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Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, Community, The First Week of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first…

Fan Mail: I need to catch up on comments not only from US#33 but a couple from US#32 as well.

In 32, Jamie suggested I try The Last Temptation of Christ again since I never watched the whole thing. Thanks for the suggestion Jamie, but when you get to be my age, you can tell pretty quickly that a picture is not going to work for you, so I think in my remaining years I will probably not get to Last Temptation. Jason Bellamy raised several problems he had with the script for District 9. I can see his points (and that’s the kind of comments and discussions I love), but with that film I found myself in a common situation: the writers had so hooked me in that I was willing to overlook the flaws. If the picture is working for you, you won’t be bothered by the flaws. A classic example: has anybody ever hated Jaws because the weather in every shot in the last half-hour is completely different from the previous shot?

In 33, Matt Zoller Seitz thought it was “great to see some love for Ghost Town.” That’s one of the reasons I don’t just write about new movies. Sometimes we pick up on earlier films that we missed, or are seeing again, and find something new in them. “Female geek” liked the Masterpiece Theatre version of Sense & Sensibility more than I did, although mostly for location, art direction, and acting reasons. Hey, we all like movies for a lot of reasons. “dfantico” wondered if given my comment about Amreeka “not being as good as it could have been” what my take was on Law Abiding Citizen. He thought the idea sounded interesting and wondered what went wrong. As with Last Temptation, I am pretty sure I am going to give this one a miss, so the following is just a guess. Most artists are delusional, which is what makes them interesting. Sometimes those delusions tell us stuff in entertaining ways and those delusions become our delusions. Sometimes the artists’ delusions are so unconnected to ours they don’t work for us. I gather from some interviews I have read with the makers of Law Abiding Citizen that they thought they were making a more serious film than viewers thought it was. The filmmakers apparently did not get far enough beyond the revenge elements of the story for at least the critics. Anyway, that’s my guess, and now on to movies I have seen.

Jennifer’s Body (2009. Written by Diablo Cody. 102 minutes): Not one of the Mistress’s finest, but amusing.

As I am sure you have noticed, there is an enormous backlash against FORMER-STRIPPER-TURNED-AWARD-WINNING-SCREENWRITER Diablo Cody, and a lot of it is showing up in the reviews of this film. Those of you who are long-time readers of this column will remember from US#4 that I was a big fan of Cody’s Juno, even more after looking at it again. One aspect of Cody’s script for Juno that several people complained about was that the dialogue was too cute and everybody talked alike. I shot down that last one in the comments in my column. I happened to like the archness of the dialogue. I happen to like smart-mouthed women, especially smart-mouthed women writers. If we will let Tarantino write like that, why not Cody? Is her being a former stripper more discrediting than him being a former video store clerk?

On the surface, this is a teen horror movie and it appears to bother people that she is not writing a high-minded, award-seeking screenplay. Well, Juno was not that high-minded until it started winning stuff. Liking both Juno and Cody’s wonderful book Candy Girl, I’m willing to cut her some slack. Especially when she gives us, as she does in Jennifer’s Body, some interesting characters. Jennifer is a typical stuck-up beautiful teenage girl who, through assorted hijinks, becomes evil. As the ads say, using one of the lines from Cody’s script, “She’s evil…and not just high school evil.” Her evil takes the form of killing and partially eating boys. Well, you can see why the fanboy critics are a bit upset. Her best friend forever, Needy, finally twigs to what is wrong with Jennifer and realizes she is after Chip, Needy’s boyfriend. A battle ensues, but there is more after that, although some of it seems rushed.

Because she is working in a recognizable genre, Cody’s work here is not as fresh as it seemed in Juno. We get the standard-issue teen horror stuff, but Cody’s heart is more in the Jennifer-Needy relationship. This is not a feminist or even post-feminist take on the horror genre. Cody is not writing like a Woman Writer, but like a woman who writes, with her own particular and sometimes peculiar sensibilities. Cody likes both Jennifer and Needy for different reasons and feels the conflict between them and the hurt it causes, especially to Needy. But she probably sees what finally happens to Needy and what she does about it as a good thing. In the context of the film it is, which is what makes it even creepier than it might otherwise have been.

As with Juno, a good script gets you a good cast. All kinds of interesting people show up in smaller parts, such as J.K. Simmons as a teacher with a hook for a hand and the most outrageous wig I have seen in years. Amy Sedaris is Needy’s mom, and Cynthia Stevenson is Needy’s boyfriend’s mom. And there is a great, unsettling, uncredited cameo near the end by…

The two leads reminded me of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Megan Fox, the hottie du jour, is Jennifer and like Curtis, she gives a good movie-star performance. You may remember that in writing about Fox in the first Transformers movie in US#3, I mentioned she either decided not to or was not directed to bring out the white trash fun of the character. There is a similar problem here, and I think it could come from one of two things. The first would be that she is in her “young movie star” mode and just decided that all she had to do was show up in front of the camera and say the lines, which she does o.k. The second option is that she does not (yet) have the instincts of a true actor to fill out the role. Looking at her performances on the September 26th Saturday Night Live, the first option seems more likely. In the film, she does nice stuff scene by scene, but she doesn’t seem to have an overview of the character. Needy is Amanda Seyfried and like Lemmon she gives a great comic performance, with all kinds of actorly twists and turns. I always thought Seyfried never got the credit she deserved for her work in Mamma Mia!. Her performance in the first scene of that film sets exactly the right tone.

Even though this is a film written and directed by women about women, the opening day audience I saw it with was predominantly young men, undoubtedly there to dribble in their pants over Megan Fox. The picture did not open well, and the box office has declined. I suspect the word-of-mouth from the boys was not good, and potential women viewers were put off by Megan Fox. Too bad. They might enjoy it more than they think.

Paris (2008. Written by Cédric Klapisch. 130 minutes): Trés, trés, trés French.

If you are looking for a moody Romanian movie, skip this. If you are looking for a British heritage costume drama, skip this. If you are looking for an American comic book adaptation, skip this. But, if like me, you enjoyed Paris, je t’aime or Avenue Montaigne, or even Private Fears in Public Places, all from 2006, then this one is for you.

It is yet another multi-character story of a variety of people living in Paris. Klapisch, who is best known for his two other multi-character pieces, L’auberge espagnole (2002) and its sequel Russian Dolls (2005), got the first inspiration for Paris years ago when he met a man going to the hospital in a taxi who was not sure he was going to come back. According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Klapisch said, “He was looking at the people in the streets saying to himself that all of those people were so lucky because they were able to walk in the street. That story struck me so much I wanted to use that in the movie.” In the film that guy becomes Pierre, a former dancer now suffering from heart problems. He spends his time looking out his balcony window at people going by. He becomes this film’s equivalent of Lillian Gish rocking the cradle in Intolerance, “uniter of the here and hereafter.” It is Pierre in the cab at the end on his way to a heart transplant, and we see several characters from the film from the cab.

Klapisch shows Paris as very much a multicultural city, which the three films mentioned above do not do, or do not do as much as this one. And Paris certainly does this better than its American equivalents like Short Cuts (1993) and it is much subtler than Crash (2004). Listen to the owner of the bakery talk about the foreign workers she has had. And we also get several working class characters, which is also not common in these kinds of films. One group is several street salespeople and through them we go to the Forum des Halles, the newer and more modern version of Les Halles, the famous Paris wholesale market. And who shows up there but a group of fashion models who just got out from a runway show. We know all the jokes about how unsanitary the French can be, so I was delighted to see one of the salespeople and one of the models not actually have sex in the meat locker.

Klapisch, as he did in L’auberge espagnole, gives us a great gallery of characters and has gotten first-rate actors to play them. Repeat after me: you write scripts with good characters, you can get good actors to play them—and without having to pay them $20 million a picture, which is what you have to pay them to do crap. Paris is definitely not merde.

Art & Copy (2009. A film by Doug Pray, from an original concept by Gregory Beauchamp & Kirk Souder, narrative consultant Timothy J. Sexton. 89 minutes): The real Mad Men.

This is another of the documentaries that slipped into Los Angeles in September. It’s about the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. The structure is something of a mess, with a lot of material that takes away from the heart of the movie. We get several segments of a guy whose job is to change large billboards. A little of that goes a long way. There are also recurring shots of a rocket being prepared to launch, which is supposed to connect with the fact there are a lot of satellites up there spewing out ads on cable systems. But at the end of the film, the rocket launches, and we get the closing line, “Creativity can do anything,” which in the context of the film suggests advertising is like rocket science. Bizarre.

The heart of the movie is the interviews with the ad men and women who have changed the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. They are a wonderful gallery of characters, another example of the general truth that characters in documentaries are often more interesting than those in fiction films. These folks seem much more alive and energetic than the ad men on Mad Men, although some photographs of them from the sixties make them look exactly like Don, Pete, Paul and the gang at Sterling Cooper. Here is a difference between documentary and fiction. In this film, the characters are self-created, with great variations in attitude and behavior. In Mad Men, the characters come out of Matthew Weiner’s singular vision, both of the characters and their place in the world. Art & Copy, as second rate as it is, is showing us the real world and the real people. Mad Men is giving us Weiner’s singular vision of a world. Now, a good documentary can also give us a vision of the world. And an expansive fictional film or series can give us a richly detailed world, which I think Mad Men does. The difference is one of kind rather than degree. In a fiction film you go and live in the world the writers and filmmakers create. In a documentary, you face the real world. Which is why I often find myself watching a documentary and forgetting to breathe. Watching Barbet Schroeder’s great 1976 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait I did not exhale in the last twenty minutes of the film until I knew that Schroeder had gotten out alive.

One other flaw in the film: The ad men of course talk about their successes, such as the Volkswagen campaign in the sixties or the “Morning in America” Reagan campaign in 1984. There is very little discussion of the campaigns that did not work. Nor is there any discussion of the fact that most advertising does not work. Think about it: how many commercials have you seen that actually made you try a product or a service? If advertising were that good, we would all be drinking New Coke and driving Edsels. My conclusion, based on years of study, is that the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

We’re Not Married! (1952. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the story “If I Could Remarry” by Gina Kaus and Jay Dratler, adaptation by Dwight Taylor. 86 minutes): Not one of the Master’s finest, but amusing.

I have mentioned before that I wrote a biography of Nunnally Johnson, haven’t I? Well, I did. He is of course best known as the screenwriter of The Dirty Dozen, The World of Henry Orient, The Three Faces of Eve, How to Marry a Millionaire, Woman in the Window, Jesse James and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath. We’re Not Married! is minor Johnson at best, but not without its pleasures. It popped up recently in the rotation on the Fox Movie Channel and it was good for 86 minutes of relief from the cares of the day.

The setup is that Justice of the Peace Bush married six couples before his license took effect. One case has come to the attention of Governor Bush’s office through Attorney General Bush, and the governor’s secretary, also a Bush family member (we are in a southern state, after all) suggests simply sending out letters to the other five couples. Hijinks ensue. This is one of those early fifties films that has multiple stories, like O. Henry’s Full House the same year. Nunnally, by the way, wrote the “Ransom of Red Chief” episode for the latter film, but took his name off when director Howard Hawks turned his sly comedy into a slapstick farce.

I have not read the story the film is based on, but I know from talking to Nunnally that the first two episodes are his. Well, the first one, about a radio couple that hate each other off the air but are lovebirds on the air actually comes from a radio sketch by Fred Allen, who stars in the episode with Ginger Rogers. Allen was a huge star in radio who, unlike Jack Benny, never successfully made the transition to television or film. He made a few films, but he was not a visual actor. What Nunnally added to the sketch was a sequence of the couple’s morning routine as they glide wordlessly around their bedroom and bathroom. It is purely visual and a nice counterpoint to all the talk in the radio studio, which has a lot of Allen’s satire of commercials. And you think product placement on television today is excessive. The upshot is that the couple has to remarry to continue their high-paying radio jobs. Yes, this was Hollywood avoiding television in its early days.

The second episode is the best known. Annabel Norris is a young married mother competing in the under-funded Mrs. Mississippi contest. When she learns she is not married, she is at first sad, then realizes she can now compete in the Miss Mississippi contest. A young Marilyn Monroe plays Annabel. Nunnally had met her years before but was not particularly impressed with her, either as an actress or as a person. But he noticed the studio was sending around pinup photos of her, and the idea for the story “came to me out of her figure.” The film used several “professional beauty contestants” as extras, and Johnson asked one of them how Monroe would do in a real competition. The woman replied, “She’d win them all.” Monroe handles the shot where she goes from sad to happy rather well.

The third couple is the Woodruffs, and Nunnally’s writing suggests, without being specific about it, that Mr. Woodruff has had several girlfriends. When he reads the letter, he has a dream montage of possible girlfriends. It ends with a bill for $72 at a nightclub, which is enough in 1952 terms to make him burn the letter.

Things start to go wrong for the film with the fourth couple. He is a rich Texas oil man, she is a gold digger. She arranges to meet him at his hotel after a business meeting in New Orleans, but she sends another woman, a private detective, and a witness. She then files for divorce, using the evidence of his “infidelity” as blackmail to get more than just half of his money. Guess when the letter arrives. The writing is nice, but the sequence is badly directed by Edmund Goulding, whose direction gets worse as the film progresses. Here he lets normally reliable character actor Paul Stewart overact as the woman’s lawyer, and he lets Louis Calhern be rather cute as the oil man. Calhern does not do cute well. You know the episode is badly directed when a young(er) Zsa Zsa Gabor gives the best performance in it.

The failure of the last episode is both Nunnally’s and Goulding’s. Willie Reynolds is going off with the Army and has already received his letter. He plans to remarry his wife later, but as the train is pulling out, she arrives from a doctor’s appointment to tell him that she “is.” That’s fifties dialogue for her being pregnant. Now Willie becomes obsessed that his baby should not be “illegitimate.” Nobody says “bastard” although someone does use the term “foul ball.” Willie jumps off the train, gets his wife to fly to the port and tries to get married while avoiding the shore patrol. Yes, it does seem to be a mix of Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944) especially when you know that Willie is played by Eddie Bracken. Nunnally, bless his heart, was simply not as ruthless as Preston Sturges as a writer, and Goulding, who could handle dramas like Dark Victory (1939) and film noirs like Nightmare Alley (1947), certainly was not as ruthless as Sturges the director.

Undoubtedly in deference to the censors, we see the four couples remarry, even though Mr. Woodruff burned his letter. Not of course the Texas couple. Even the fifties censors may have agreed that some dissolved marriages should stay that way.

The Good Wife (2009. “Pilot” episode written by Robert King & Michelle King. 60 minutes): Writing for The Face.

When Julianna Margulies first got into acting, she was told that she did not have “the face” for movies. She was not an All-American girl and she was not ethnic enough. Or she was too ethnic, which in Hollywood terms means any woman with black hair. Fortunately the creators of ER realized she had a great face: expressive, capable of happiness but with an undercurrent of sadness. Originally Carol Hathaway died in the pilot of ER, but they realized what they had with her, and the rest, as they say, is history. Except that other writers have had great difficulty writing for that face. Her films after she left ER are mediocre uses of her talent. Her series last year, Canterbury’s Law, was not awful, but she was playing a conventional tough lawyer. Fortunately Robert and Michelle King have figured out what to do with the face. Yes, this is a form of what I have called on many occasions writing for performance. Alicia Florrick is the wife of a politician caught in a sex scandal. In the opening scene she is “standing by her man” at the inevitable press conference. She has that sad look that women in that situation tend to. In a great writing detail, she sees a loose thread on her husband’s coat and is hesitant about pulling it off. Do you really want to start unraveling your life? She reaches for it and he takes her hand and they leave. And in the hallway she slaps him. Not hard enough for me, but she still loves him.

So you think the show is going to be about her dealing with the immediate aftermath of the scandal, which would maybe last a season, but then the Kings jump ahead six months. Smart move. The husband’s in prison, although trying to weasel his way out. She has had to go to work to pay the bills, so she is starting a new job at a law firm, not having practiced for 15 years. So it’s just going to be another damned lawyer show. Not so fast. Yes, there are law cases. In the pilot she handles a second trial for a pro bono client and gets her off, but a lot of the hour is taken up with Alicia dealing with the new organization of her life. Yes, that includes the job, but also the kids, and a mother-in-law who is staying with them temporarily (great touch: the teenaged daughter has set Alicia’s cellphone ring tone for calls from the mother-in-law to play the Twilight Zone theme). And she still has to deal with her husband, so the subtext of sadness in Margulies’s face is a recurring base line. And she has to work with people who worked with her husband and against him when he was the State’s Attorney for Chicago.

The pilot is one of the most relaxed pilots I have ever seen. It does not feel like the writers are trying to push everything into the first hour. We meet several of the people she works with and even though we do not see that much of them, they all look to have real potential for the show.

I also like the legal details. Having served on several juries, I am always disappointed that legal shows do not really show what goes on with juries. Here Alicia talks to the jurors on the first trial of her client. Officially they split 6-6, but she finds out they were really 11 firmly for conviction and 1 for acquittal. Except the one for acquittal is not Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, but a crazy cat lady who had no substantial reasons for voting for acquittal. The jury decided to tell the judge the vote was 6-6 or else he would not have let them go. I hope the series gets into jury territory again. Meanwhile I will settle for The Face in the best role she’s had since ER.

Community (2009. “Pilot” and “Spanish 101” episodes written by Dan Harmon. Each episode 30 minutes): This ain’t it.

There is a wonderful sitcom to be written about community colleges, but this one is not it. Its basic premise is flawed. Jeff, a lawyer, is discovered by the Bar Association not to have completed his BA, so he is suspended until he can. As John Cleason, the Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, noted in the September 28-October 4 issue of TV Guide, a lawyer who was found to have lied in this way would have been disbarred for eight years, with the likelihood that he would never get reinstated. Here Jeff decides to go to a community college to get his BA. CCs do not offer BAs. The highest they offer is an Associate of Arts degree. Jeff talks to a CC professor whom he got out of a DUI and hustles him into getting the answers for “all the tests in all the courses” Jeff will be taking this semester. There is no way the prof can get all that, but he gives him an envelope that appears to have them in it. At least the envelope turns out to have blank pieces of paper in it, but the prof mentions that Jeff would probably be demanding this stuff for four years. CC’s are only two years. Then we see the prof drinking wine in his office. And to get the pilot off to an even worse start, before the bad plotting kicks in, we have a scene of a dean talking on the campus quad in what appears to be a formal meeting of a large group of students about their first week at school. The meeting would be indoors, so the bullhorn would not disrupt classes.

By now you have guessed that I teach at a CC. Not only that, but the exteriors of the pilot were shot at Los Angeles City College where I teach. You can see why I tuned in to the show, and why it pisses me off. Jeff is one of those wiseass guys that network executives, who are wiseass guys themselves, seem to like to head up shows. There is otherwise nothing appealing about him. Now if they had made him one of Diablo Cody’s wiseass women… The “study group” he forms primarily to hit on a cute blonde is at least made up of the kind of variety of people you might meet on a CC campus. The single thing that rings even partially true about the show is Jeff’s speech to them after they find out he is not really a tutor. He tells them that despite the problems they as individuals have had, they are all valuable people and are now part of a community. He means the study group, but it could apply to the college as well.

The second episode, “Spanish 101” thought that having an Asia guy teaching the Spanish class was funny. Maybe, but Harmon turned him into a cliché. Although Harmon went to a real CC once, he shows not only no understanding of the heart of such a college, but is completely condescending to the people who attend. In “Spanish 101,” two of the women in the student set up an on-campus protest against the death of a journalist in Latin America. Great, except that Harmon has written them as idiots for doing so.

Maybe Harmon and his writers will begin to get it right as the show develops, but I am not holding my breath.

The First Week of the 2009 – 2010 Television Season: More or less, new and used.

It was September again, the kids were back in school and the networks rolled out new and returning shows. Here are some of each.

HBO is turning into a real network, premiering a show in September. Who’da thunk it? The show is Bored to Death and the title is not completely accurate. The pilot episode “Stockholm Syndrome” was written by Jonathan Ames and is about “Jonathan Ames,” a writer whose girlfriend has just left him. Loving classic detective stories, he puts an ad on Craigslist as an investigator. Soon he is investigating a missing persons case. Maybe, but once you get over the Craigslist gimmick, it’s another amateur detective show. And there’s not much new about the love of Raymond Chandler that Ames brings to it.

The season opener of How I Met Your Mother, “Definitions” (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) indicates the show is finally going to deal with Robin and Barney. Lily locks them in a room until they have “the talk” about what their relationship is. The problem is, they don’t know, which can be interesting to deal with. They decide to tell Lily they are a couple. She lets them out, and as they walk down the street, Ted says to Lily, “You do realize they’re lying,” to which she replies, “They don’t realize they are not lying.” Quite frankly all of that is a lot more interesting than Ted teaching a class where we have been relentlessly told the mother is going to show up.

Accidentally on Purpose is Knocked Up with Jenna Elfman in place of Katherine Heigl. The idea is still stupid: smart woman gets knocked up by idiot guy, and instead of dumping him, she stays with him. The only improvement is that the guy is not the complete slob that Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone was in the movie. But at least in the “Pilot” (written by Claudia Lonow), he is not particularly distinctive or memorable. Sometimes having a woman writer doesn’t help.

Leave to the writers of Two and a Half Men to find an inventive way to get rid of Mia, at least for now. In “818-jikpuzo” (teleplay by Don Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky & Susan Beavers, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn & Mark Roberts), Mia asks Charlie to help her develop her singing career. She turns out to be a terrible singer. Charlie tells her the truth, and that’s it. Now they just have to figure out how to keep him from marrying Chelsea. Meanwhile we get a great line for Berta (about Mia’s mouth, “That’s a pretty mouth, but it ain’t made for singing”) and a great scene with Jane Lynch as his shrink. Charlie is constipated from trying to decide which woman he wants. The shrink says, “As soon as you pick one, you can go two.” That’s why all those writers make all that money.

With “Deep in Death” (written by Andrew J. Marlowe) Castle brings back the poker game, this time with Stephen J. Cannell and Michael Connelly. Since Castle had looked into Beckett’s mother’s murder and told her about it, there is now an additional layer of irritation on her part towards him, which will help keep the show going. Based on something his daughter says, Castle finally apologizes to Beckett for investigating. She does not fall into his arms, but lets him continue to tag along, which she was threatening to stop. After all, if she stops him, there is no show. The plot on this episode was wonderfully complicated, involving a body in a tree that was stolen out of the Medical Examiner’s van and the Russian Mafia, some of whom turn out to be fans of Castle’s books.

Modern Family is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the new season, but I have my doubts. In the “Pilot” (written by Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd), we are introduced to three branches of what turns out to be the same family. The father, Jay, is now married to a second younger wife, Gloria, who as one critic noted, borrowed a little too much cuchi cuchi from Charo. Jay’s daughter Claire is married to Phil, who is trying to be a cool dad. Jay’s son Mitchell is gay and living with Cameron. They have adopted a Vietnamese baby. Yes, it is a step in the right direction that they are accepted, more or less (Jay’s a little iffy) as part of the family. The problem, however, is that the writing is mostly in the traditional sitcom rhythm: setup, setup, punchline; setup, setup, punchline. Fine, except that the show is filmed in a faux documentary style, and the rhythm simply does not fit. The show runs into some of the same problems I mentioned in US#24 in writing about Parks and Recreation.

You would think that since I love Two and a Half Men, which is all about sex, that I would love Cougar Town, which is all about sex. Well, Men is not ALL about sex. It is also about the characters. Based on the “Pilot” (written by Bill Lawrence & Kevin Biegel) this show is all about sex. Jules is a fortysomething divorced mother who hasn’t had any for a while, and she talks to all her friends entirely about sex. When she is at the high school football game, she drools over the teen boys. She goes to a bar with Laurie, her employee (she runs a real estate office, so there is in the episode a line or two about real estate and not sex) and picks up a younger guy. And gets caught having oral sex with him by her teenage son. And her divorced husband. The relentlessness of the talk about sex makes this seem like a porn movie, where the only interest of any of the characters is sex. It’s just creepy. Like Groucho Marx said, I like cigars, but I take them out of my mouth once in a while.

CSI is trying to make up for mishandling the transition of Grissom’s leaving. In “Family Affair” (written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle) we learn that when Riley left, she criticized Catherine’s leadership. Nice try guys, but the problem was not Catherine, but the way the writers did not deal with her taking command. I am not sure bringing back Sara is going to help that much.

Eastwick has some potential. It is based on the book The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike and the screenplay for the 1987 film by Michael Christopher. The “Pilot” (written by Maggie Friedman) introduces us to three women in the small New England town of Eastwick. Roxie makes arts and crafts, Joanna is a reporter for the local paper, and Kat is a frazzled housewife. The pilot spends most of its time setting up that by simultaneously throwing coins into a fountain, the women gets specific special powers. This in turn seems to attract Darryl Van Horn, who buys up a local mansion, the newspaper, and the wick factory and takes the women under his wing. We don’t yet know why, but we can bet hijinks will ensue, especially since we find out at the end of the pilot that the real Darryl Van Horn died some time ago.

This being television, and this being the third attempt to turn this into a series, there are elements that call to mind other series. The voiceover is so Desperate Housewives, you expect the women to live on Wisteria Lane. The main town square set was the square in Star’s Hollow on Gilmore Girls. And the idea of the three witches got a workout in Charmed. One difference from Charmed is that the women here are grownups. Rebecca Romijn as Roxie is as beautiful as ever and she is voluptuously sensuous here in a way she’s never been before, not even in Femme Fatale (2002). Lindsey Price as Joanna, once she takes off her glasses and dresses up a bit, is a not-too-distant second. Darryl is played by Paul Gross, who was wonderful as the unhinged stage director in the great 2003-2006 Canadian series Slings and Arrows. He does not have Nicholson’s eyebrows, thank goodness, but he is making the part his own. This one is worth checking in on.

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.

3

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.

It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.

Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.

In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.

This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.

A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book

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Review: Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Robertson’s sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

2.5

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Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Toward the end of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights movement and the counterculture in bloom, art was about taking political and aesthetic sides. As such, one can understand how Bob Dylan’s electric guitar could be met with violent boos, as it signified a crossing of the bridge over into the complacent mainstream, to which folk music was supposed to represent a marked resistance. In this context, one can also appreciate the daring of the Band, whose music offered beautiful and melancholic examinations of heritage that refuted easy generational demonizing, while blending blues, rock, and folk together to create a slipstream of American memory—Americana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldn’t be reduced to editorial battle hymns. Complicating matters of identity even further, the prime architects of Americana are mostly Canadian. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all from Ontario, while Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is concerned mostly with celebrating the Band’s early rise and influence on American culture, as well as their sense of connecting the past and present together through empathetic lyrics. Holding court over the film is Robertson, the dapper and charismatic songwriter and guitarist who looks and sounds every inch like the classic-rock elder statesman. Airing sentiments from his memoir, Testimony, Robertson mentions his mixed heritage as a citizen of the Six Nations of Grand River reservation who also had Jewish gangster relatives, and who moved to Canada at a formative age. Richardson learned his first chords on the reservation, and began writing songs professionally at 15, after he met Ronnie Hawkins and Helm. Hawkins’s group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.

Director Daniel Roher’s glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorsese’s Band concert film The Last Waltz, signifies that Once Were Brothers is going to steer clear of controversy. Was Hawkins bitter to have his band usurped by the teenage prodigy Robertson? Even if he wasn’t, such feelings merit exploration, though here they’re left hanging. The documentary’s title is all too apropos, as this is Robertson’s experience of the Band, rather than a collective exploration of their rise and fall. To be fair, Danko, Manuel, and Helm are all deceased, the former two dying far too young, though Hudson perhaps pointedly refused to participate in this project—another event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this story—Robertson’s intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helm—is broached only in an obligatory fashion.

Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the former’s view of things, as he maintains that much of the group succumbed to drugs and booze, leaving him to write most of the music and to shepherd their joint career as long as he could. (Robertson’s wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Band’s collective influence on musical arrangements merited a bigger slice of royalties all around. Robertson and various other talking heads remind us of these grievances, though Roher quickly pushes on to the next plot point. Robertson is a magnificent musician and subject, but his devotion to his side of the story renders him suspicious—a cultivator of brand.

For these omissions and elisions, Once Were Brothers is a slim, if ultimately enjoyable, rock testimony. The highlight is the archival footage of the Band practicing and recording, including a privileged moment with Dylan after one of the controversial electric concerts, as well as interludes at the pink house in Woodstock where they recorded their defining Music from Big Pink, an album that included their classic “The Weight,” which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertson’s idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertson’s sadness, his sense of having witnessed friends and collaborators get washed away by bitterness and addiction, was more fulsomely evoked by Scorsese in The Last Waltz, as he looked at the Band and saw an entire group, a dying unit, rather than Robbie Robertson and the other guys.

Director: Daniel Roher Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality

It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.

4

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.

We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).

Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.

The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.

And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.

Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.

Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.

As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.

Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985

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

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

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

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

According to A24’s official description of the film:

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

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

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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

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

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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