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Understanding Screenwriting #112: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Stories We Tell, Mad Men, Behind the Candelabra, Graceland, The Fosters, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #112: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Stories We Tell, Mad Men, Behind the Candelabra, Graceland, The Fosters, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Stories We Tell, Some Late Spring and Early Summer 2013 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: A month or so ago a comment was posted to US#68. The original column ran on January 24, 2011 and included an item on Slave Ship. The comment was from Greg Lehman, whose grandmother, Gladys Lehman, was one of several screenwriters on the 1937 film. The story he got from her deals with Darryl Zanuck’s suggestion on the script. At first glance it makes Zanuck sound racist, but after studying him and his career for 45 years, my judgment is that he wasn’t, or at least he was less of one than most of his fellow studio heads. He may well be thought to be treading the fine line between being racist and accepting the potential audience’s racism. Also keep in mind he did not insist on not having blacks in the film; it was simply a suggestion that the writers did not follow. Read Lehman’s comment and make up your own mind.

Of the two comments on US#111, the most interesting one was from “A Very Bemused Commenter,” who thought that the example I gave of 42 dealing with racism in a subtle way wasn’t all that subtle. Reading the item over I can see why he thought that, since it sounds rather blatant the way I wrote it. In the context of the more horrendous scenes in the film, however, it plays as more subtle than I made it seem.

And David Ehrenstein and I are agreeing yet again, this time on what a wonderful actor Fabrice Luchini is. Well, David and I can’t disagree all the time.

Before Midnight (2013; written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke; based on characters created by Linklater and Kim Krizan; 109 minutes.)

Checking in with Jesse and Celine. It all started 18 years ago. Jesse, a young American, persuaded Celine, a young Frenchwoman, to get off the train in Vienna and spend the night with him seeing the city. They walked and talked. Boy, did they walk and talk. And fell in love. And the next morning agreed to meet each other back in Vienna in six months. They were young, in love, and stupid enough not to get each other’s addresses or phone numbers. Ah, well, it would make a good memory for each of them, and a nice minor film called Before Sunrise.

People who saw the film wondered if they met up again. So did the filmmakers, and because a follow-up story could be done on such a low budget, Before Sunset came into being in 2005. The original was written by Richard Linklater with Kim Krizan, but on the sequel it was Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who worked with Linklater on the script. The actors not only knew their characters, but were collaborative enough to come up with details not just for their own character but for the other as well. Before Sunset takes place nine years later. Jesse has written a book about that night, and he’s at a book signing in Paris. Guess who shows up? If you’ve read what I wrote about the film in the book Understanding Screenwriting, you know that I like it better than Before Sunrise. It’s a tighter script, and the characters are older and less shallow. They’ve lived a little more. In one of the great endings in movies, it looks as though Jesse and Celine will stay together.

In Before Midnight, it’s now the requisite nine years later. We’re watching Jesse say goodbye to his son Henry from his first marriage at an airport in Greece. After the summer together, Henry is going back to his mother in Chicago, and it’s only after he goes through the gate that we get a great close-up of Jesse that shows us how deeply he feels about letting Henry go. That’s the writers knowing what the actor can give to a scene.

In one of the slickest bits of exposition since the opening of Rear Window, Jesse leaves the terminal and gets into a car. Celine is in the passenger seat, and in the back seat are adorable twin girls. No, Celine and Jesse aren’t married, but they’re together. And talking as always. We get some fill-in on what’s happened in the last nine years, and learn Celine is thinking about taking a job she sort of wants. When Jesse suggests they move back to Chicago so he can see Henry more often, the fat is in the fire. Celine is upset that Jesse doesn’t seem to want her to take this job she now says she really, really wants. Jesse is baffled at her reaction. In addition to that discussion, we also get an incredible amount of texture about these characters and this relationship just in this scene, done in two long takes. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy know these characters inside and out, vertically and horizontally, and every other way you can name. This and other scenes show the quicksilver shifts in tone and attitude between Jesse and Celine that can only come as a result of the collaborators’ experience with these characters. In the arguments here and those that follow, Jesse and Celine are both right in what they say. This isn’t a good-guy/bad-guy situation. I’ll comment below about how Iron Man 3 gives the actors a little more to do than they did in the original film, but that’s nothing compared to this.

Jesse and Celine have dinner with an older author and his friends and family, young and old, and this is the first extended multi-character scene in the series. They all have their views on love and marriage, and the scene brings out the thematic substance of the series in a fresh way. Then for the rest of the film we’re back with just Jesse and Celine, first as they take a long walk down from the house they’re staying at to the village, the next a harrowing scene in a hotel room where their hosts have arranged for them a romantic evening that doesn’t turn out as planned. Though this scene has earned comparisons to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Scenes From a Marriage, it’s not as theatrical as anything in those earlier works, which makes it even more unnerving because it feels more lifelike. Finally there’s a coda on a patio that suggests that the couple will probably stay together, although it may be a close-run thing.

Before Midnight isn’t as focused as Before Sunset, but it manages to get deeper into their relationship. That’s because they have now been together as a couple for nine years, with all the joys and the agonies (and we get both in here) that brings. In Before Sunset, the discussion inside the car dealt with Celine’s professional disappointments and the failure of Jesse’s first marriage—two separate issues. Here the issues all relate to the relationship and give us a greater depth than we’ve seen in the series. I will be waiting patiently for the next nine years.

Iron Man (2013; written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black; based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Curry and the Extremis miniseries written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Adi Granov; 130 minutes.)

Iron Man 3

Lots of cooks, one chef, good broth. I saw the first Iron Man in 2008 and wasn’t impressed. The idea of an iron suit that was that flexible just struck me as stupid. So I passed on Iron Man 2 in 2010, especially when the reviews weren’t that good. In early May, my 11-year-old grandson suggested we have a movie playdate to see Iron Man 3. He had liked the first two, especially the second one. He gave me a capsule summary of Iron Man 2 that was more entertaining than most movies I’ve seen lately, so I got the movie from Netflix. I enjoyed it a bit more than the first one, but it didn’t live up my grandson’s version. There was at least more effort at characterization, which gave the high-powered cast a little more to do. So then we went off to see Iron Man 3 (along with his sister, my daughter and son-in-law).

What first struck me was the plot’s similarity to Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark dealt with two villains, one the weird Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke at his grungiest), the other an industrial competitor of Stark’s, Justin Hammer, who’s in cahoots with Vanko. In Iron Man 3, we also have two villains, one the Mandarin, a weird cross between Fu Manchu and Osama Bin Ladin played by Ben Kingsley with an accent that’s half John Huston and half Richard Nixon, the other an industrial competitor of Stark’s, Aldrich Killian. They’re also in cahoots, but not in the way it seems. That leads to a great scene—way earlier than you think it should come in the film—in which Stark meets the Mandarin. If the first two films didn’t give the actors a lot to do, this scene makes up for it.

You’ll notice that the story material comes from a lot of sources, which could be a bad sign, but the key writer is Shane Black. He was The Hot Screenwriter of the Late Eighties and Early Nineties, having penned the Lethal Weapon series and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Then he went into an apparent decline, coming back, at least artistically, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, a wonderful off-the-wall thriller. It starred Robert Downey Jr., and it was clear that Black and Downey were on the same wave length. In the first two Iron Man films, a lot of the humor comes from Downey’s improvisations, which seem stuck in at random. What Black has done is bring that sensibility to everything in Iron Man 3, and the humor is as integral to it as it wasn’t in the first two. I’m also surprised that Marvel let them get away with some of what they do. For example, given my reservations about the Iron Man suit, I was delighted to see how, from the beginning of this film the assorted suits Stark has built sometimes don’t work. That is both funny and suspenseful.

As for my grandson, he’s getting more critical as he matures. He was bothered by the flaming creatures that seem to die and immediately come back to life, which didn’t bother me.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013; written by Chris Morgan; based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; 130 minutes.)

Fast & Furious 6

Letty’s back and Dom’s got her. As big a Dorothy Malone fan as I was in 1955, I don’t recall seeing that year’s The Fast and the Furious, which was about an unjustly accused man escaping the cops by getting involved in a sports car race. I wasn’t impressed with 2001’s Fast and the Furious, since it seemed like a more expensive version of the hot-rod movies of the 1950s. The cast was multiracial, a good thing, but the only really interesting actor was Michelle Rodriguez giving great sullen as only Rodriquez can as Letty, the sort-of girlfriend to the film’s sort-of hero, Dom.

I passed on the next several films, including the fourth, in which Letty gets killed. If you’re going to kill off the most interesting actor in a series, the hell with you. However, the fifth one received good reviews and I eventually picked it up on cable and enjoyed it thoroughly. The series had gotten away from just having a lot of street racing and the fifth film actually had a plot-like substance. Dom and the gang were chased by federal agent Luke Hobbs while bringing down a South American drug lord. Luke was played by Dwayne Johnson, who has even more muscles than Vin Deisel’s Dom and more of a sense of humor. Like Iron Man 3, they aren’t so solemn about the franchise, and that continues into Fast & Furious 6. The writer, Chris Morgan, has been part of the team since the third film and understands the characters, who’ve also gotten a little deeper. Not a lot, but a little.

At the end of Fast Five, another federal agent discovers some photographic evidence that Letty isn’t dead. Not having seen Fast & Furious, I have no idea how explicit her death scene was, but Morgan has to do a lot of tap-dancing in Fast & Furious 6 to bring her back. She’s now working for the arch-villain Shaw, whom Hobbs wants to bring down. Hobbs gets Dom and his gang to work with him by showing Dom a recent photo of Letty. Car chases ensue. We eventually find out that Letty had amnesia as a result of the accident that supposedly killed her. Shaw found her and trained her to work for him. So even when our guys find her, she has no idea who they are. At one point, Letty is chased down by Hobbs’s assistant, Riley, and the two of them get into a brutal fight. Well, Riley, a newcomer to the series, is played by martial-arts master Gina Carano, so what would you expect? The seminar on whether this is a blow for feminism in movies will meet next Tuesday at Gloria Steinem’s house.

When Letty and Dom get together, Morgan is smart. He doesn’t have her memory come back instantaneously. Nor even over time. At the end of the film, Dom and the crew have gotten the pardons Hobbs promised them and are back at their old house in Los Angeles. Letty doesn’t remember it, but says it “feels like home.” And if you don’t care about sentimental crap like character and home, rest assured Morgan has written some great action scenes, including a big finish that director Justin Lin has been trying to figure out how to do for the last couple of films. It involves cars, naturally, a big cargo plane, and what has to be the world’s longest runway. One of the crew is supposedly killed in the action, but she may be another Letty.

Stories We Tell (2012; written by Sarah Polley; 108 minutes.)

Stories We Tell

Stories, you want stories? We got your stories right here. In the mid-aughts, Sarah Polley researched a family rumor that her family jokingly spread for years: that she looked nothing like her father, Michael, and that she was possibly the result of an affair her mother, Diane, might have had when she was off in Toronto doing a play nine months before Sarah was born. Diane had died by this point, so Sarah began asking her family and her family’s friends about the validity of the rumor. She tracked down the actor everybody assumed was her biological father, only he wasn’t, but she found the man who was. Most people would just keep quiet about something like that, but Polley is a filmmaker from a theatrical family.

So how do you deal with that on film? She could have written it in a fictionalized form, but she decided on doing it as a documentary. Here are the ways she tells the stories. When she found out about her biological father, she told Michael. Michael, whom Diane had encouraged to write but never had, eventually wrote about the events. But he wrote about them in the third person. In the film, Polley has him reading his text in a recording studio, and that becomes the narration of the film. Polley also interviews family and friends. But this is now six or seven years after her search ended. So what she had the interviewees talk about is how they felt about learning of Sarah’s situation, which means we get their stories about the past, not so much about how they feel about what’s going on now. Some of them aren’t so happy with what Sarah is doing with the film, her biological father most of all, who has an interesting take on whose story this really is. Sarah’s family took a lot of Super 8mm home movies of themselves, and we see the real Diane and can easily understand why everyone loved her. But in some of the Super 8 stuff, it’s not really Diane, but an actress playing her. Sarah has filmed some recreations, but in the style of home movies, not that artificial, arty style you see on the History Channel and elsewhere. We’re aware of it being a recreation, but that makes it a way of telling the story as well. What Sarah has figured out is that there are a lot of ways to tell a story, or stories, something any screenwriter needs to keep in mind. And since this is one of those self-reflexive documentaries that makes us constantly aware that we’re watching a movie being made, i.e. stories being told, the various styles reinforce the content of Stories We Tell. And stay tuned for the final punch line. Sarah puts it there because if she included it earlier, we might make an erroneous assumption about what it means. Its placement just makes it a great finish. At least I think that’s what it means.

Mad Men

Some late spring and early summer 2013 television. I’m not sure this season has been as bad as last spring’s was (see US#94), but it wasn’t particularly good.

Mad Men’s season hasn’t been especially impressive. The merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Ted’s company hasn’t given the writers that much to work with. The disagreements between Don and Ted aren’t very compelling. Peggy’s comments about them both are true without being interesting. “The Flood,” written by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner, is set the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but doesn’t handle it was well as 2009’s “The Grown Ups,” written by Brett Johnson and Weiner, dealt with the John F. Kennedy assassination. Don’s affair with Sylvia has its moments, but then sort of dithers away. The best episode this season was “The Better Half,” written by Erin Levy and Weiner. Betty, back at her fighting weight, runs into Don at the summer camp their son attends. They have a nice chat on the porch of their motel…and then they get it on. Betty is turning into Don. The next morning, Don comes into the diner and finds Betty and Henry calmly having breakfast together. No yelling, no screaming, no accusations. Yes, she’s becoming Don.

The season finale, “In Care Of,” written by Cary Wray and Weiner, brought some of this together, but not as well as it could have. The episode, and perhaps the series, reaches a climactic turn with Don blowing a pitch to Hershey’s. He starts by telling a wonderful sentimental story about his father giving him the money to buy a Hershey’s bar, then he cracks and tells the truth of where he got the cash. Don Draper telling the truth! Who’d a thunk it? He later takes his children to the house he grew up in, which is now a ramshackle mess. So the next season may be about the problems of having an ad man tell the truth. Or it may not. We’ll see what Weiner and his crew come up with.

Necessary Roughness and Burn Notice are both back. In Necessary Roughness, Dr. Dani has been let go from the Hawks, which is just as well, since it was limiting the kinds of cases the writers could have her deal with. Nico has returned after not calling her for months and helps her get a job with V3, a mega management firm that deals not only with athletes, but show-business types as well. That will give the writers a lot more options. It does mean that her occasional boyfriend, Matt, is leaving the show to make room for the new characters, and it looked as though TK was leaving as well, but thank God the writers got him signed with V3. He’s much too interesting a character to let go. Starting its seventh season, Burn Notice has gotten far away from its original premise of Michael being a burned spy. He’s now back working for the C.I.A., but still able to bring in non-Company friends like Sam and Jesse if needed, something his C.I.A. control officers don’t feel good about. In the early episodes, this has seemed awkward.

Behind the Candelabra, which was adapted by Richard LeGravenese form the book by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, aired on HBO because no studio wanted to distribute it theatrically. It’s about Thorson’s relationship with Liberace, and like many films based on memoires, it has a rather limited view of events. Scott and Lee meet, have a long-term affair, and talk about it a lot. The level of conversation is nowhere near the quality of that of Before Midnight, and the film gets very repetitious. Nicely produced, but Lee’s costumes get just as repetitious as the dialogue.

King and Maxwell is a series about two former Secret Service agents who team up as P.I.s. It’s set in Washington D.C., so we’ve already begun to have some characters from their past show up. There’s also a bit of a Rockford Files vibe in that the officials they deal with aren’t smart in funny ways, which makes them very dangerous.

Graceland is a new USA show, which means lots of gorgeous people in bright sunlight solving crimes. The sun in this case shines over Venice, California, but I suspect the stock shots of bikini babes are the same ones used in CSI: Miami and Burn Notice. Graceland is a house where a variety of federal agents (F.B.I., DEA, Customs) live together. The first two episodes had some interesting plotting, even if they don’t pull all the people living in the house together as well as they could have. The third episode, “Heat Run,” written by Stephen Godchaux, does a little bit better at spreading the wealth around.

The Fosters is on the ABC Family Channel, which I don’t normally watch, but I caught the second episode of this. I had intended to see the pilot, but missed it. The second episode didn’t make me hunt down the first one. The setup is that a biracial lesbian couple (she’s white, she’s black) have one child of their own (sort of, he’s the result of the white woman’s first marriage) and then a pile of foster children. The second episode dealt mostly with the kids, who are all played by generically good looking Hollywood teenage types who haven’t yet learned how to act, and very little with the two women. I suspect this is a deliberate choice to make the women seem like just another couple, which on the one hand I admire, but on the other it means the writers aren’t using their premise very well, since we get very little sense of what it’s like for this couple to deal with marriage and children. And needless to say, the show attracted criticism from the right even before it aired. You can read the details of that here.

Rectify was a highly acclaimed miniseries this spring. I DVR’d it, but I’ve yet to watch it, so I will deal with it at a later date.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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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.

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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.

2

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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