Coming Up In This Column: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, His Nibs, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, ER, but first…
Fan Mail: Several interesting issues this time around. Both Andrew and Kevin H. raise the question of judging the script in comparison to the film and how fair that might be. Traditionally, criticism has dealt primarily with the art object (i.e., the final product), but more recently, criticism (particularly of the kind I do) has included an historical element of looking at the process as well as the object. We get exhibitions now in museums that look at the process leading up to the final object, such as a painter’s sketches and small scale versions as well as the final work. There has been a growing awareness that art is a process as much as an object. As someone who writes about screenwriting, which is the beginning of the process of filmmaking, I always take an interest in the earlier steps. I think it is perfectly fair to look at the materials created in the process to see the ways the film did, and did not, end up.
One of the things my research has taught me is that in most cases the films are not better than the scripts, in spite of what directors might tell you. Partly that is because filmmaking is an enormously complex undertaking, with any number of things that can go wrong. Of all the scripts I’ve read and the films made from them, I know of only two where the film was better. One was a Nunnally Johnson script called Casanova Brown, where Nunnally had ended up leaving out the motivation for the heroine, so we just had to take on faith that the hero was doing the right thing. The hero was played by Gary Cooper, so we accept his actions. The other was a film made from a script a student of mine wrote. In the writing she never overcame the problem that one of the minor characters was a cliché. Being an actress herself, she corrected it in her direction of the actor playing the part.
So we can, and I think should, look at the scripts and how they develop. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I have a chapter on Kinsey, which follows the film through three drafts of the script onto the final film. There are those who think it is the best chapter in the book. You can begin to understand how the process works, and get over the idea that the producer, director, or star just waves a magic wand and the film appears. Yeah, it’s more work looking at all this, but it is always more rewarding and informative. So I am going to continue talking about scripts. Both Kevin and Andrew get into some detail of the ways the process works, and we will have to admit sometimes it does not work out as well as we might like.
On the Forrest Gump front, of the options Matt Maul suggests, I think it was the conservatives (and not JUST the conservatives by the way) cheering for what they thought was the message of the film. Although I am not sure they thought of the film as a message picture in that sense. I don’t think they were seeing the irony in a movie that unintentionally presented that point of view. I think the film just fit in their minds with their own point of view.
Pacze Moj asks if there are any subjects that cannot be handled in scripts “according to the basic laws of Hollywood screenwriting.” Probably not, but some you would have to be a genius to make work in a way that Hollywood executives would believe and audiences would accept.
Eric Y, after saying he likes this column’s format (thank you), raises a procedural question as to how long it takes to do the column. That’s hard to say, since it is done over a period of time. I’ll see a movie, TV show, whatever, and I will make some notes on it, then a day or so later I will write up an item. Sometimes I will let several items pile up and write them all in a day. When I get enough, I send them off to Keith, who is the one who comes up with the great photographs that accompany the column. When I was wondering whether I had time to do this column, a friend of mine said, “Come on, Tom, that’s the kind of stuff you do all the time in e-mails to your friends.” She was right. In fact, the item in US#15 on Meet Me in St. Louis started life as something I was adding to my Christmas thank-you e-mails. I have pretty much always looked at films from the standpoint of screenwriting, so this column is just formulizing what I do anyway.
Slumdog Millionaire(2008. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Vikas Swarup. 120 minutes): Angels With Dirty Faces go to Mumbai. On steroids.
It is only fitting that after a lot of huffing and puffing, Slumdog Millionaire ended up being partially released by Warner Brothers. Originally it was co-produced by Warner Independent Pictures, and then Warners closed down WIP. The company was about to sell off the picture for spare parts (i.e., cable and DVD) when Twentieth Century-Fox got interested as a result of people writing about the picture from film festivals. Warners figured they might make a buck or two and they settled on a co-distribution deal with Fox. Warners will make more in absolute dollars with The Dark Knight, but they may make a greater return on their investment with this one.
The reason it is fitting it ends up at Warners is that the screenplay very much fits the traditional 1930s Warner Brothers narrative style. Whereas other film historians have written about the differences in studio looks, themes, et al, in my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I laid out the differences in narrative styles of the major studios. The Warners style is what I called “piling on.” I wrote, “There always seem to be more characters than needed to tell the story, more relationships between the characters, and more plot complications.” There is a LOT of piling on in Slumdog Millionaire.
The basic setup is that Jamal, a poor young man working as a tea server at a phone call center, wins and wins on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Nobody can understand how he can possibly know the answers to all the questions. The police interrogate him, and as he tells his life story we learn in the flashbacks how he happened to know the answers to each question. That would not necessarily hold our attention, but we come to learn he got on the program to impress Latika, a girl he grew up with in the slums. She is now a gangster’s mistress, watched over by Jamal’s brother Salim. Are you beginning to see the similarities with the Warners gangster movies of the thirties?
In addition to the similarities in content, Beaufoy piles on incident after incident after incident as we watch the three grow up. Beaufoy tells the story at a breakneck pace, which appears to have seemed like mere dawdling to director Danny Boyle, who speeds it up even more. As I started watching the film, I thought, “This is horribly over-directed,” but I eventually saw what Beaufoy and Boyle were up to. In a scene late in the picture, the Police Inspector comments that Jamal’s story is “bizarrely plausible.” Well, no it’s not. The coincidences involved in Jamal knowing the answers to THESE questions would be too much if the script and film were not going so fast that we don’t have time to consider the preposterousness of it all. This is a standard way of telling a tall tale: go so fast we do not have time to think. Beaufoy does this very well, which also covers up the fact that the characterizations are very shallow and cliched. But who wants depth in Cinderella?
Dodge City(1939. Original Screenplay by Robert Buckner. 104 minutes): Santa was good to me, take one.
Among the other things under the tree was a boxed set of five Errol Flynn movies, including four of my five favorite Flynn films. This is one of those, the best of all the big Warner Brothers westerns. As such it is a perfect example of that narrative style of Warners in the thirties and forties. Here is a checklist for Dodge City:
Great old-fashioned train. Check.
Race between stagecoach and train. Check.
Stalwart hero (with some Southern sympathies, courtesy of Southern-born Buckner-—see also his Santa Fe Trail). Check.
Two, count ’em two, comic sidekicks for the hero. Check.
Two nasty sidekicks for the villain. Check.
Boot Hill Cemetery. Check.
Ceremony welcoming the railroad. Check.
Cattle drive. Check.
Cattle stampede. Check.
Covered wagon train. Check.
Indians attacking covered wagon train. No.
Dramatic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.
Sing-off in saloon between Northern and Southern supporters, “Marching Through Georgia” vs. “Dixie” (See Buckner above). Check.
The most overpopulated saloon brawl in film history (until the parody of it in Blazing Saddles). Check.
Worried townspeople appoint hero sheriff (almost an hour into the picture because of all the other activity; see how much quicker Wyatt Earp becomes the marshal in My Darling Clementine). Check.
Crusading newspaper editor. Check.
Comedy scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.
Murder of crusading newspaper editor. Check.
Assorted jail scenes with comic and nasty sidekicks. Check.
Romantic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.
Fight between good guys and bad guys in burning railroad car. Check.
Double happy ending: Flynn gets de Havilland and she agrees to go with him to clean up Virginia City (No, Virginia City the following year is not technically a sequel, but still…). Check.
Kitchen sink. No.
O.K., YOU try to get all that into 104 minutes and have it still make sense.
Ride Lonesome(1959. Written by Burt Kennedy. 73 minutes) and Comanche Station(1906. Written by Burt Kennedy. 74 minutes): Santa was good to me, take two.
We are definitely not in the Warner Brothers A-picture business here. Look at these two films and see how little of that checklist is included in them. These are the last two films in the Budd Boetticher Box Set Matt Zoller Seitz and I were drooling over in US#13. They are spare, low-budget, short films, which simply emphasizes how important a good script is when you don’t have a lot of money. Comanche Station has always been my favorite of all of the series, mostly because it was the first one I saw when they were first released. Seeing them together recently on a Saturday afternoon (when else would you watch them?), my reaction was that Kennedy’s script for Ride Lonesome is a little bit better.
Ben Brigade rides alone (the only thing I object to in Ride Lonesome is the title, which makes it sound like a forties singing cowgirl western), without even a single comic sidekick. He is a bounty hunter who tracks down Billy and outwits him, taking him prisoner. Billy insists his brothers, especially Frank, will come to rescue him. We see Billy’s four henchmen ride off to get Frank. We’re not even ten minutes into the film.
Ben and Billy find a stagecoach swing station that has two more bounty hunters there, Sam and Whit. Very different from Ben and each other. Ben is sly, always thinking the angles, Whit seems rather slow. (Ben is Pernell Roberts in his best performance, just before he fell into Bonanza, Whit is James Coburn in his first screen appearance, before he had developed his distinctive walk.) Sam and Whit would love to take Billy off Ben’s hands, since the wanted posters say anyone who brings Billy in gets an amnesty. Sam obviously needs one, although we never really find out why; Kennedy is very sparse on giving us information, which makes us pay attention even harder. And there is also Mrs. Lane, the wife of the station manager, who has gone missing. And there are Indians who are none too friendly. So obviously it is in Ben’s best interest to get Billy to Santa Cruz as soon as possible. Here is Kennedy’s genius: Ben is in no hurry to get there. He’s taking his own sweet time and taking the long way around. Look at how long before we find out why he’s doing that. And look at the nice little scenes Kennedy gives us between gorgeous shots of them riding in the Eastern Sierras. At one point Sam is discussing ALL his options with Whit, and in a short scene we get everything there is to know about the two of them. Some of the scenes are so good, and the actors are so good, Boetticher can shoot them in a single take.
Sam is talkative, Ben is laconic. When Sam goes on and on about Mrs. Lane, Ben replies, “She’s not ugly.” When she says to Ben, “You don’t seem like a man who would hunt for a man for murder,” he replies, “I am.”
Eventually we get to the spot where even Frank has realized that Ben intends to wait for him: the “hang tree,” an almost dead tree in the middle of a meadow where Frank hung Ben’s wife. Ben doesn’t care about Billy; he just wants Frank. Sam is willing to help him, but will Sam then turn on Ben to get Billy? Kennedy gives us a quick shootout with Ben and Frank and then a faceoff between Ben and Sam. And a perfect ending to that relationship. And the hang tree gets burned at the end.
The opening of Comanche Station is even better than the opening of Ride Lonesome. Jeff Cody is riding through the Eastern Sierras. When Indians come upon him, he simply gets off his horse, lays out the blanket he has with a lot of trinkets. The Indians want to trade two horses for his stuff. He turns them down. They take him into their camp and he trades his trinkets and his rifle for a white woman captive, Nancy Lowe. As they ride away, she tells him who she is. His reply, “I should have known.” Who is she? Why is he rescuing her without knowing who she is?
They come across a stage stop and three men, Ben, whom we later learn Jeff testified against at his army court martial, and two guys who look enough alike that we think they’re brothers. Ben, alas, is not quite the fascinating rouge that Sam was, and so the tension between them is not as interesting as that between Ben and Sam in Ride Lonesome. When Nancy finds out her husband has posted a $5,000 reward, she assumes Jeff is out for the money. Of course, but he’s not. Look at how long it takes before we find out what his real motive is, and how it figures in the ending. The stage does not come and so the five of them have to ride to Lordsburg, going past a lot of great scenery, including a small lake with … what the hell, the hang tree from Ride Lonesome. But it was in a meadow and was burned. Obviously a prop tree that Boetticher and his gang carried around with them. After all, we only saw it on fire in the earlier film, not destroyed.
Ben has told Frank and Dobie, the two non-brothers, of his plan to kill Jeff, then kill Nancy, since the husband is willing to pay for her, dead or alive. Ben’s motivation is revenge and money, which makes him less interesting than Sam. But at least we get a nice scene between Frank and Dobie discussing whether or not they will go along with Ben, or just maybe have to get honest jobs.
Jeff of course ends up delivering Nancy to her husband, and Kennedy delivers a real kicker of an ending, picking up on something that I have not mentioned that has been discussed all the way through the film. A terrific little movie, if not quite as fresh as Ride Lonesome.
His Nibs(1921. Written by Arthur Hoerl. 59 minutes): New York vs. Los Angeles.
Richard Koszarski, a professor at Rutgers, has a new book out called Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York From Griffith to Sarnoff. It’s about exactly what the title tells you. As part of the promotion for the book, Koszarski and the UCLA Film & Television Archive are having a series of screenings of surviving films (several of them preserved by the Archive) Koszarski writes about. This is one of the odder ones.
As Koszarski explained it in his introduction to the screening, he thinks what happened was that the Chic Sale, a big star in vaudeville, was hired to appear in a comedy-melodrama called The Smart Aleck. It was shot in Los Angeles but never completed. A year or so later, this film came out with Sale playing several roles, including the proprietor of a small town movie theater. The theater is showing what is obviously The Smart Aleck, although under a different name. We see a lot of the earlier film, with the proprietor saying he cut out the titles. He then narrates and comments on the film. As Koszarski put it, sort of a forerunner of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
What I found interesting is that The Smart Aleck is a much more interesting film, as much as we get to see of it. It’s better scripted, more coherent, more … well, serious. And shot in Los Angeles. According to Koszarski, the framing material was shot in New York. It is lightweight and frivolous. Sale overplays all of his characters, as opposed to underplaying the lead in The Smart Aleck. By 1921 movies had settled in Hollywood, and the backlash in New York had begun (see US#1 for a brief history of that). This film is a beautiful demonstration of that backlash.
How I Met Your Mother (2009. Episode “Benefits” written by Kourtney Lang. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take one.
I have mentioned in comments on several Met episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they had previously set up: horn-dog Barney in love with Robin. Lang comes back to it with a vengeance in this episode. Robin and Ted have broken up romantically but she had moved in as his roommate. They discover they argue more as roommates than they did when they were dating. Robin thinks they should have sex to release the tension. They do, but the gang finds out. Ted and Robin agree to stop, to maintain their friendship. Fat chance. Meanwhile, Barney is more and more upset and pretending he is not. Whenever the talk in the bar turns to Ted and Robin, he goes outside and trashes a TV set. He runs out of sets and finally has to buy a new set to trash. Ted realizes Barney is in love with Robin, but Barney denies it. Since he can’t talk to the gang about it, he goes to Lily’s grade school class on “sharing feelings day.” Finally he goes to the apartment and confronts Robin, but he bungles it, and she does not pick up on what he is trying to say. By dealing with all of this, Lang gives the entire cast, but especially Neil Patrick Harris as Barney, a lot of great material to work with. And there is something at stake.
On the other hand, they have a running gag in this episode about “reading a magazine” as a euphemism for masturbation. O.K., but then somebody actually says that it is a euphemism for masturbation. Would Seinfeld have needed to spell it out? I don’t think so.
Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “Thank God for Scoliosis,” teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Mark Roberts, story by Eddie Gorodetsky & Jim Patterson. Episode “I Think You Offended Don” written by Lee Aronsohn & Don Foster & Mark Roberts. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take two.
I have mentioned in comments on several Men episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they have available: Jake is hitting puberty. So in these two episodes they eventually do.
In the first, Alan and his receptionist Melissa flirt, kiss, both apologize, kiss again. They are like Ted and Robin in Met. Alan and Charlie have a nice scene talking about Melissa. The next morning Berta the cleaning lady eventually gets into the discussion about Melissa, or as she refers to her, “Tinkerbell with knockers.” Berta recommends against sex between an employer and employee, recalling a fling she had in the seventies with Telly Savalas. She says “Sooner or later you wake up with a broken heart and a lollipop stuck to your keester.”
A brief pause here to consider the glory that is Conchata Ferrell, who plays Berta. She has been a great American character actress for thirty years. She is one of those performers who, when she shows up on screen, the audience smiles and relaxes because we know we will be in good hands for however long she is there. Berta originally was supposed to be just a one-shot part, but the showrunners realized what they had and have kept her on as a regular cast member. She gets more lines in the scene under discussion here than she usually does, and she delivers. Usually she only has a couple of lines per episode, but she knocks those out of the park as well. And here is how seeing somebody do well in a great role like Berta can affect how you see them in real life. I know Conchata slightly, since I work with her husband. And whenever I see her, I am always a little surprised that not every line out of her mouth is one of Berta’s zingers. Even great actors require great writing. Listen to her deliver the “keester” line and you’ll see what I mean.
To return to tonight’s symposium. Jake. As Alan is dealing with Melissa and her truly wacko mother, Charlie takes Jake to dinner at a bar, where Janine, the waitress, takes a shine to … Jake. In a big sister sort of way. She invites Jake and Charlie to her place for a real dinner. After dinner Charlie wants Jake to wait in the car, but Jake is determined to stick around, thinking in his adolescent way (or maybe he just saw The Reader) he may have a chance with Janine. He doesn’t, but he outwits Charlie, a first for Jake. Sniff, sniff, our boy is growing up.
In “I Think…” the writers are also dealing with the fact that Judith is pregnant and Alan and we know it was from her one-night quickie with him. She insists they never had unprotected sex. Charlie thinks Jake is upset at the idea of a baby sister, but he’s not. There is a girl who wants to “hook up” with him at a party. He feels embarrassed that he is not more experienced sexually. Charlie gives him advice (and actually not bad advice to give to a 14-year-old boy in those circumstances: admit you don’t know much and hope to learn from her) and Jake is determined to go to the party. But then he decides not to. Sniff, sniff, maybe our boy is not growing up.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit(2009. Episode “Hothouse” written by Charley Davis. 60 minutes): A small step for one actress, a giant leap for all actresses.
Back in the seventies, when women cops showed up in television shows, they seemed to spend most their time working undercover dressed as hookers. The TV Guide logline for this episode was “Benson poses as a madam.” Wow, undercover women cops have graduated from prostitutes to madams.
Except that is not what the episode is about. Dead girl, 14-years-old, from the Ukraine. Everybody assumes from the bruises that she was a hooker. So Benson goes undercover as a madam and approaches a guy they think brings girls in from the Ukraine. She dresses much better than the women cops in the seventies. They arrest the guy, but the only thing he can tell them is that she was not a hooker, but a math whiz. End of Act One. And Benson’s pseudo-madam is out of the story for good.
Now if we can just stop promoting shows with “Benson poses as a madam”…
CSI (2009. Episode “One to Go” written by Carol Mendelsohn & Naren Shankar. 60 minutes): What, Grisson hasn’t left YET?
In US#13 I complimented the writers on CSI for handling Grissom’s leaving in a relatively realistic way. It may just be that this episode comes so long in real time after the previous one, but it struck me they were dragging it out. Several short scenes with some of the team repeat what we have seen in previous episodes. When they finally solve the case and Grissom is actually leaving, the writers do give him a nice walk through the lab. He’s looking at everybody doing their jobs. And he gets a nice goodbye wink from Catherine.
On the other hand, the writers do not quite have the range yet on Professor Langston and Laurence Fishburne. Perhaps it is obvious because they do on the other characters and the actors who have played them for years. The writers need to work this out as they figure out who Langston is and what Fishburne can do with him. If you look at the early episodes of many great TV series, it takes both the writers and the actors (that’s why it is called a collaborative medium) a while to find the groove. The smart money is on these writers and Fishburne.
ER (2009. Episode “Dream Runner” written by Lisa Zwerling. 60 minutes): Domesticated surrealism.
One of the tricks of writing for a television series is that a series over time sets up its own rules. You know there are certain things you can do in ER that you can’t do in Grey’s Anatomy (like have intelligent characters behave intelligently). And unless the showrunners are willing to or have to make big changes (letting Grissom go and bringing Langston onto CSI) you can’t bend the mold too much. Zwerling does some interesting playing around with the character of Neela in this episode, and does it in a way ER normally doesn’t.
In the first two acts we get the basic situation set up: Neela is still dealing with Anna, a young girl with Sickle Cell Anemia. Meanwhile, a patient who is a “Dream Runner” is brought in. A Dream Runner gets up while he is dreaming and behaves as though his dream was real. In this case the guy jumped out a window.
Then in the third act, we get an alternative version of the same day. The Dream Runner, who died in the pervious version, stays alive in this one. In the fourth act, we get another alternate version, this time with Anna appearing to die. In the fifth act, we get another version where Anna lives. In other words, what we have is sort of a Run, Lola, Run episode, but a lot of the variations are relatively minor, such as Neela passing different people in the stairwell, or either Jerry or Archie riding Archie’s father’s motorcycle. The most interesting of the variations is that in all of them Neela is more forceful about suggesting treatments. She has always been a bit of a wuss, and it is nice to see her man up, but how much of that will continue in “real life” in the series? How much can you change in a series?
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.
Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love
It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.
It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.
Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.
The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.
Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?
Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.
Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?
Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.
Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?
Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—
Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.
Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?
Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?
Neeson: Yeah, we did.
Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.
Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?
Were they more like chemistry sessions?
Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!
Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?
Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.
I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.
Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?
Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”
When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?
Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.
Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.
There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?
Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.
Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?
Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.
We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?
Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.
Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.
It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.
Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.
You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?
Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.
Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.
In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?
Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.
Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.
Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…
Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.
Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”
Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.
Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!
Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?
Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.
Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.3
The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.
It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.
Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.
In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.
This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.
A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book
Review: Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Robertson’s sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.2.5
Toward the end of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights movement and the counterculture in bloom, art was about taking political and aesthetic sides. As such, one can understand how Bob Dylan’s electric guitar could be met with violent boos, as it signified a crossing of the bridge over into the complacent mainstream, to which folk music was supposed to represent a marked resistance. In this context, one can also appreciate the daring of the Band, whose music offered beautiful and melancholic examinations of heritage that refuted easy generational demonizing, while blending blues, rock, and folk together to create a slipstream of American memory—Americana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldn’t be reduced to editorial battle hymns. Complicating matters of identity even further, the prime architects of Americana are mostly Canadian. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all from Ontario, while Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is concerned mostly with celebrating the Band’s early rise and influence on American culture, as well as their sense of connecting the past and present together through empathetic lyrics. Holding court over the film is Robertson, the dapper and charismatic songwriter and guitarist who looks and sounds every inch like the classic-rock elder statesman. Airing sentiments from his memoir, Testimony, Robertson mentions his mixed heritage as a citizen of the Six Nations of Grand River reservation who also had Jewish gangster relatives, and who moved to Canada at a formative age. Richardson learned his first chords on the reservation, and began writing songs professionally at 15, after he met Ronnie Hawkins and Helm. Hawkins’s group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.
Director Daniel Roher’s glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorsese’s Band concert film The Last Waltz, signifies that Once Were Brothers is going to steer clear of controversy. Was Hawkins bitter to have his band usurped by the teenage prodigy Robertson? Even if he wasn’t, such feelings merit exploration, though here they’re left hanging. The documentary’s title is all too apropos, as this is Robertson’s experience of the Band, rather than a collective exploration of their rise and fall. To be fair, Danko, Manuel, and Helm are all deceased, the former two dying far too young, though Hudson perhaps pointedly refused to participate in this project—another event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this story—Robertson’s intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helm—is broached only in an obligatory fashion.
Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the former’s view of things, as he maintains that much of the group succumbed to drugs and booze, leaving him to write most of the music and to shepherd their joint career as long as he could. (Robertson’s wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Band’s collective influence on musical arrangements merited a bigger slice of royalties all around. Robertson and various other talking heads remind us of these grievances, though Roher quickly pushes on to the next plot point. Robertson is a magnificent musician and subject, but his devotion to his side of the story renders him suspicious—a cultivator of brand.
For these omissions and elisions, Once Were Brothers is a slim, if ultimately enjoyable, rock testimony. The highlight is the archival footage of the Band practicing and recording, including a privileged moment with Dylan after one of the controversial electric concerts, as well as interludes at the pink house in Woodstock where they recorded their defining Music from Big Pink, an album that included their classic “The Weight,” which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertson’s idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertson’s sadness, his sense of having witnessed friends and collaborators get washed away by bitterness and addiction, was more fulsomely evoked by Scorsese in The Last Waltz, as he looked at the Band and saw an entire group, a dying unit, rather than Robbie Robertson and the other guys.
Director: Daniel Roher Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality
It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.4
War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.
We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).
Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.
The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.
And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.
Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.
Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.
Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.
As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.
Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985
Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith
It’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.3
Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but he’s also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.
This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Daniel’s fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland that’s grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Daniel’s irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.
That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confession—by Googling, no less—and reciting Father Tomasz’s prayers, discovering that it’s easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the town’s official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the man’s place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But it’s one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.
The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Daniel’s own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, it’s the vehement young man’s dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagers’ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.
It’s a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoples’ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Daniel’s adversarial presence both shines a light on the town’s hypocrisy and their leaders’ corruption, his own duplicity isn’t overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyone’s behavior in the film.
Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, it’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.
Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stella Meghie’s The Photograph Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words
The film is at its best when it’s focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.2.5
Near the middle of Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Green’s I’m Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Al’s dulcet tones, but it’s not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, it’s the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow “For the Good Times” smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michael’s seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.
The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, there’s a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one that’s judiciously tempered by their characters’ Achilles heels, be it Mae’s reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michael’s commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the film’s portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.
The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michael’s burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Mae’s estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks aren’t only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the film’s depiction of Mae and Michael’s relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.
The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film that’s at its best when it’s focused on Michael and Mae’s love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christina’s many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michael’s love affair, it’s rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Y’lan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Starring Dev Patel, Gets Teaser Trailer
Today, A24 dropped the trailer for haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery’s latest.
Jack of all trades and haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery is currently in pre-production on the latest live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney, which is bound to be full steam ahead now that The Green Knight is almost in the can. Today, A24 debuted the moody teaser trailer for the film, which stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain on a quest to defeat the eponymous “tester of men.” Scored by Lowery’s longtime collaborator Daniel Hart, The Green Knight appears to have been shot and edited in the same minimalist mode of the filmmaker’s prior features, which include Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Though it’s not being billed as a horror film, it’s very easy to see from the one-and-a-half-minute clip how Lowery’s latest is of a piece with so many A24 horror films before it.
According to A24’s official description of the film:
An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.
The Green Knight is written, directed, and edited by Lowery and also stars Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Barry Keoghan.
See the trailer below:
A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.
Review: Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists Stagily Addresses the State of a Nation
Tukel’s film doesn’t live up to the promise of its fleet-footed opening.2
Taking place on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists begins, fittingly, with the sound of a woman crying. Alice (Christine Campbell) explains to her concerned daughter that she’s sad because half of the country has made the wrong decision, prompting the child to respond that her mother has herself been wrong before: “You were wrong when you thought that black man stole your cellphone.” Defensively writing off this past instance of casual racism as nothing more than an honest mistake, Alice sends the girl back to bed, after offering a weary “probably not” in response to her asking if she could be elected president someday.
In just a few lines of dialogue, Tukel exposes the moral blind spots and hypocrisy of otherwise well-meaning liberals, not to mention the irresponsible vanity of outrage and despair in the face of a stinging electoral defeat. This short scene highlights the emotional vulnerabilities that often underpin, and undermine, political convictions, and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of almost all of the film’s thematic concerns.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Misogynists doesn’t live up to the promise of this fleet-footed opening. Set mostly within the confines of one hotel room and featuring sex workers, a Mexican delivery boy, wealthy businessmen, and other roughly sketched characters from the contemporary political imagination, Tukel seems to be aiming for a broad comedy of manners in the key of Whit Stillman and early Richard Linklater, but there isn’t enough attention to detail, sense of place, or joie de vivre to make his scenarios come to life.
The narrative revolves around Cameron (Dylan Baker), a friendly but obnoxious Trump supporter. Holed up in the hotel room where he’s been living since breaking up with his wife, he invites various visitors to share tequila shots and lines of coke in celebration of Trump’s victory, while he holds forth on such hot-button topics as racial hierarchies, gun control, and gender roles. Baker delivers a spirited performance as Cameron, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional stand-in for a particular reactionary attitude, especially compared to the more nuanced and conflicted figures he interacts with. As the script isn’t bold enough to dig into the deeper emotional appeal of Trump’s nationalistic fervor and old-school machismo, Cameron’s smug, pseudo-intellectual cynicism is mostly unconvincing.
Tukel realizes one of his few visual flourishes through the TV in Cameron’s hotel room, which switches itself on at random and plays footage in reverse, transfixing whoever happens to be watching. This works well as a metaphor for the re-emergence of political beliefs most people thought to be gone for good, as well as the regression that many of the characters are undergoing in the face of an uncertain future. It provides a hint of the more affecting film that The Misogynists could have been had it transcended the staginess of its setup.
Though the film’s dialogue rarely offers enough intellectual insights to justify a general feeling of artificiality, it does effectively evoke the media-poisoned discourse-fatigue that’s afflicted us all since before Trump even decided to run for public office. The film shows people across the political spectrum who appear to have argued themselves into a corner in an effort to make sense of their changing society, and their failure to live up to their own beliefs seems to be contributing further to their unhappiness.
Going even further than this, one of the escorts, Sasha (Ivana Miličević), hired by Cameron offers up what’s perhaps the film’s thesis statement during an argument with her Muslim cab driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma). She insists on her right to criticize whoever she wants, claiming that “Americans wouldn’t have anything to talk about” without this right. This idea of conflict being preferable to silence ties into the ambiguous denouement of The Misogynists. Tukel ultimately seems to suggest that the freedom so many Americans insist upon as the most important value is, in fact, so lonely and terrifying that even the spectacle of the world falling apart is a reassuring distraction.
Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell, Nana Mensah, Rudy De La Cruz, Hemang Sharma, Cynthia Thomas, Darrill Rosen, Karl Jacob, Matt Hopkins Director: Onur Tukel Screenwriter: Onur Tukel Distributor: Factory 25, Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation
Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.2
Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human misery—shots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage aren’t exactly new, but Östlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, an Americanized remake of Östlund’s film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.
Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeure’s plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behind—though not before grabbing his phone.
This scene, which Östlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. It’s reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.
Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they don’t give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.
It’s hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the film’s premise, they’re mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrell’s clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s rubber-faced emoting.
Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billie’s emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, it’s Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that sticks with you after the film is over.
If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a man’s world. It’s apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Östlund’s film is that of the husband’s pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billie’s face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer
Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”
Today, Searchlight Pictures debuted the trailer for The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s first feature since 2018’s Isle of Dogs and first live-action film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. According to its official description, The French Dispatch “brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.” The city is Ennui-sur-Blasé and the magazine is run by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an American journalist based in France. The trailer, just a hair over two minutes, quickly establishes the workaday (and detail-rich) world of a magazine, a travelogue struggling with just how much politics to bring to its pages during a time of strife.
A French Dispatch is written and directed by Anderson, whose described the film as a “love letter to journalists,” and stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. See the trailer below:
Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.
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