Coming up in this column: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Eric Rohmer and Natalie Carter, Sherlock Holmes, In Which We Serve, O. Henry’s Full House, How I Met Your Mother, but first:
Fan mail: Since this is the first column I have written since we moved over to Slant, I want to welcome any new readers we have picked up. When I started the column in August 2008, I said that the purpose of the column was to Bring The Gospel of the Importance of Screenwriting to the Heathen of New York City. I must say the Heathen have been very hospitable, and usually weigh in with interesting comments. I notice that so far there have been no comments on US#39, which I hope is just a temporary glitch, because the comments from readers make the column a lot more fun for me, even when the readers give me a hard time about something I said. So log in, folks. And here’s some stuff you can log in about:
Police, Adjective (2009. Written by Corneliu Porumboiu. 113 minutes)
Time, Romanian style: I was a big fan of Porumboiu’s 2006 film 12:08 East of Bucharest, which deals with a group of Romanians recalling how they were all involved in the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989. The film ends with a spectacular sequence. No, not a recreation of the revolution, but a long scene of a television talk show in which three of the characters we have followed discuss which of them got involved when and which should really be considered hangers-on of the revolution. Porumboiu, who directed, just sets his camera down and looks at the trio in almost a single take as they rewrite their own and others’ history. The sequence is typical of what is called the Romanian New Wave, which includes such films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007). All three of those films, as well as Police, Adjective, play around with the prolonging of time. The Romanians are not the only ones of course. Jonathan Romney in the February 2010 issue of Sight & Sound calls the films that play with time in this way “Slow Cinema,” and he gives several examples, none of them Romanian. American films, with a few exceptions, try to move as quickly as possible, but the Romanians are perfectly willing to let a film or a sequence run not only in real time, but in longer than real time, if such a thing is possible. It can be frustrating for viewers used to American tempi, but it can also be hypnotic.
Police, Adjective is a little bit of both. Cristi is a cop who has been assigned to shadow a teenage boy who is suspected of selling drugs. On Law & Order, the cops would have gotten several misleading clues by the first commercial break and nailed him by the half-hour mark. Porumboiu is more interested in showing how boring and repetitious surveillance is. We watch Cristi follow the kid, pick up their cigarette butts to test for drugs, follow the kid and his friends some more, and some more and some more. Porumboiu breaks up those scenes with long discussions done in real time, often in long single takes. Cristi talks to the prosecutor about his doubts about the case, but the prosecutor tells him to do what his captain asks him to do. Cristi has a couple of long discussions with his wife, the first about a popular song that his wife insists on playing at full volume and then deconstructing for Cristi. The second is a discussion in changes in the Romanian language. Both scenes tell us a lot about Cristi and his wife, but they also set up what you might consider the climactic scene of the film. Cristi and a fellow cop go in to see the captain, whom we have not seen before. Cristi says it goes against his moral conscience to arrest the kid when he is convinced the kid is only using and not selling. The captain talks him out of it by having his assistant get a Romanian dictionary and having Cristi read the passages on police, the law, and moral conscience. As with the final scene of 12:08 East of Bucharest the conversation is done in real time, mostly in one take, with a stationary camera. The dialogue pulls us into the scene and gives us a sense of how the police process is being corrupted.
I am not sure that final scene works as well as the one in Bucharest. Partly it may be that Bucharest was the first of the Romanian films I saw and the scene was such a surprise. Partly it may be that in Bucharest, we have several other scenes and other characters, written and shot in different ways so that the final scene stands out more. In Police, Adjective we are only focused on Cristi, who is not as compelling a character as those in Bucharest. The similar dialogue scenes before the final scenes on the one hand set up the final scene. On the other hand, they may take away a bit from its impact, since it is not that different from the dialogue scenes we have seen before.
Who said writing Romanian screenplays was easy?
The White Ribbon (2009. Written by Michael Haneke. 144 minutes)
Time, German style: This is one of Haneke’s subtle films, more Hidden (2005) than Funny Games (1997 & 2007), which means you really have to pay attention, especially after the narrator tells you up front that he cannot vouch for the truth of much of what we are about to see. The narrator is the older version of a young teacher in a German village in 1913-14 who is telling us about a set of strange occurrences in the village. And why should we pay attention? Because Haneke’s narrator tells us it may reveal something about what happened in Germany later. I may have to reconsider my “subtle” description of the film on the basis of that bit of narration alone. With that line, Haneke has told us how to look at the meaning of what he is going to show you. If the same occurrences happened in an English village of the period, they would not have the same resonance Haneke gives them for us with that one line.
In an interview in the December 2009 Sight and Sound, Haneke said he wanted to get the film off to a fast start, even at the risk of confusing the audience. He felt the audience would catch up. I have to admit it took me a while because we are introduced to a large cast of characters, a lot of whom are similar. (The casting of the film is superb, with the faces looking very 1913-14; printing the film in black and white also helps establish the period.) One of the most inventive elements in Haneke’s script is something I have never seen anybody else try, let along bring off. Haneke will have a scene with one of the families in the film and then cut to another family in a similar kind of scene. It usually takes a couple of seconds to realize we are now in a different house with a different group of people. That should be confusing, but it is not, although I am not sure why. What it does do is give the audience a sense of the town as a community, with similar attitudes.
In theory we are trying to solve the mystery of who has been setting up accidents, beatings, fires, etc. It is a mystery that never gets solved, although the narrator thinks he knows who committed them. But when he presents his suggestions to the town pastor, the pastor rebuffs him. The teacher thinks the children of the town have done them, but the pastor cannot believe it of his and the town’s children. We can because we have seen the way the adults treat the children. Haneke’s first draft would have run three-and-a-half hours, and the material that got cut to get it down to the current running time showed the children having mock trials. It would have made the film more explicit and not as compelling. It is enough that we see several harrowing scenes of the grownups arguing with each other and treating their kids badly for us to believe in the teacher’s point of view. Many of those scenes are long, some done in one take, and they show us how deeply embedded the attitudes are in village. The time Haneke spends on those scenes, both as writer and director, pays off in our understanding of the world he is showing us.
Invictus (2009. Screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, by John Carlin. 134 minutes)
Time, Eastwood style: The information above on the script is a bit misleading. Anthony Peckham, who had been raised in South Africa, is a screenwriter living in the United States. A producer he had worked with before approached him about a book proposal the producer had received. The book would deal with the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Peckham prepared a pitch that he and the producer took to Morgan Freeman. Freeman had long wanted to play Mandela, even before Mandela said in public that he wanted Freeman to play him in a movie. Freeman liked the book idea and his company came up with money for Peckham to go to Spain to talk to John Carlin. Carlin had been a journalist in South Africa from 1989 to 1995, and it was his book proposal that Peckham had seen. Peckham looked at all Carlin’s research and began writing the script as Carlin began writing the book. (All of this is from Adam Stovall’s article on the film in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting.)
Peckham did two drafts and Freeman sent it to Clint Eastwood. Unlike a lot of people in Hollywood, Eastwood does not like the development process. If he likes a script, he makes it, end of story. Frances Fisher, who was in Unforgiven (1992), said that was the only shooting script she had ever seen with all white pages (white pages are original pages, rewrites are printed on different colored pages). Well, look at Eastwood’s credits and you can see it generally works for him. Sometimes, as with Bird (1988) or The Bridges of Madison County (1995), another draft or two would not have been a bad idea. With Invictus, a little more focus might have helped. Peckham collected wonderful material from Carlin, including the scenes of Mandela’s bodyguards, white and black, bonding over the game. Peckham extended that into a running subplot of the bodyguards and their racial animosity toward each other, and as much as I liked those scenes, I am not sure they are all needed. The same thing is true with a lot of the scenes of Mandela. Yes, Freeman is one of the producers and the star, and he gives a great performance, but I am not sure all of that material is needed as well. On the other hand, a lot of Peckham’s additional characters help the reaction shots of them during the game pay off very well at the end.
Without having seen the actual screenplay, I suspect most of the problem is that Eastwood as director and producer has not had the film cut as sharply as he could have. The final game scenes go on, and on, and on. And, oh yes, on. I am glad it was full employment week for the CGI team who filled the stadium, but just a couple of sweeping shots of the grandstands would make the point more vividly than all the ones we see. Eastwood has always favored a slow pace, both as an actor and a director, but here he’s almost Romanian.
Eric Rohmer and Natalie Carter
I think I am in love: Eric Rohmer, the great French writer/director, died on January 11th. I was reminded of the story of the funeral of Ernst Lubitsch. William Wyler said to Billy Wilder, “It’s so sad. No more Lubtisch.” To which Wilder replied, “Worse. No more Lubitsch pictures.” I loved Rohmer’s films because they were so distinct and such a pleasure. After seeing a bunch of big, stupid films, it was such a delight to slip into a Rohmer film, live in Rohmer’s world, and just listen. While a lot of people thought his films were too talky, I thought the talk was great because, like all great screen dialogue, it played against what his characters thought and felt. They were always trying to think their way out of being human. And failing, thank God, which is not as trivial an issue as some of Rohmer’s critics thought it to be. I suppose I should discuss a scene or two from one of his films, but I tend not so much to remember scenes or even individual films but the whole of his work. Alas, no more Rohmer films.
Meanwhile. In the January 11-17 issue of Weekly Variety there was a section on Unifrance Rendez-Vous, an upcoming Paris film festival. The section had a two-page piece on new filmmakers titled “Gallic Talent on Fast Track.” The first thing that struck me was that of the ten boxes, three were for writers. Not something you would expect from the land of auteurism. But the French have begun to appreciate scripts and screenwriters. What really struck me was this quote from screenwriter Natalie Carter: “In France there is a tendency to make narcissistic films about trivial matters. I like to broaden the focus and bring some lightness and impertinence into each story.” Au revoir Eric, bienvenue cher Natalie.
Sherlock Holmes (2009. Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, screen story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson, based on characters, novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 128 minutes)
Sweeney Todd meets Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin: This is certainly not your father’s Sherlock Holmes. Or your grandfather’s. Or your great-grandfather’s. But it is not as far from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as we were all afraid it was going to be. I am not sure you really need to re-imagine Holmes as a 21st Century action hero, but if you have to, this was probably the way to do it. Lionel Wigram, the writer-producer who got the project going, loved the original stories. He discovered in going back over them that Conan Doyle makes references to Holmes’s physical skills, but does not show them. As Wigram told Peter Clines in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting, he realized, “I can make Holmes an action hero without actually betraying the character or betraying what Conan Doyle set out to do. All I have to do is put on screen what he made happen off-screen.” What Wigram and the other writers then do is use the scenes where Holmes is explaining how he figures stuff out as a nice counterpoint to the action sequences. This probably is why the script is not as offensive to me as it might be to devotees of the earlier film and television versions of Holmes. An earlier version of the script had Holmes chasing Lord Blackwood all over Europe and Asia, but that seemed too conventional. They keep him in Victorian London in a collection of sets that look left over from Sweeney Todd (2007) and which fit the story they tell.
The writers have also developed the relationship between Holmes and Watson into a real bromance, which makes them reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy getting into and out of scrapes. The tone of the relationship then affects Holmes’s relation with Irene Adler and Watson’s engagement to Mary Morstan. Neither of the women characters are particularly well drawn. Rachel MdAdams is not that convincing as femme fatale Irene, and Kelly Reilly as Mary is done a considerable disservice not so much by the script but by the desaturated color, which wipes out her normal light red hair and freckles. The scripting of Holmes and Watson is much more detailed and give Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson a lot to do.
The big action setpieces are inventive. I particularly liked the one that ends up with Holmes and Watson inadvertently sending a not quite completed ship down the skids into the water. It casually sinks in the background in a two-shot of Holmes and Watson. It is basically a silent movie gag. Downey has said in interviews that playing such an iconic figure as Holmes was similar to playing Chaplin in 1992. You can occasionally catch Downey twitching just the way his Chaplin did.
About the only way you can tell that Guy Ritchie was the director is that several very big, mean-looking thugs have been written into the film for him. My eight-year-old grandson loved watching Holmes zap them with an early form of a taser. Fun for the whole family.
In Which We Serve (1942. Written by Noël Coward. 115 minutes)
“Mad Dogs and Englishmen” meets Rosebud: Almost from the beginning of his career as a playwright and actor in the twenties, people were trying to write off Noël Coward. He was too witty, too charming, too gay (in both senses of the word) and, in spite of all that, was way too prolific. Anybody with that light a touch could not possibly have written 140 plays, but he did, as well as countless songs such as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “Mad About the Boy,” “Sail Away,” and “Why Must the Show Go On.” Check out the IMDb on Coward and see how many of his songs have shown up recently in films. And how many of his plays have been adapted for films and especially for television.
Coward did not just do light comedy. In the late twenties he wrote the play Cavalcade, the history of a British upper class family from the Boer War to the twenties. It was made into a film by Fox in 1931 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, although it is one of the more unwatchable Best Picture winners. Coward had nothing to do with the screenplay for it.
In Which We Serve was his first real attempt at screenwriting, and he started out badly. According to Kevin Brownlow, Coward was asked by Lord Louis Mountbatten to find out what sort of films sailors in the Royal Navy wanted to see. While Coward was checking that out, he heard Mountbatten tell the horrifying story of having his destroyer HMS Kelly sunk out from under him off Crete in 1941. Coward thought the story of this one destroyer would make a film and Mountbatten agreed, although he wanted a fictionalized version so he would not be seen as self-aggrandizing, which he was. Coward read the first draft of the script to a group that included some producers and a film editor who had been recommended as a sort of co-director for Coward, but who had never directed a film before. The reading went on for three hours and the script was, as Brownlow calls it, “a sort of maritime Cavalcade” covering the story of the Navy from 1922 to 1941. One estimate was that it would have run six to eight hours on film.
Everybody tried to convince Coward that while in a film you could go everywhere and do everything, you really didn’t need to. The film editor, David Lean, asked if Coward had seen Citizen Kane, which had just been released in English. Coward had not. According to Brownlow’s definitive Lean biography, Lean said later, “He went off to see it, and from Kane he got the idea of flashbacks. Quick as a knife, he took the narrative, cut it up, introduced the Carley float, which was a sort of raft all these ships carried, and he used the men clinging to the Carley float to jump from one part of the story to another.”
It is not as simple as that, nor as simple as Citizen Kane. In Kane we get the flashbacks in the order in which the reporter talks to people. It takes us by the hand. In Which We Serve does not do that, although it does have the annoying, very ‘40s habit of having the screen go all watery when we go into a flashback. Well, they are in the ocean, but still. What this script does is jump from one man’s flashbacks to another, and sometimes it includes several in one sequence. The major characters we follow are Captain Kinross (based on Mountbatten, with Coward virtually copying many of his speeches), Chief Petty Officer Hardy and Ordinary Seaman Blake. At one point, Coward cuts from Christmas celebrations of the families of the three men without going back to the float. The immediate juxtaposition of the three similar scenes gives us a vivid sense of the class differences between the men and their lives.
Coward has not only written a great star part for himself, but wonderful roles for a terrific ensemble of actors. Unlike Battle Cry (see US#39), the focus is not on the sex lives of the men, but on their romantic and familial attachments. It is like the play of Cavalcade but with a broader view, something that Coward continued two years later in his play and film This Happy Breed.
Turner Classic Movies ran this in early January as part of the 75th anniversary of the New York Film Critics. TCM was running films that won the best of the year critics’ award that were different from the Oscar Best Pictures. In Which We Serve beat out Mrs. Miniver. Both films are about the British in the early years of World War II, but Mrs. Miniver is another unwatchable Best Picture now, with only one brief shot in a pub that looks authentically British. The rest looks like what it was: MGM’s idea of England. In Which We Serve, studio shots and all, is the real deal.
O. Henry’s Full House (1952. Various writers. 117 minutes)
Writers versus directors: In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, British filmmakers did three movies based on short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). The success of those inspired 20th Century-Fox to try the same thing with the stories of O. Henry. The idea was that a different writer would write a script for a story, and a different director would direct each one. As Henry King, one of the five directors involved, told me in an oral history interview I did with him in 1970-71, most of the directors did not take the assignment seriously, since they were making a short film rather than a feature. The screenwriters took it a little more seriously, and it is an interesting film to look at in terms of how the directors did or did not bring off the scripts.
The Cop and the Anthem (screenplay by Lamar Trotti, directed by Henry Koster) is one of the two best written of the five. Trotti of course was one of the major screenwriters at Fox until his death in 1952. In this script he is working in a slightly more literate vein than he usually did, since O. Henry has the major character, a vagrant named Soapy, talking in an elevated style. Soapy is played by Charles Laughton and his pal Horace by David Wayne. Koster has let both of them overact. The best performance is by the young Marilyn Monroe, who is only on-screen for a minute or so. She hits exactly the right notes her part calls for.
The Clarion Call (screenplay by Richard Breen, directed by Henry Hathway) is about a detective who realizes an old friend of his is probably a murderer. He can’t arrest the friend because he owes him a thousand dollars. The friend gives a passing newspaper editor a hard time for not cracking the case. The editor’s paper offers a thousand-dollar reward for information on the murder. The detective collects the reward, pays off the friend, then arrests him. Nice story, but both Breen and Hathaway let the murderer go on longer than they should. This is particularly a problem in Hathaway’s direction of Richard Widmark, who has been encouraged by Hathaway to play the murderer as if he were Tommy Udo, the part that made Widmark a star in Hathaway’s 1947 Kiss of Death.
The Last Leaf (screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts, directed by Jean Negulesco) is rather plodding. We see where it is going very early on, and both the script and Negulesco’s direction assume we don’t know. There are very few twists and turns in the story until the last twist, and then the script and direction beat it home.
The Ransom of Red Chief (screenplay uncredited, but written by Nunnally Johnson, directed by Howard Hawks) is the worst of the lot. Nunnally was so upset with Hawks’s direction he asked that his name be removed from the credits, which it was. The story is about two con men on the run who decide to kidnap the son of the most important man in a small town. Unfortunately the kid is a holy terror, and the father makes the kidnappers pay him to take the kid off their hands. Nunnally had written it with Clifton Webb and William Demarest in mind for the kidnappers, but the film ended up with Fred Allen and Oscar Levant in the roles. They are too similar in style to work as a team, and not as good actors as Webb and Demarest. Nunnally felt Hawks’s direction was too farcical, but watching it today, my feeling was that it was not farcical enough. Hawks’s direction has no energy to it. He may have been trying, unsuccessfully, to pick up on the small town rhythms of Nunnally’s dialogue, much of which is still in the film. Johnson had a similar problem with John Ford on Tobacco Road (1941). Nunnally was from Georgia, where Tobacco Road was set, and he said to me about Ford, “Since he didn’t know anything about [Georgia] crackers [an early form of “redneck”], except me, and he did know about the Irish, he simply changed them all into Irishmen.” The Ransom of Red Chief episode was so flat that it was later cut from release prints, but it has been restored.
The Gift of the Magi (screenplay by Walter Bullock, directed by Henry King) is the best of the bunch. Bullock was primarily a songwriter who occasionally wrote screenplays, although none of his other scripts that I am familiar with are as good as this one. Maybe he was just better at the shorter length. This one is about a poor young couple who doesn’t know what to give each other for Christmas. She cuts and sells her beautiful hair to buy him a fob for the family watch he carries. He sells the watch to buy her a comb set for her hair. Like The Last Leaf we can pretty much see where it is going, but Bullock gives us twists and turns along the way. We follow her to get her hair cut and buy the fob, but we don’t see what he has bought for her until after he has opened her present and seen she has cut her hair. King, who was one of the best directors of actors in Hollywood, gets livelier performances from Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger than any other director did. Bullock has written a nice scene with the barber who cuts her hair, and King does not let Fritz Feld, who usually overacts, get carried away. Likewise, King restrains Sig Ruman as the jeweler in the nice little scene where she buys the fob.
Arthur Knight, in his classic 1957 film history book The Liveliest Art, wrote about the film as an example of a studio production. Mentioning that there were five directors, he wrote, “Yet when the picture appeared it was impossible to detect any stylistic differences. It might have been the work of a single individual. And in a sense, it was—the corporate individual known as 20th Century-Fox. The quality of the film’s photography and sound, its settings, the characteristically lively tempo of its editing all bore the unmistakable stamp of the Fox personality.” Knight simply was not looking deeply enough. And it probably never occurred to him to think about the differences in the writers.
How I Met Your Mother (2010. Episode “Girls vs. Suits” written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas. 30 minutes)
We meet her—no we don’t: We know that Ted will meet “Mother” at school and that she was in his class. So this episode starts out with him beginning to date Cindy, a grad student who is not actually in his class, but was in the class he stumbled into on his first teaching day. Ted’s narration before the first commercial break leads us to think she is the one. She is cute, and they hit it off. But she is not “Mother.” She has serious roommate issues, not helped by Ted liking the stuff in her apartment that all turn out to be her roommate’s. As the episode progresses, Ted’s narration makes it clear the roommate is “Mother,” but we still don’t see her, and he does not meet her. Cindy is certainly not going to introduce them. Near the end of the episode, Ted gets a brief glimpse of “Mother’s” bare foot as she goes from the shower to her room, but it is not enough to make him go into her room and introduce himself. Bays & Thomas, the showrunners, have promised us we will get to meet “Mother” this season. It will be about time.
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.
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.
Review: Sonic the Hedgehog Doesn’t Rock, Even After a New Paintjob
Throughout, any and all subtext is buried under the weight of Jim Carrey’s mugging.1.5
It’s only fitting that director Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the belated big-screen debut for the eponymous Sega mascot, feels like a blast from the 1990s. Eschewing the emphasis on world building that pervades so many contemporary blockbusters, the film remains intensely focused on the personal travails of its supersonic protagonist (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and opts for telling a single, complete story over setting up a potential franchise universe. Indeed, despite Sonic being an alien from a distant planet, we only briefly glimpse other realms besides Earth throughout the film, and we only get enough of the blue hedgehog’s backstory to know that he fled his homeworld (modeled on the original video game’s starter level) after being hunted by other residents afraid of his superpowers.
Using rings that can allow him to pass through dimensions, Sonic ends up on Earth, settling in the woods around Green Hills, Montana. He remains hidden for his own safety but suffers from intense loneliness. This much is obvious from the way he darts around the outskirts of town, watching people from afar or spying on them through windows and pretending to have conversations with them. But Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly makes its hero reiterate his feelings in endless monologues and voiceover narration. If the best contemporary children’s films trust young viewers to follow at least some of the emotional beats of a story on their own, Sonic the Hedgehog is frustratingly old-school in its condescension, as the filmmakers constantly hold the audience’s hand in order to make sure that we understand why the hero looks so crestfallen as he, for example, plays group games all by himself.
Eventually, Sonic’s high-speed, energy-producing running causes a power surge, and after the Pentagon enlists a private drone contractor, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate the cause, the hedgehog finds himself in the government’s crosshairs. As originally conceived in the video game, Robotnik had little depth or motivation beyond providing a megalomaniacal impedance to the hero, but there’s something gently unnerving about how little updating had to be done to Robotnik’s simplistic backstory to credibly present him as a mercenary in a modern military-industrial complex wielding destructive drone technology without oversight.
Of course, that subtext is rapidly buried under the weight of Carrey’s mugging. As the actor is wont to do, he lunges at each line like a starving animal, pulling rubber faces and jutting his limbs in angular motions as he says every other word with an exaggerated pronunciation. In depicting a mad scientist, Carrey over-exaggerates the madness at the expense of the rare moments in which Robotnik conveys a more compelling kind of super-genius sociopathy, a tech-libertarian’s disregard for anything outside his own advancement.
Through a series of mishaps, Sonic accidentally opens a portal to San Francisco with his rings and drops the remaining transportation devices through it, necessitating a retrieval mission to California. To do so, he enlists Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local Green Hills cop, to escort him. Having Sonic travel with Tom is an obvious pretense to give the former his first true friend, but the pairing comes at the expense of all narrative logic. Sonic can sprint from Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back within seconds, yet he opts to tag along in a pickup truck doing 60mph for a mission where time is of the essence.
To Marsden’s credit, there’s a natural camaraderie between him and the computer-animated Sonic, which is impressive given that the critter was likely represented on set by a tennis ball on a stick. The jokes are almost all uniformly awful, following a formula of some zany thing happening and a character merely describing aloud what just happened in an incredulous voice. But Marsden impressively imbues Tom with a sense of pity as the man contemplates Sonic’s life on the run—one that finds the hedgehog living in the shadows and heading to new, sometimes miserable worlds to outrun forces that might exploit and harm him.
For a film that gained notoriety well before its release for how wildly Sonic’s original animation diverged from his well-established look, Sonic the Hedgehog does show a clear understanding of the source material and its essential nature. Sonic, fundamentally, is a goofy character with a specific power who just wants friends, and as exasperating as the film can be in its overbearingly clumsy humor, it at least never tries to make the character more complicated than he really is. But the lack of any greater depth to the core of the material limits the possibilities of making any of this meaningful to anyone.
Video games long ago began to reveal their cinematic aspirations, but the Sonic the Hedgehog series to this day continues to channel the old-school cool of platformers that prize gameplay—and testing the player’s hand-eye coordination—over matters of story. There’s plenty of potential for movies and games to inform one another, but perhaps the only aspect of video game culture that Sonic the Hedgehog brings to cinema is the trend of allowing preemptive fan outrage to necessitate overhauls from already overworked animators.
Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Neal McDonough Director: Jeff Fowler Screenwriter: Pat Casey, Josh Miller Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack
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