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Understanding Screenwriting #42: The Book of Eli, Valentine’s Day, Theater of War, Test Pilot, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #42: The Book of Eli, Valentine’s Day, Theater of War, Test Pilot, & More

Coming up in this column: The Book of Eli, Valentine’s Day, Theater of War, Hamlet 2, Test Pilot, Prince Valiant, In the Line of Fire, Life Unxpected, Temple Grandin

The Book of Eli (2010. Written by Gary Whitta. 118 minutes)

A stranger comes into town…: I am not normally a fan of post-apocalyptic movies. My left brain always has trouble with the reality of the details. For example, if it is all arid and dusty, where do they get their food? Where do they get their refined gasoline to drive their motorcycles and trucks? Where do they get the bullets they fire off in great numbers? And so on. I had some of those problems with this movie, especially the bullets, but Whitta has thrown in a nice scene when The Man With No…, sorry, Eli, comes into a rundown town. He has not said much so far, as one might gather when one learns from Peter Clines’s article on the writing of the film in the January/February 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting that Whitta is a big fan of Sergio Leone and Toshirô Mifune samurai films. By the time he gets to town we already know he is a whiz with an industrial strength machete, having dispatched several hijackers on the road. We also know he doesn’t say much. Hey, if it worked for Eastwood, why not? So he goes into a store and negotiates swapping various stuff he has picked up along the way for other stuff he needs. I don’t know how much of the dialogue is in the script—most of it I would guess—but Denzel Washington as Eli and Tom Waits as the Shopkeeper get a nice rhythm going and we get a sense of what is now valuable and what is not any longer. If the rest of the film appeals to post-apocalyptic action junkies, this scene appeals to my left brain.

Eli is carrying, well, you can guess from the title of the film. What book? We assume early on that it is the Bible, but we are half-way into the film before Whitta tells us. In the early drafts he made it clearer earlier, but at the encouragement of his managers and the studio (Warner Bros), a lot of the religious material got cut down. Until Washington came on as the star and wanted some of it back. The balance the collaborators ended up with is good, since it does not make the film preachy. We are caught up with the characters and the situation. Carnegie, the town boss, wants the Bible because he can use it to increase his power. Chases and action ensue. The directors are the Hughes Brothers and they know how to stage action. I could have done without what the New Yorker blurb calls the “brown-and-white” photography. It probably did not help that I had caught about fifteen minutes (the arrival of Lawrence and Farraj at the deserted army post by the Suez Canal) of Lawrence of Arabia the night before I saw Eli, which does put the Brothers’ desert landscapes to shame. On the other hand, they do get the most out of the actors. Mila Kunis plays Solara, who becomes a follower of Eli. She was cast for her looks, which are perfect for the part, but as she showed two years ago in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she has some acting chops, which are also on display here. She holds her own against Washington. The Brothers may get too much out of Gary Oldman. Whitta has him wounded in the leg early in the film, and Oldman has never met a shtick like a game leg that he didn’t like a little more than he should.

The two twists at the end are rather inventive, one having to do with the book Eli is carrying, and the other having to do with how it is used in relation to Oldman and his mistress in their final scene. On the other hand, the very end of the film is so blatantly setting up a sequel that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, I’d like to see that actor again, but not necessarily in that part.

Valentine’s Day (2010. Screenplay by Katherine Fugate, story by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein. 125 minutes)

Valentine's Day

Not as good as Love, Actually, but not as bad as He’s Not That Into You: Yes, here we have another all-star cast, multiple stories rom-com. And it is not as bad as some of the reviews would have you believe. Or maybe it just seemed better to me because I saw it after I read the reviews. Or it may be that I live in Los Angeles and loved all the LA-centric jokes. Of course, it is also not up to What’s Cooking? (2000), which is still the best contemporary film that captures the real LA. But it has its LA moments, including one at the very beginning. I wrote before about the importance of starting a comedy off with a nice joke, and here’s this film’s one: A fleet of pick-up trucks, each with a similar bush in the back, is driving down the street in a very affluent neighborhood. They dance around each other as they turn into separate driveways. O.K., that may not strike you as funny if you live in Manhattan, but in LA the dance of the gardeners’ trucks is funny.

Over that shot and several others of morning in LA, we get voiceover from a couple of radio personalities. This sounds like something leftover from earlier drafts of the script, when one of the writers probably assumed they were going to need something like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti (1973) to tie it all together. They don’t and the more stories they added, the more useless the narration is. The idea that it is Valentine’s Day and we are going to watch a bunch of romantic couples is fairly clear fairly early. Richard Curtis used Christmas in much the same way in Love, Actually (2003), but Curtis was smart enough not to stick to just romantic love. In Curtis’s film, in addition to the romances, we have the rock star Billy Mack’s relationship with his manager and Daniel trying to be a good father to his stepson. That provides a nice counterbalance to the romantic stories. Here, with one late-entry twist, it is all romance, all the time, but at least the writers catch the romances at different points in their relationships. Curtis managed to balance nine stories in his script, but Fugate tries for more. Her writing is not sharp enough to make them all work. Curtis is the master of giving us quick, sharp characterizations. In Valentine’s Day, the characterization is at least better than it was in last year’s He’s Not That Into You. You may remember my complaint from US #20 on that film that we never find out what a lot of the people do for a living. Here it is clear, starting with, appropriately enough, Reed, who owns a flower shop. That’s a convenient way to connect him with several other people in the film. Several others have work relationships with each other over a variety of professions, not all of them in show business.

On the other hand, the lack of characterization leaves some of the actors more or less adrift. Anne Hathaway’s Liz comes off best because she not only has an office job, but moonlights in an even more interesting line of work, which gives Hathaway a chance to show some acting chops of hers we have not heard before. And gives her boss, Queen Latifah, a great payoff scene at the end of the film. Latifah is even funnier in the real scene than she is in the outtake of at the end. Several of the male characters are rather bland, including Dr. Copeland, Jason, and for most of the film, Holden, who gets a nice twist at the end. Felicia is a teenage ditz, and an actress new to me, Taylor Swift, gives the part some real topspin. Some reviewers have panned Swift, and while I am not sure I want to see her try Lady Macbeth very soon, she is good here. I have heard rumors both that she can also sing and not sing.

Actors often say they take a role in a film because of the director. The director here is Garry Marshall, and he has had enough success, at least commercially, with the rom-com genre to encourage all these actors to sign up. Stay through at least the first set of outtakes, since the last one is Julia Roberts having some fun with one of her previous adventures with Marshall. Better actors should look at the script than the director. Marshall directs the actors well (although I agree with the review in Variety that said the cinematography does the actresses no favors), but the script does not give them enough interesting stuff to do. See below for a script that does right by its stars.

Theater of War (2008. No writer credit, but directed and edited by John Walter. 95, 96 or 100 minutes, depending on your source)

Theater of War

Bertolt Brecht meets Mr. Ed: I did not know about this film at all when I came across it in my usual nighttime ramble. Before I turn off the television each night, I run down the guides Time-Warner provides for the assorted movie channels and set the DVR for what looks interesting. All the blurb on Sundance said on this one was it was a documentary about the production in 2006 in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park of Brecht’s Mother Courage, with Meryl Streep as Mother. How had I missed that? (If I had been reading either Slant or The House Next Door in May 2008 I would have seen their reviews of it, but I didn’t come to The House until August of that year.) Well, it was not widely distributed, and I can see why.

Not that it is uninteresting. After all, you get to watch some of the brighter lights of the American Theatre put on a production of what is considered one of the great plays of the Twentieth Century. So we have a process, which can make for an interesting film. One problem is that we do not see much of the process. Streep’s performance seems pretty much the same in the rehearsals and the bits we see from the final performance. Streep at one point says she does not like to let people in to see the process, since it shows so much bad acting. Here it does not show so much bad acting as demonstrate why she was really miscast in the part. As one review (you can check out the few reviews of the film on the IMDb’s external review page) points out, she is a little too aristocratic for the part, and what we see of her performance is a little too mannered and fussy, as Streep can sometimes be.

Another problem is that the film keeps shifting focus from the production. It cuts to Jay Cantor, a novelist and professor, pontificating to his class about Marx and Brecht, but mostly about Marx. And then shifting to a mini-biography of Brecht. And then to some very interesting scenes with Carl Weber, who was an assistant to Brecht. And then to a combination of a book of stills of the first production in 1949, along with recordings of that production, which starred Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, who was much more suited to the part than Streep. Bits of these discursions are interesting, most are not.

What is interesting, but not necessarily in the way I think the filmmaker intended, is the idolatry of both Marx and Brecht that keeps popping up. It shows up not only in Cantor’s comments, but in those from Tony Kushner (who adapted the play) and some of the other artists connected with the show. Brecht was certainly a giant of Twentieth Century theater, but much of his work has dated badly, at least in some part because of his doctrinaire Marxism. One of the problems that middle left intellectuals have had since the collapse of the Soviet empire was making Marxism convincing for the next generation. Cantor’s class does not seem particularly impressed by it. In the early ‘90s there was a small film studies conference at UCLA in which a bunch of Marxist film historians tried to figure out a way to maintain their “authenticity” in view of the collapse of communism. They generally have not figured out how to do it, and the writings of several of them, such as David Bordwell, have gotten a lot less obviously Marxist than they were before.

What that means for the production of Mother Courage is that for purposes of putting on the play, the artists have to take the audience to live in Brecht’s Marxist world to make it at all convincing on stage. Joe Dougherty, who was a writer on the television show thirtysomething, told me in an interview for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, that when he went to write an episode, he “went into a thirtysomething trance.” A slyer version of that idea came from the comedian George Burns, who was one of the producers on the talking horse series, Mr. Ed. He used to sit in on the writers’ conferences. At first he did not say much, but one day he stated, “If you don’t believe the horse talks, you can’t do this show.” In some part of your brain, when you write a Mr. Ed episode, you have to believe the horse talks. When you do Mother Courage, in some part of your brain, you have to be a Brechtian Marxist.

The question, which the film avoids like the plague, is did audiences in 2006 want to go and live in that world? In a spectacular failure of nerve, Walter does not give us any indication of how the production was received. We get no reviews (they were not that good), and no interviews with audience members. Did they believe the horse talked, or did they just come to see Meryl Streep?

Hamlet 2 (2008. Written by Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming. 92 minutes)

Hamlet 2

William Shakespeare meets Mr. Ed: I saw Theater of War in the afternoon and at night watched this fictional version of the talking horse problem. I had seen the trailers for this film back in 2008, and thought it looked like it might be amusing, but it had not been in theaters long enough for me to see it. It popped up on HBO. Boy, was I glad I hadn’t paid $20 for my wife and me to see it in a theater.

Dana is an actor who has ended up teaching drama in a high school in Tucson, Arizona. He puts on play versions of famous films, such as his two-actor production of Erin Brockovich. He decides to do an original, a sequel to Hamlet in which Hamlet comes back in a time machine along with Jesus and lives happily ever after. Hey, if Mel Brooks can do The Producers (the original 1968 movie) and “Springtime for Hitler,” why not Hamlet 2 and “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”? Two problems: It’s not sharp and it’s not funny.

Brooks’s screenplay is more tightly focused than you might remember. We have the storyline of putting on a flop and we have the outrageous play within the film. Here we have a very unfocused story about Dana trying to save the drama program at the school while dealing with his students while dealing with his wife who eventually runs off with their boarder while dealing with…well, you get the picture. None of these story elements are done in an interesting or funny way. Mostly what is supposed to be funny just turns out to be silly. Dana’s behavior would have gotten him kicked out of any school in the country. Steve Coogan does not help by overacting. Some other scenes have no comic fizz to them at all. The scene in which his wife tells him she is leaving is written and played perfectly straight. Several elements are brought in and then not developed, such as using the Gay’s Men’s Chorus of Tucson as essentially backup singers for the production.

The play and its production are also not focused. We know in The Producers that the author intends Springtime for Hitler to be a serious defense of Nazi Germany, and the jokes key off that. In the stage play Hamlet 2, Dana is sort of working out his issues with his father, but that is overpowered by the stagecraft, whereas in “Springtime for Hitler,” the stagecraft (i.e., the Busby Berkeley overhead shot) carry through on the joke. “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” is supposed to be just as transgressive as “Springtime for Hitler,” but we have no idea why, since it just seems one other element in the show.

So here we have an example of the talking horse syndrome in reverse. We see the delusions that Dana is under about his life and talent. He believes his horse can talk, but it can’t. And the writers of the film thought it was funny, and it wasn’t.

Except for one audience. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and got such a good response that Focus Films picked up the distribution rights for $10 million. It grossed less than $5 million when it was released. Hamlet 2 is only one of a number of films that made a terrific impact at a film festival, and not just Sundance, and then died at the box office. Because so many films at film festivals are so bad—I have come to believe that film festivals exist primarily to sucker people into seeing movies they would not otherwise pay to see—every so often a movie like Hamlet 2 will come along and seem better than it is. Sometimes an audience will believe a horse can talk, even when it has nothing funny to say.

Test Pilot (1938. Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young (and Howard Hawks and John Lee Mahin, uncredited), based on a story by Frank Wead. 118 minutes)

Test Pilot

The MGM style in its full glory: I mentioned in US#41 in talking about Libeled Lady that the MGM screenplay style was to provide scenes for its stars. This is a perfect example of that, and an entertaining one to boot. Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a test pilot. Spencer Tracy is Gunner, his mechanic. Myrna Loy is a Kansas farm girl Lane meets and marries when his plane crashes on her farm. The rest of the film follows the ups and downs not only of Lane’s flying, but of their marriage. Look at the scene on Loy’s porch when she comes back from a date with her fiance and Gable is waiting for her. In narrative terms it does not have to be that long, but it gives Gable and Loy a wonderful scene to play. Much later Gable and Tracy have been AWOL from Loy for five days and come back to the apartment. Look at what the writers provide for Gable and Tracy to do while trying to figure out how to tell Loy, in the next room, that they are back. Look at Loy telling Tracy what she thinks the three roads in her life might be. And look at the scene between Gable and Lionel Barrymore as his boss near the end. As a star vehicle, the script is wonderful.

The scenes with the stars get us into the emotions of the scenes and the situations, often in obvious ways. But sometimes the focus on stars throws the scenes off. After a pilot is killed, the other pilots get drunk and ignore his death. Gable has a good time playing a drunk scene, but we don’t get under the surface of the emotions the way Jules Furthman does in a similar scene in his screenplay for Only Angels Have Wings a year later. As you know, I am always a little dubious about the uncredited writers the IMDb lists, and especially so when it turns out to be a director. But it is possible that Hawks worked on this and then went off and had Furthman write that script, which is based on a story by Hawks. Furthman is a better writer than the two credited writers on Test Pilot, which is why Only Angels Have Wings is a better movie. But boy, if you love Gable, Tracy, and Loy, you may not care.

Prince Valiant (1954. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the comic strip by Hal Foster. 100 minutes)

Prince ValiantOne of the later not-so-funny ones: In writing about the legendary screenwriter Dudley Nichols in FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I mentioned that he is best known for his serious work, such as The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). But I added that some us prefer his later, lighter ones such as this and Heller in Pink Tights (1960). Maybe, maybe not.

Nichols was one of the most highly respected screenwriters of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he did as much as anybody to help persuade people that screenwriting was a serious business. He wrote essays and articles about it, and with John Gassner published a couple of volumes of best screenplays. Nichols’s reputation has diminished, since many of his highly acclaimed scripts of the period seem clunky and ponderous now. The symbolism he writes in The Informer is thuddingly obvious, e.g., the wanted poster for the man he informs on following Gypo around like a little dog. Although he wrote intelligently about the differences between film and theatre, he still was a very wordy writer. Well, if you are drawn to material like Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), which he both wrote and directed, you probably love words. On the other hand, his script for the 1940 The Long Voyage Home breaks up O’Neill’s four one-act plays into an interesting film structure. But I generally prefer Nichols’s less ponderous scripts. Rawhide (1951) reverses his situation in Stagecoach by having a group of people held hostage by the bad guys in a stagecoach station rather than a moving stagecoach, and becomes a competent little western thriller in the process.

The script for Prince Valiant is simply not as lighthearted as it should be. Aside from his credit on Bringing Up Baby (1938), there is not a lot of comedy in Nichols’s filmography. He was one of the writers on Cecil B. De Mille’s The Crusades (1935), where his heavy-handedness fit with De Mille’s approach, but the basic material in Prince Valiant is just not that substantial. We do get some good jousting and some great second unit scenery of England and English castles in the then-new CinemaScope process. This makes one remember that this was the film the head of the studio Darryl Zanuck kept referring to when Elia Kazan and Budd Shulberg tried to set up On the Waterfront at Fox. Zanuck should have stuck to what he knew best.

In the Line of Fire (1993. Screenplay by Jeff Maguire. 128 minutes)

In the Line of Fire

Bye Bye, Blockbuster: I was out for a walk a few weeks ago and noticed that my neighborhood Blockbuster store was closing. I really appreciated having it a couple of blocks away so that on a day when I had a couple of hours, I would wander in and see if anything jumped off the shelves saying, “Watch me! Watch me!” But now it is closing, and they were having an “Everything Must Go!” sale. I limited myself to ten DVDs. Some were older (Drums Along the Mohawk [1939]), some were ones I wanted to upgrade from my Beta and VHS panned-and-scanned versions (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Outlaw Josey Wales [1976]), and some, like this one, were just targets of opportunity.

The project began many years before the film was released. Jeff Apple, the producer, was fascinated the Secret Service’s job of protecting the president. One of Clint Eastwood’s biographers, Patrick McGilligan indicates it was Maguire who came on the project late and added the interesting detail that Frank Horrigan had been with Kennedy’s motorcade at Dallas and was haunted by his failure. The fact that the producers were looking at older actors for some time suggests it may have been part of the earlier scripts by other writers, as well as Apple’s comments that he first got interested in the subject during the Lyndon Johnson administration. In any case, that was an element that the various studios which were approached hated. They all wanted the character made younger and hotter. Which would have turned this into just another cop chasing just another mad would-be killer. In Maguire’s script, Leary is fixated on Horrigan and his experience with Kennedy. While the script is terrific as a thriller, the Kennedy connection adds interesting textures to the film. As well as providing one of the richest characters Eastwood played in his career. Leary is a great role for John Malkovich, and Malkovich and Eastwood have a great on-screen chemistry. Eastwood was in the middle of post-production on Unforgiven (1992) when the project came to him, and did not want to direct it himself. The director was Wolfgang Petersen, whose American films until then had not matched his 1981 German success Das Boot. Aside from his insistence on doing more than just a couple of takes of each shot, he and Eastwood, who very seldom does more than two when he directs, got along well. The success of this film gave launched Petersen on a Hollywood career that included such hits as Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000) and Troy (2004). Amazing what a good screenplay can do for a director’s career.

Maguire has also provided another interesting foil for Eastwood’s Horrigan, the younger female agent Lilly Raines. Rene Russo lightens up both Horrigan and Eastwood, and Eastwood has seldom seemed as charming as he does here. There are some wonderful dialogue scenes between them, and Rene Russo gives a great performance as Lilly. Much better than her performance the year before in Lethal Weapon 3. Well, she had some help. Not only is the Maguire script better, but the editing of her performance here is better. While writing in US #37 about The Blind Side, I mentioned that the cutting of a Mel Gibson film is quicker than that of an Eastwood picture because the rhythm of the two stars is different. Russo’s rhythm is closer to Eastwood’s, and the great editor Anne V. Coates does a beautiful job of cutting what Petersen has shot with Russo (and everybody else—it is one of the best edited films you will ever see). In Lethal Weapon 3, the cutting is faster and it often looks as though Russo is just getting started in a shot when it cuts to Gibson or something else. Just as writers have to write for performance, editors have to cut for performance as well.

Life Unexpected (2010. Episode “Turtle Undefeated,” written by Adele Lim. 60 minutes)

Turtle Undefeated

Bye, bye Lux: In US#41 I wrote that I thought this show might have possibilities, but by this episode (#5), it has worn out its welcome. Lux, whom I mentioned in the pilot was a potentially interesting character, got more and more conventional sensitive teenager as the episodes have progressed. Now she is like every other teenager on the CW and who wants to see that?

Cate and Baze, her unmarried parents, are still having the same arguments. In an earlier episode Cate mentioned on the air that she was the mother of an illegitimate child, but other than the mention of the radio station getting a few calls, nothing more was made of it. Ryan, her fiance, is still hanging around. At least Cate and Baze have not slept together again.

As indicated by the lack of reaction to the announcement of her child, the show is not getting into the material it keeps bringing up as deeply as it could. Two more examples from this episode: Lux arranges to have a party of her teen friends at her room over Baze’s bar. Cate is bothered that she is not involved. So she dresses up and goes to the party. Since Shiri Appleby, who plays Cate, does not look old enough to have a 16-year-old daughter, one guy at the party flirts with her. And nothing is made out of it. What is Cate’s reaction to this? Is she turned on? Grossed out? How much does she play with him before dumping him? Or before it is revealed she is Lux’s mom? And why don’t we see the boy’s reaction when she is revealed?

The second example: two of Lux’s friends from her homeless days crash the party. The middle class teens are a little put off. But what if they are not? What if the middle class kids think the homeless kids are exciting and dangerous? We all know people who like the bad boys or the bad girls or both, so why not play with that?
So I am afraid I am giving up on the show. Life is too short and there is too much else around.

Temple Grandin (2010. Teleplay by Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson, based on the books Emergence by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scarciano and Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. 109 minutes)

Temple Grandin

Shirley Temple Grandin: The opening scene of this HBO film is a nice variation on the famous Francis Ford Coppola-Edmund North opening of Patton: Temple Grandin stands out and tells us who she is. Except that instead of being in front of an American flag, she is in one of those optical illusion rooms where nothing is quite as it seems. It is a perfect way to establish how the autistic Grandin sees the world. And Claire Danes makes Grandin just as compelling as Scott makes Patton, not only in this scene, but in the rest of the picture. Obligatory “back up the trucks” line: If this one is nominated for the pile of awards it should be, there are already enough pickup trucks in the movie they can use.

If you missed Peter Swanson’s review in Slant, Grandin was diagnosed as autistic when she was a child, then grew up to develop a variety of techniques for calming cattle before they are led off to slaughter. As the title of one of her books says, she thinks in pictures, and the room in the pre-credit sequence is not only an example of that, but shows up again in the main body of the film. The writers and the production staff use animation very effectively to let us see the world as Grandin sees it. The writers also provide some great character writing, not only for Danes, but for the rest of the cast. The opening sequences show us Grandin in her late teens at her aunt’s ranch for the summer, which establishes both Grandin and her aunt, a nice role for Catherine O’Hara. Grandin’s mother feels a lot of guilt for Grandin’s autism, and the writers give her a great moment at the end when Grandin tells an autism conference how much she owes her mom. Director Mick Jackson focuses on the mother’s reactions during the speech, and Julia Ormond, as she does in the rest of the film, delivers the best performance I have ever seen her give.

I do like Grandin’s defense for helping calm cattle before killing them, that we owe them respect, given what we are doing to them. I am not sure it completely overcame my queasiness about her work, but as a lover of hamburgers it would be hypocritical of me to complain too much. It helps that the writers don’t push the issue any more than they do. In the second half of the film, as Grandin is trying to persuade cattlemen to try her ideas, the film gets a bit repetitive. They don’t understand and dismiss her and in the end she is right. The scenes reminded me of a story Philip Dunne told me. He was working with a screenwriter named Julien Josephson on Suez (1938). Josephson had written pictures for George Arliss, the imperious British actor who played historical figures like Disraeli and Cardinal Richelieu. Josephson had also written movies for Shirley Temple. Dunne asked him, “Julien, that’s quite a switch, isn’t it? You move from Shirley Temple to George Arliss and back.” Josephson replied, “No, it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.” Monger and Johnson and Danes convince us that Temple Grandin is the “bright little character.”

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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Film

Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill Is a Well-Sustained Trick of a Thriller

What distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Albert Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details.

2.5

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

Throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill, director Albert Shin nurtures an atmosphere of lingering evil, of innocence defiled, that shames the ludicrous theatrics of Andy Muschietti’s similarly themed It movies. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film opens with its finest sequence, in which a young girl, Abby (Mikayla Radan), runs into a frightened boy in the woods. One of the boy’s eyes has been gauged out, and he wears a bloodied white bandage over it. (Perversely, the square shape of the bandage and the red of the coagulated blood make it seem as if he’s wearing a broken pair of 3D glasses.) The boy gestures to Abby to keep quiet, and soon we see pursuers at the top of the hill above the children.

Much of this scene is staged without a score, and this silence—a refreshing reprieve from the tropes of more obviously hyperkinetic thrillers—informs Shin’s lush compositions with dread and anguish. Just a moment prior, Abby was fishing with her parents (Tim Beresford and Janet Porter) and sister, Laure (Addison Tymec), so we feel the shattering of her sense of normalcy. The boy is soon scooped up, beaten, and thrown in the trunk of a car, never to be seen again.

Years later, the thirtyish Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) has yet to settle into herself, as she’s a loner who haunts the nearly abandoned motel that her deceased mom used to run. By contrast, Laure (Hannah Gross) has married a sensible man (Noah Reid) and has a sensible job as a security manager at the local casino, which looms above the town surrounding Niagara Falls like an all-seeing tower. The casino, run by the all-controlling Lake family, is in the process of acquiring the sisters’ motel. Looking through old pictures, Abby finds a shot that was taken the day she ran into the kidnapped boy, and she becomes obsessed with solving the case, descending into the underworld of her small, foreboding community.

Shin and co-screenwriter James Schultz’s plot, and there’s quite a bit of it, is the stuff of old-fashioned pulp. But what distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details. A local conspiracy theorist, Walter (David Cronenberg), is introduced bobbing up and down in the water behind Abby as she investigates the site of the kidnapping, emerging in a wet suit from a dive to look for potential valuables. It’s a hell of entrance to accord a legendary filmmaker moonlighting in your production, and it affirms the film’s unease, the sense it imparts of everyone watching everyone else.

When Abby’s sleuthing leads her to a pair of married magicians, the Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), they memorably turn the tables on her smugness, using sleights of hand to intimidate her and illustrate the elusiveness of certainty. And one of Shin’s greatest flourishes is also his subtlest: As Abby surveys the hill where the boy was taken in the film’s opening scene, a bike coasts across the road on top, echoing the movement of the kidnappers’ car decades prior, suggesting the ongoing reverberations of atrocities.

Shin does under-serve one tradition of the mystery thriller: the unreliable protagonist. Abby is understood to be a habitual liar, a fabulist who’s either a con woman or a person wrestling with issues of encroaching insanity. Given the luridness of the boy’s disappearance, and the way it conveniently meshes with Abby’s unresolved issues, the notion of the mystery as a terrible, self-entrapping fabrication is credible and potentially revealing and terrifying—suggesting the wrenching plight of the doomed investigator at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But for Shin, Abby’s fragile mental state is ultimately a red herring, relegating Abby to an audience-orienting compass rather than a true figure of tragedy. Which is to say that Disappearance at Clifton Hill isn’t quite a major thriller, but rather a well-sustained trick.

Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Marie-Josée Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Tim Beresford, Mikayla Radan Director: Albert Shin Screenwriter: James Schultz, Albert Shin Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixar’s storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studio’s latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gem—and the self-assurance—needed to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the film’s emotional heft.

Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood that’s a cross between Tolkien’s Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that “long ago the world was filled with magic,” but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontown’s fall from grace. What’s left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. He’s nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the film’s supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)

It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boys’ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dad’s lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barley’s beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads “onward.” Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.

Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesn’t make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Mom’s cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sons’ trail.

Onward doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixar’s trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlon’s Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. That’s still a neat trick, but it’s no more novel than Ian and Barley’s experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral that’s at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.

Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love

It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.

Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.

The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.

Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?

Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.

Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?

Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—

Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.

Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?

Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.

Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?

Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.

I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.

Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?

Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”

When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?

Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.

Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.

There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?

Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.

Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?

Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.

We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?

Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.

Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.

You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?

Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.

Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.

In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?

Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.

Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.

Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”

Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.

Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!

Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?

Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.

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Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

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

According to A24’s official description of the film:

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

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

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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

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

2

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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