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Understanding Screenwriting #101: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Raiders of the Lost Ark, & More

Ah, yes, the pop quiz.

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Celeste & Jesse Forever
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Coming Up In This Column: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Hello I Must be Going, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Helen (stage play), The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, but first…

Fan Mail: Hell is freezing over, since David E. and I agree yet again, this time on Five Fingers. It was Michael Wilson who came up with the name “Staviski” first rather than Mankiewicz, but he may well have been thinking about the Stavisky scandal.

As for Wilson on Lawrence of Arabia, the first chapter of the book Understanding Screenwriting is on Lawrence, and I certainly give Wilson his due. I am glad they finally added his name to the credits.

Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012. Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. 92 minutes.)

Tricky: As my wife and I were leaving the theater after seeing this one, I said to her, “This one is going to be difficult to write about.” Lots of scripts, especially the obviously good and the obviously bad ones, are fairly easy to discuss. Others, like this one, not so much. On the surface, the script is rather straightforward. Celeste and Jesse have been best friends for years, got married, and are now divorced. They are trying to remain best friends. Sort of When Harry Met Sally… (1989) after the divorce. Problems ensue.

Jones and McCormack get the movie off to a fast start: we get a lovers’ montage that includes, at great speed, everything you have ever seen in any lovers’ montage. We’re glad to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Then we get an actual scene in which Celeste and Jess are having dinner with Beth and Tucker, another married couple. Celeste and Jesse get off on a collective improvisation in German accents. Typical things young marrieds in love do. Until Beth calls them on it. For God’s sake, she says, you guys are divorced, act like it. Nice early twist. Celeste is a trend-spotter who handles branding for companies and celebrities. Jesse is an artist but not working at it very hard, spending most of his day in the studio behind their house watching footage of old Olympic coverage and eating Cheetos. It’s obviously those differences that made them split up.

Celeste is established right away as the adult in the room. She’s smart, she’s hardworking, and she’s written a book called Shitegeist. So how is this smart woman going to handle this very friendly divorce? Not well. After establishing her as an adult, the writers turn her into an adolescent, and not even a smart adolescent. She gets insanely jealous when Jesse starts to date again, even more so when he gets a Belgium woman pregnant and marries her. Celeste starts doing drugs and drinking too much, all the while claiming she is not bothered by Jesse’s actions. Yes, yes, we all know women who are very together at work and a mess in their private lives. And to be fair, the several thirtysomething women sitting behind us laughed a lot in recognition at how Celeste behaves. But I found it difficult to laugh at a woman who had been established as so smart behaving so stupidly. And we get a lot of her behaving that way, so much so it becomes the focus of the whole film. She dates losers, she goes partying, and she even screws up at work, letting a vaguely obscene logo go out for a new client. The logo does end up working for the client in an odd way, but still. Rashida Jones not only is the co-writer, but plays Celeste. I have liked Jones’s work as an actor before, as in her scenes as the lawyer in The Social Network (2010). My guess is that like Zoe Kazan on Ruby Sparks (see US#100), she was determined to write flashy scenes for herself, but she doesn’t yet have a writer’s sense of how those scenes might play.

We spend so much time with Celeste being stupid that we don’t get much of the other characters. We see very little of Jesse’s changing life, and have no sense of what his new wife is like. Celeste and Jesse do have a scene late in the picture in which he tells her about how Veronica lets him do his work, and he says that Celeste always wanted to be in charge and keep Jesse in his stage of arrested development. It is the best scene in the picture because it digs deeper than any other scene. If the rest of the script had been up to this level, the picture would have been terrific. Instead we get more of Celeste being an idiot. At the wedding of Beth and Tucker…wait a minute: from the beginning of the film we have assumed they are married, with no indication that they were not. Suddenly this couple that have been together for ten years decide to have a fancy wedding in Rhode Island? The rest of the film is set in L.A. Obviously the writers felt they needed a big public event in which the drunken Celeste can make a fool of herself yet again, which she does. Eventually Celeste and Jesse have a quiet little scene where they agree to try to be friends again. I don’t hold out much hope. The script has not been nuanced enough to make us believe that scene.

Hello I Must Be Going (2012. Written by Sarah Koskoff. 95 minutes.)

Hello I Must Be Going

The Yasser Arafat of movies: This one was also a disappointment. I have been a huge fan of its star Melanie Lynskey since her 1994 debut as one of two teenage girls who commit murder in Heavenly Creatures. She has been doing great work ever since, as in last year’s Win Win and especially as Charlie’s stalker Rose. (Pop quiz: Rose was also the name of the character Lynskey’s co-star in Heavenly Creatures played in a movie. Who’s the co-star, what’s the movie, and what new secret have we recently learned about that film? Answers at the end of this item.) This film is her first starring role since Heavenly Creatures, and I had high hopes for it.

An acquaintance of mine told me several years ago that he could tell from the first shot of a movie whether the movie was going to work. I don’t have that kind of eye, but I could tell from the first scene that this one is in trouble. We come in on Lynskey as Amy in her bed. She has pictures on the wall, so we assume it’s her apartment, but as she gets up it becomes clear it is a room in a big house. We realize later that Amy, a 34-year-old divorcee has moved back in with her parents. The details of the room should have suggested that but don’t. I am a big believer in not telling the audience things until they need to know them, but this film is constantly late at telling us what we need to know. That may be Koskoff’s script (it’s her first produced feature) or it may be Todd Louiso’s direction. Amy is sulking and her mother, Ruth, comes in and gives her a hard time for just sulking about the house. Ruth, especially in Blythe Danner’s performance, dominates the scene, but it’s Amy’s movie, and the writer and director have not given her enough reactions to Ruth. The balance is just off.

Amy sulks some more. A lot. And it becomes just as tiresome to us as it does to her mother. We hate having to agree with her mom, since her mom is such a pain. What Koskoff needed to do was give Amy a greater variety of reactions and emotions to play. Lynskey tries, but if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. Eventually Amy falls into a relationship with 19-year-old Jeremy, the stepson of a client Amy’s dad is trying to land. Amy and Jeremy’s dialogue is mostly flat, so we get very little texture to the relationship. We do get a nice bit when, after Amy and Jeremy have made love a couple of times, Ruth tells Amy that Jeremy’s mom Gwen thinks Jeremy is gay. The writer and director give Lynskey reactions to that to play. We also get a nice explanation later from Jeremy that he lets Gwen believe he’s gay because she is so accepting of it, which makes her feel good.

When Gwen catches Amy and Jeremy swimming naked in the family pool, we only get a mention later of what their explanation was. Koskoff doesn’t bother with what could be a terrific scene of the kids making up the story on the spot. Later when both families discover Amy and Jeremy in the act, we get their immediate reactions, which are shock, but we only get explanations after the fact of their responses to this. Again, another missed opportunity. By this point in the film I was thinking that Koskoff was living up to Abba Eben’s great line about how Yasser Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If you look up Koskoff and Louiso on the IMDb, you will discover that they both have a lot of experience as actors, so it was very surprising to me that they couldn’t come up with better scenes for the actors to play. They do have one good scene that shows you what the film should have been. Amy goes into the city to have lunch with her ex, David. It is a nice, edgy scene between Lynskey and Dan Futterman as David.

Ah, yes, the pop quiz. Lynskey’s co-star was Kate Winslet, and she played the young Rose in Titanic (1997). If you have read my Understanding Screenwriting book, you know I don’t think much of the script for that film and I don’t think Winslet’s performance is very good. You may have picked up an earlier Link of the Day here at the House to Winslet’s screen test for Titanic. You can see it here. The person commenting on it said you can see why she got the job. Yes, but what struck me is that she was much, much better in the test than in the film. Having a director who thinks he is the King of the World yelling at while you are in a tank of water in a 1912 dress doesn’t necessarily make for a good performance.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. 115 minutes.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indy in IMAX!: Paramount has brought out a boxed Blu-Ray set of all four Indiana Jones movies, and as part of the preparation for that, they have restored Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then, presumably as promotion for the set, they set up a one-week-only run of Raiders at Imax-equipped theatres. And then nobody at Paramount or anywhere else told anybody about it. There have been no ads in the Los Angeles Times for the run. The AMC theatres, which have more theaters on the West Side of Los Angeles than any other chain, several months ago stopped running an AMC display ad in the Times. I assume the big brains at AMC figured nobody reads newspapers any more, so why bother. Except that a month or so after AMC stopped the ads, Variety reported that moviegoers make more of their decisions about what movies to see based on information from newspapers, less than make their decisions based on television, but more than all other devices combined. And the AMC has been so sloppy about its website, it’s often difficult to find out what is playing at which of their theaters and when. So what happened to the run of Raiders? It had the highest per theater gross its one week. If people want to see a movie, you can’t stop them.

George Lucas had the idea for Indiana Jones back in the seventies. He conceived of him as a 1930s playboy who also happened to be an archeologist. Lucas’s friend at the time, Philip Kaufman, suggested that he could be looking for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Kaufman gave Lucas enough detail that Lucas, very reluctantly and under pressure from Kaufman, shared the story credit with him. Lucas originally thought the character he created could appear in a series of low-budget adventure films, like those Lucas grew up watching. He was thinking B picture, and for all the money and talent spent on Raiders, it has the limits of a B picture.

In 1977, two years after Lucas worked with Kaufman, Lucas and Steven Spielberg talked about making the first of the films. It was Spielberg who suggested that the character not be a playboy type, but someone a little more down to earth. They settled on the name Indiana Jones. In 1978 Spielberg came across a screenplay called Continental Divide by Lawrence Kasdan, a former advertising copywriter. Spielberg liked the writing and thought about directing it, but passed on it. It was filmed in 1981, but without the charm of the original script. Spielberg suggested Kasdan to Lucas as somebody to write what became Raiders, since Continental Divide had a tough cookie as the female lead, and both men wanted that in Raiders. Kasdan worked with Spielberg and Lucas, and he has described it as working the way Howard Hawks used to work, hiring writers and telling them what he wanted. In some ways it was more like Ernest Lehman writing North by Northwest (1959) for Hitchcock, with Hitch suggesting scenes he wanted to do and Lehman trying to tie them all together. Spielberg came up with the idea of the boulder chasing Indy, and Lucas wanted “a submarine, a monkey giving the Hitler salute, and a girl slugging Indiana Jones in a bar in Nepal,” according to Joseph McBride, Spielberg’s biographer. (The information for this item is from McBride’s Steven Spielberg, Dale Pollock’s Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, and an interview with Lawrence Kasdan in Backstory 4.)

As a film teacher in Los Angeles, I had a lot of friends in low places, and one of them managed to get me what appears to be Kasdan’s 3rd draft of the screenplay, with pages dated June and August 1979. I read it over the night before I saw the new restoration, and what I will be doing in the rest of this item is toggling back and forth between this draft of the script and the final film. We have learned above some of what Lucas and Spielberg wanted in the film, and we can see in the draft how Kasdan was working that into the script. The film itself is episodic, but the draft is even more so, since it evolved out of Lucas’s idea to recreate the adventure films and especially the serials he watched as a kid. Their structures were very simple: action-plot-action-plot-action-plot-big-action-at the end. With the emphasis on the action and not much on plot or character. One reason Kasdan was brought in was to help develop the characters, but in the draft and the film they are not particularly deep. The plot scenes are more about plot than character, since Lucas wanted a relentless pace to the film, which he got. The pace is even more relentless in the draft than the film, since the action scenes are shorter and there are more of them.

The script begins, as does the film, with Indy, Barranca, and Satipo working their way through the jungle. Barranca runs off, but Satipo goes into the temple with Indy. In the writing, which Spielberg’s direction carries through nicely, Satipo is there as the coward to show how courageous Indy is. In the script Satipo just seems frightened, but Spielberg, who loved actors, lets the actor playing Satipo come up with several different reactions not in the script. When Indy throws the idol to him, Kasdan writes, “Satipo stuffs it in the front pocket of his jacket, gives Indy a look, then drops the whip on the floor and runs.” Look what the actor does in the film. The actor, by the way, was appearing in only his second theatrical film, and he went on to play parts as diverse as Diego Rivera in Frida (2002) and Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 (2004). He is Alfred Molina, of course.

Satipo does not escape, but Indy does. After an interlude at his college (the girl with the “Love you” written on her eyelids is not in this draft; all we get are a couple of girls looking at him adoringly), he is off to Shanghai. What, you don’t remember the sequence where he breaks into a museum and steals a piece of the head of the staff from General Hok? Well, the whole sequence was cut. The script, probably at Lucas’s insistence, was simplified. Lucas is big on making sure the audience understands exactly what is going on, and Indy having to find two pieces instead of one is confusing. Besides it gets us to Nepal and Marion quicker.

In the draft, Marion is established as a tough cookie by throwing a bunch of rowdy patrons out of her bar. In the film that becomes the drinking game she wins, which I think is a much better introduction. Indy shows up and she punches him, then we get a long dialogue scene, which includes the line that Kasdan moved to Indy’s first appearance, when Marion says, “I always knew that someday you’d come through that door.” The line works better in the film as a single line instead of part of a longer speech. We do get in Kasdan’s dialogue as much characterization as we get in the film. Then we are back to action as Belzig (in the draft, Toht in the film) tries to get the piece.

To Cairo next, and in the draft we get more of an introduction to Sallah, Indy’s friend, but that has been condensed in the film. Then we get Marion’s kidnapping. The famous business of Indy shooting the swordsman is not here, but somebody was thinking in terms of comedy relief. The equivalent bit in the draft is Indy making a Bad Arab’s pants fall down with his whip. And then, boom, Marion is killed. We are suspicious because a) she was given such a great introduction and b) she is one of the name actors. But Indy at least thinks she is dead. In the draft he is in a bar, “A dark, smoke-filled den of iniquity,” but in the film he is at an outdoor café. In neither the draft nor the film do we get to mourn Marion for long. Spielberg’s direction of Indy is badly misconceived, since he has the monkey playing all over Indy while the camera dollies into Indy. All that movement takes us away from the mourning we want to do.

Kasdan has written in the monkey giving the Nazi salute at several places, but they were only able to get one shot of it. Then the monkey dies and we are off to Tanis, where Indy finds Marion alive, but tied up. He leaves her tied up to go off and find the Ark, which he does. He also finds it guarded by snakes. We learned in the opening sequence he hates snakes, and he says here, “Why snakes? Why did it have to be snakes? Anything else.” Lucas’s original choice for Indy was Tom Selleck, but CBS would not let him out of Magnum P.I. Selleck would have been a good choice if they had stayed with Lucas’s original idea of Indy as a playboy. But it is difficult to imagine Selleck making the “snakes” line as convincing and entertaining as Harrison Ford does. It is a perfect match of character and actor, as we all know now.

In escaping from the Well of Souls, Indy and Marion go through a chamber of mummies, which has been elaborated in the film to a House of Horrors with skeletons attacking them, especially Marion. She no longer seems as tough as we thought when she was introduced to us. The Flying Wing scene is not as detailed in the draft as the film; it’s the kind of scene Spielberg is perfect at directing.

The truck chase that follows is more detailed in the film than the draft. In the draft it is more a conventional chase, with Indy staying in the truck the entire chase. It is shorter in the draft than the film, but has been elaborated on with the new stunts of Indy being thrown out of the front of the truck, being pulled along underneath and coming back up the other side. Even so, the sequence does not seem as varied as other great action scenes in films. Belzig/Toht is killed in the chase in the script, but survives in the film to melt away at the end.

The sequence on board the ship of Marion kissing Indy’s wounds is not in this draft of script. It is a variation of a scene in Kasdan’s Continental Divide that Lucas decided to use here. The draft does include an explanation, cut in the film, of how Indy survived riding on top of the submarine. This draft does include the scene of Indy threatening to blow up the Ark with a bazooka, but it is in the Tabernacle that has been set up and not in the desert. The process of getting everyone to the opening of the Ark is more complicated here than in the film, again probably Lucas cutting to make it clearer.

The opening of the Ark is not as big a scene in the script as it is in the film, and the assorted Nazis are not all killed, as they are in the film. So when Indy and Marion take the Ark and escape, the Nazis give chase. In a bunch of mine cars in the mine train in the tunnel. Oh, yeah, I remember that scene. Sure, but it’s not in Raiders. It was dropped from here, probably at the script level, and then used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). My guess is that it was in this draft because they all felt they needed a big action scene at the end. As they began to work on the special effects, they probably realized that would be big enough, and more importantly, different enough, to be the big finish. And they were right.

In the draft Marion is with Indy and Brody when they talk to Musgrove and Eaton at the Pentagon. In the film she is not. The end of the scene in the first cut of the film has the Intelligence guys assuring Indy, “We have our top men working on it right now,” which then cuts to the warehouse where it is being crated up. It was George Lucas’s then-wife Marcia who pointed out to the boys that the way the film was cut, we have no idea what happened to Marion. Not surprising in a film by the guy who included follow-ups on all the male characters at the end of American Graffiti (1973), but none of the women characters. They went back to a scene that is in this draft of Indy and Marion on the steps, rewrote it a bit, and shot it. And then dropped Marion in the first two sequels, only bringing her back in the fourth film in a few underdeveloped scenes.

So, what we have in Raiders is a rousing, relentless B movie, but with A movie talent making it as entertaining as they can. And it looks great in IMAX. And probably in its 35mm prints. And in Blu-Ray. And probably in regular DVD as well.

Helen (412 B.C. Stage play by Euripides. 2012 A.D. adaptation by Nick Salamone. 90 minutes.)

Helen

Menelaos’s back and Helen’s got him: You may remember that in writing about the 1956 film Helen of Troy in US#75, I discussed the problem of writing the character of Helen of Troy and how famous playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe avoided her as a major character. Well, the great 5th Century B.C. Greek playwright Euripides found an interesting way to deal with her. He borrowed a version from the 6th Century B.C. Greek poet Stesichoros. According to legend, Stesichoros wrote a poem that described Helen as essentially a world-class slut. Then he went blind, some say out of Helen’s anger (she was part god after all). So he decided to write another version, the one that parts of survive. In his Palinode Helen never went to Troy at all. Her father Zeus sent Hermes to carry her off in a cloud to an island off Egypt, where she was protected by King Proteus. She was replaced at Sparta and Troy by a phantom, created out of a cloud by Hera. In this new version she stayed on the island for seventeen years until Menelaos was dumped on the island by a shipwreck. They escaped the lusting son of Proteus, Theoclymenus, and returned to Sparta. And Stesichoros’s eyesight was restored.

This version probably appealed to Euripides because he saw another opportunity for a comment on the stupidity of war. After all, three years before this play, he had written, for a Greek audience, The Trojan Women, which was enormously sympathetic to the women of Troy captured and abused by the Greek army. Euripides generally pissed off the pro-war contingent in Greece and was later driven into exile by them. Some things never change.

This new version of Helen was created for the Getty Villa. J. Paul Getty had an imitation Roman villa built just up from the Pacific Coast in Malibu, and the villa now serves as a museum holding the Getty’s collection of antiquities. In the recent remodeling, stadium seating was installed in front of the main façade of the building, and each year a Greek or Roman play is produced there.

Salamone’s adaptation is this year’s play. The original was more a romantic drama than a tragedy (Helen and Meneloas escape the island at the end), and Salamone has turned it into more of a show than a drama. Helen is seen as a slinky ‘30s movie heroine, but a very devoted wife, putting off Theoclymenus as best she can. She is very angry at having been kept out of the loop for seventeen years. The three ladies who make up the Chorus are inspired by famous movie figures. Cherry is obviously Marilyn Monroe in her Bus Stop (1956) role of Cherí, complete to the costume. Cleo is Cleopatra, although not obviously either Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh, or Elizabeth Taylor. Lady is Blanche DuBois. Hattie, the household slave, is Hattie McDaniel. There are a lot more movie references than there need to be, but some of them are fun. Theoclymenus is clearly “inspired” by Kim Jong-un, the young North Korean leader. And one of the soldiers shipwrecked with Meneloas is obviously a veteran of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars. There are not as many modern anti-war lines as there are Hollywood gags. Still, Eurpidies’s point gets made, and the recognition scene between Helen and Meneloas is probably as funny and as touching as it was in the original.

We saw the play the night after it opened and I read in the program a notice of a lecture called “Beautiful Evil: The Challenge of Helen of Troy” by a classics professor. By the time I called a few days later to reserve a ticket it was completely sold out. Who says L.A. does not have a hunger for culture?

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949. Written by Preston Sturges, adapted from a screenplay and story by Earl Felton. 77 minutes.)

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend

Didn’t you used to be Preston Sturges?: When I finished up my Sturges Project in US#91, I mentioned in passing that I had this film stashed on my DVR. Since I was trying to make room on my DVR for the new TV season, I was watching stuff. I figured it was about time I got around to this one. Alas, it lives down to its reputation.

After Sturges left Paramount at the end of 1943, he did time with Howard Hughes, and then ended up at Fox, where he still owed Zanuck a picture for loaning him Henry Fonda for The Lady Eve (1940). Zanuck had noted how his scripts had done well by Veronica Lake and especially Betty Hutton, and he hoped that Sturges could do the same thing with his top star, Betty Grable. Grable was a big fan favorite with her musicals during World War II, but Zanuck hoped to move her beyond those. So far he had not been very successful, so he had the great idea of teaming Grable and Sturges.

Except it was not that great an idea. Grable was immensely loveable, which is what made her a star in the first place, but she simply did not have the edge that Lake, Hutton, Stanwyck and Colbert had. Like Ella Raines in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), she leaves a hole in the middle of the picture. It was Zanuck who suggested Sturges write the script from Earl Felton’s story of a saloon girl who accidentally shoots a judge in the rear end, twice no less, then takes over the identity of a schoolmarm coming to a new town. Saloon? Schoolmarm? Yes, the story is a western, which is not the most perfect fit for a writer who grew up in the big city and toured Europe with his mother as a kid. Sturges simply did not have a feel for the west, as did, for example, William Bowers in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Mel Brooks and his posse of writers in Blazing Saddles (1974). (The background is, as before, from James Curtis’s Between Flops.)

The opening scene shows what might have been. We see a bunch of empty whiskey bottles being shot off a fence. We hear a grandfatherly type voice instructing Frankie on shooting. We eventually pan over and Frankie turns out to be a six-year-old girl, who not only shoots, but reloads as well. Then we jump ahead to Frankie as an adult. She is in jail, explaining to the sheriff, our old friend Al Bridge, how she came to shoot the judge. She was a saloon singer, since both Sturges and Zanuck wanted Grable to sing, and Sturges insisted the film be made in color because he had watched all Grable’s pictures and thought she came across best in color. Frankie waves a gun around going after her boyfriend, but shoots the judge instead. The post-shooting scene is as frantic as some earlier Sturges scenes, but unfocused. Zanuck, not a stupid man in these matters, saw the problem in the dailies but couldn’t do much about it. The scenes Sturges has written simply don’t have the edge of his earlier work, and even with the slapstick, or perhaps because of it, they just don’t hold our interest. The finale is a big shootout that makes very little sense.
Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Guide, notes that the film was a flop but that its reputation has improved a bit. Sorry Leonard, I don’t think so.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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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.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

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.

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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.

3

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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, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985

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

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

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

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

According to A24’s official description of the film:

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

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

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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

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

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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