critics have been awed at the ability of animation to be—gasp!—solemn in films like Persepolis or Waltz With Bashir, as if animation is inherently funny. Superstar, by comparison, is something truly awe-inspiring—the manipulation of universally-recognized childlike toys to take on a very mature subject with a very cerebral sensibility. Let me be clear: Nodding back to our Pixar conversation, I’m not praising Superstar solely or even primarily for rising above a low bar of expectations, for escaping some genre ghetto of its own creation. Rather I’m attempting to point out that Haynes approaches the Karen Carpenter story in the most unorthodox of ways and yet creates a film so note-perfect that within minutes the Barbie doll puppet show approach doesn’t even seem unorthodox. Or is it just me?
EH: I think you’ve nailed it. I’ve always been blown away by this film. It does pack quite an emotional wallop, which is surprising for a film in which all the characters are literally made out of plastic—introducing a sense of distance that’s compounded by the fact that the film can only be seen in dodgy, blurry bootlegs on YouTube and the like. And yet there’s no question that Haynes very quickly bridges this Brechtian gap, making us care about these characters and forget that they’re Barbie dolls. After a while, we start thinking of them as people. In a way, that can be summarized as the film’s radical agenda: to treat what could’ve been a subject of kitsch with respect, affection and empathy. There’s an affinity between the Barbie doll and Karen Carpenter that goes beyond the most obvious level, the idea that we, as a culture, view celebrities as plastic icons to play with until we get bored. The Carpenters’ music is also widely perceived as kitschy and shallow, as a symbol for the complacency and regression of the ‘70s, a criticism that Haynes acknowledges in examining the group’s music. At the same time, he encourages a perspective that treats the woman behind the music as an earnest performer who wasn’t some corporate shill, who wasn’t responsible for the ways in which her songs were used as marketing material for conservative forces, who was more than anything a victim of a system that didn’t care a bit about her personal health or self-image.
There’s another obvious reason for the “casting” of Barbie dolls that goes along with this critique of media and culture: Barbie’s status as a ubiquitous symbol of female beauty, female perfection even. Barbie stands in for a whole culture that encourages women to pursue unrealistic and unhealthy images of bodily “perfection,” to spurn food, to shrink themselves down into stick-figure skeletons. By embodying Karen Carpenter in the form of an American feminine ideal, the impossible body of the Barbie doll, Haynes is ridiculing the absurdity of this pressure. The tabloids, represented in the film with sensationalist headlines that periodically splash across the screen, are obsessed with weight, with the female body. In a cruel irony, the same commentators who will call a female performer “chubby” will soon enough feign astonishment and disgust at the skeletal, anorexic form that results from her response to this complaint.
These are familiar problems, and familiar pressures—sadly, one imagines a similar film could be made about someone like Britney Spears someday—but Haynes dramatizes and humanizes these issues. As you alluded to above, the film is intellectual, but Haynes never loses sight of the woman at the center of this story. Therefore, when the film detours, as it often does, into pseudo-documentary segments about marketing, politics or the medical and psychological foundations of anorexia, there’s a real human component to the recitations of facts and figures. This is made especially poignant in the scenes revolving around Karen’s anorexia, as Haynes shows her family, well-meaning but pushy and controlling, reacting with anger to her anorexic habits, forcing her to eat, and praising her eating habits when she’s “recovered”—all actions that, the documentary segment suggests, will unwittingly only worsen Karen’s unhealthy obsessions with food and weight. This gets to the heart of how Haynes uses the language of the documentary in his films, taking the dry, objective stance of the conventional documentary and relating it to the human realities that lie beneath its facts and figures. He similarly deconstructs tabloid culture, adopting its rhetoric only to critique it, to demonstrate the effects of this exploitative entertainment apparatus on those trapped within it. Karen, for Haynes, is not just a celebrity, not just an anorexic, not just a singer, not just a symbol; she’s a woman, and she’s her own individual self.
JB: She really is. This is an effect pulled off in large part thanks to Carpenter herself, who we get to hear singing some of her greatest hits, from the upbeat “Top of the World” to the melancholy “Rainy Days and Mondays.” I say “get to,” because Carpenter had an absolutely remarkable voice, whatever one might have thought of her music. And by reminding us of Carpenter’s grisly death at the start of the film, Haynes ensures that we see the songstress as a caged bird, rather than a pop icon spewing vapid lyrics; he focuses our attention on the emotions in Carpenter’s voice, rather than those articulated in the pat melodrama of the music. Interestingly enough, whether the emotions of Carpenter’s songs contrast her own mood or perfectly reflect it, the juxtaposition is always tragic. I think it’s safe to say that a heartbreaking Barbie doll puppet drama couldn’t be made about just anyone; Carpenter’s story is inherently sad, and since her music is so recognizable we bring to the film our own nostalgia, even if hearing Carpenter sing simply reminds us of the way we were. (Wait, now I’m quoting Barbra Streisand. What just happened?)
Point is, Superstar is grounded in a specific reality, stirring us with images of Carpenter’s era as much as Carpenter herself. It’s amazing, for example, how well Haynes recreates those televised musical performances of the late 1970s that were so often shot on cold, modestly decorated stages, under medium light, with an inevitable mid-song cut to a profile of the singer in front of some soft, moody offstage lights. Beyond such intricacies, Superstar also incorporates references to Richard Nixon and Vietnam. Haynes reminds us that the Carpenters’ fans idolized them in part as an antidote to something—a common theme in his work. Karen Carpenter was angelic purity bringing sunlight amidst the thunderstorms of a bloody war and the grim scowl of Tricky Dick. It’s interesting then that, considering their dark secrets and tendencies for self-destruction, Carpenter and Nixon were more alike than anyone could have guessed. Though I agree that the use of Barbies illustrates America’s unrealistic expectations about female beauty and our habit of treating celebrities like disposable toys, it also underlines the utter fantasy of celebrity iconography and idolization. Haynes suggests with Superstar that the Karen Carpenter we thought we “knew” was as much an invention of our own hopeful imaginations as anything we might have played out as children using puppets or dolls.
EH: I agree that Haynes makes good use of the Carpenters’ music and era as well as the tragic story of Karen herself. If you’d told me a few years ago, before I saw this film for the first time, that I could be moved by listening to “Rainy Days and Mondays,” I would’ve said you were nuts. But sure enough, Haynes contextualizes these tunes so perfectly that it’s possible to get past the utter blandness of the music and writing to focus on Karen’s unexpectedly nuanced vocals, which Haynes calls attention to through the in-film commentators. I said earlier that Superstar is a work of music criticism, among other things, and in fact it’s one of the best pieces of music criticism in the cinema (Haynes has also made two of the others, and we’ll get to them later). Superstar attempts to strip away some of the preconceptions that many listeners are likely to bring to the Carpenters’ music, and the film makes it possible to embrace and understand what was worthy in their music, or at least what was worth considering.
What’s interesting is that, as you imply, this openness to the virtues of the Carpenters’ commercial tripe—and particularly to the quality of Karen’s pure, warm voice—coexists with Haynes’ rather harsh appraisal of the group’s place within their musical and historic context. The film does pose the Carpenters as an antidote to something—an antidote, more than anything, to the fiery ‘60s spirit of rebellion, the constant questioning of traditional values, and the corresponding rawness and adventurousness that briefly inflected the popular music of the era. The film portrays the Carpenters as ushering in a new era, laying a thin carpet of smooth sounds over the rowdiness and resistance that had characterized the previous era in both popular culture and the wider society. It’s a heavy weight to place on a single act, but they’re a perfect symbol for this glossing-over of the past, this retreat into safety and security. If the previous era was symbolized by Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, literally and metaphorically, or Jim Morrison intoning drug-addled poetry, or the Stones celebrating “street fighting” and then getting the real thing at Altamont, the squeaky family image and unthreatening music of the Carpenters surely represented a clear alternative and opposition.
The film balances this strain of sociopolitical criticism against the emotional narrative of Karen Carpenter, treating the music simultaneously as a sign of the times, a musical and social regression, and yet, in the slight quaver and dynamics of Karen Carpenter’s voice, also an indirect expression of the singer’s behind-the-scenes dramas.
JB: One of the things that blows me away about Superstar is the utter confidence of the filmmaking, which starts with the boldness of the gesture (trying to make a somber drama using Barbie dolls) and extends to the skill of the technique. Using Barbie dolls in place of actors was, I’m sure, a financially prudent option for a young filmmaker at the start of his career, but it certainly didn’t make Haynes’ job easier. He couldn’t rely on the skills of his actors, because they had none. He couldn’t cut to a closeup of their haunted eyes, as he would numerous times in Velvet Goldmine, because there was no emotion there. He couldn’t afford mistakes, because there was no one or nothing else to mask them. With Superstar, Haynes put the responsibility of the film squarely on his shoulders, getting an assist from Karen Carpenter’s vocals but otherwise going it alone.
In that light, Superstar is a validation of auteur theory that lends weight to the suggestion by Hitchcock—one of the godfathers of daring technique—that actors are nothing more than cattle. Armed with his cast of inanimate players, Haynes finds emotions not in the faces of his characters but in his cuts and camera movements. Memorable is the scene in which Haynes quick-cuts back and forth between the face of Karen and the hand of a record producer who is reaching out for her trust. Effective is the Altmanesque slow zoom toward Karen and Richard Carpenter having dinner at a restaurant, our view becoming tighter as the tension of the scene rises, with Karen insisting that she isn’t hungry and Richard pleading/demanding that she eat something. Also notable is the scene in which Haynes employs a slow pan that searches for Karen across her seemingly empty room as Richard calls out for his sister, only to find her face down on her makeup table next to a box of Ex-Lax. Given this mÈlange of techniques, I suppose Superstar could have come off like a class project, an exercise designed to teach a novice film student about the inherent effects of basic editing and cinematography. Instead, Superstar comes across like the product of a practiced filmmaker who, like Hithcock before him, understood the emotions of every scene just by diagramming the camera angles. Haynes’ next film, Poison, would seem in some ways experimental. Superstar, by contrast, seems entirely assured.
EH: That’s a great point. However unusual Superstar might be in terms of its non-human “actors” and some of its genre mashups, in other ways it’s a marvel of classical filmmaking technique. It’s also a pretty durable example of just how powerful classical filmmaking can be even in the absence of other conventional elements of film form, like the expressiveness of a good performance. In addition to the scenes you mention, I’m reminded of the one where Karen, after collapsing on stage, wakes up to find her family hovering above her, chattering about how they’re going to cure her. Haynes shows the well-meaning relatives from Karen’s point-of-view, their heads poking into the frame from every angle, and the sense of claustrophobia that Karen feels is palpable even though her face betrays no expression. Moreover, the smiling, motionless faces of her parents and brother add a creepy vibe to the scene, deepening the sense that Karen’s lack of control over her own life is unhealthy and only getting worse. As we’ve suggested, it’s remarkable how much emotional nuance Haynes conveys in scenes like this without being able to rely on the frozen faces of the Barbie dolls to communicate emotion.
You’re also right that Poison is comparatively experimental, in the literal sense of the word. The film’s experimental nature is revealed even its structure: though technically Haynes’ first feature-length film, it’s actually an anthology of three shorter stories, completely separate in terms of narrative and characters but thematically linked. Haynes cuts between the three stories—the documentary-style “Hero,” the Universal horror pastiche “Horror” and the gay prison drama “Homo”—throughout the film, blending them together and exploring the resonances between them. Poison seems like the early work of a director just finding his voice, toying with different storytelling techniques and developing his later themes in sketchy form, whereas Superstar is the fully developed final product, even though it actually came first. The main difference, I think, is that Poison lacks the overwhelming emotional impact of Superstar. There are moments of bracing catharsis in this film—notably the final sequence, which I find nearly as moving and startling as Superstar—but otherwise it’s too fragmented, too abstracted, at times even too jokey, though I do appreciate the broad Hollywood parodies of the “Horror” sequence.
Which is not to say that Poison is without merit, by any means. It’s an interesting film, if not quite a fully realized one, and it’s packed with the inventiveness and insight that one expects from Haynes. Of the three sections, I think it’s no coincidence that the most affecting is the one most closely related to Superstar in terms of style. “Hero” concerns itself with a young boy named Richie Beacon who is mocked and abused at school, and who suffers equally at home as his parents fight and ignore him. This goes on until he walks in on his father beating his mother and saves her by shooting his father. And then, according to his mother’s awed testimony, he flies out a window and floats away. Haynes allows the story to develop between the lines, hinted at in the anecdotes related by schoolmates, teachers and especially his mother (Edith Meeks). A picture gradually emerges of Richie as a confused young boy with a masochistic streak, as someone whose troubled childhood has left a mark on his developing sexuality. One of the few reenactments in this mockumentary is reserved for the primal scene of Richie discovering his mother having sex with the gardener; Haynes places the boy in the foreground, disconnected from the sexual scene that’s playing out in a video image superimposed within the frame.
“Hero” is the one part of Poison I could imagine as a standalone short film like Superstar, and it’s nearly as powerful, particularly its haunting final images from Richie’s point-of-view as he leaps out the window and drifts away into the clouds, the camera trained on the house at first until it turns around, looking up at the sky, leaving the past behind to float ever upward. It’s a mysterious and beautiful image, and if the rest of Poison is more uneven in its effectiveness, it’s still a strangely compelling film as a whole.
Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love
It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.
It’s 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 D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s 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 film’s 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 Joan’s tender marriage to life.
Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?
Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t 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: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” 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 it’s 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 couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s 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 relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—
Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” 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, didn’t 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 didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?
Were they more like chemistry sessions?
Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!
Liam, you’ve 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 that’s less like a character and more like yourself?
Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s 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 it’s supposed to be German, I don’t 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, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.
Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?
Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”
When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” 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, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve 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 I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve 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, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.
Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.
There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?
Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.
Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?
Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.
We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?
Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s 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. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s 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.
It’s 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.
You’ve 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 interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t 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, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.
In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam 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 didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.
Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.
Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…
Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.
Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”
Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.
Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll 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 there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re 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 I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.
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.3
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
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
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
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
War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.
We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).
Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.
The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.
And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.
Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.
Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.
Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.
As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.
Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer
Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”
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.
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