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Understanding Screenwriting #45: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #45: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, & More

Coming up in this column: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Ambush, Fort Worth, No Questions Asked, The Las Vegas Story, Some Spring 2010 Television, but first:

Fan mail: Matt Maul in his comments on US#44 obviously did not like You Only Live Twice (1967) as much as I did, and he is in some good company with several critics of the time and since. He did help me make my case for the Bond films being producers’ films, whether he intended to or not. He mentions that one of the Bond films he liked least was Never Say Never Again (1983). It stars Sean Connery of course, but it is not one of the Broccoli family-produced Bond films, which is one reason why it does not work as well as the others. Matt also mentions that he liked On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) which does not star Connery, but is produced by the Broccoli family. Aside from George Lazenby as Bond, it is one of the best made of the Bond films, and I think Matt is right to give some credit to the former editor of the series Peter Hunt, who directed it. He obviously understood what the Bond films were all about, even if he could not do anything about Lazenby. But then no other director has been able to either.

I also go along with Matt’s admiration of Ken Adam’s production designs, and as much as I love the volcano in You Only Live Twice, I would be hard put to say it was better than the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964). My point about the volcano is that unlike a lot of big sets directors have built, this one is used, as opposed to say the forecourt of Babylon in Intolerance (1916), which Griffith never quite figured out how to use. And when is somebody going to find the footage of the food fight in the war room that originally was the end of Strangelove?

Thanks to “Agor” for saying this column is one reason he comes to the House Next Door. I myself read HND for all the stuff, since as Matt Zoller Seitz once said, you never know what is going to show up. And in answer to his question, I will be dealing with Treme in US#46. Meanwhile…

Tales from the Script (2009. Written by Peter Hanson and Robert Paul Herman, based on an idea by Robert Paul Herman. 105 minutes)

Tales From the Script

Lots of wonderful talking heads: For years I used to keep track of the number of books of interviews with screenwriters, but I had to give it up. There were simply too many. The appeal to an “author” of such a book is obvious. Screenwriters are smart, quick, literate, and have collected and burnished a lot of great stories that they are more than willing to tell. All you have to do is ask them. And they know how to do it, because storytelling is their life. And they know how to use the fewest number of words, because that’s their job. So I am guessing that the “idea” for this film that Herman came up with was simple: let’s interview a bunch of screenwriters on camera. Very often the single decision to make the picture is the most crucial one.

This is not to say it was as easy as it looks. First of all, they decided to include a LOT of screenwriters, 45 according to the cast list on IMDb. But what did I tell you about screenwriters being quick and able to tell stories in the fewest number of words? Then they included a great variety of screenwriters. Melville Shavelson’s credits go back to the early ‘40s, and he passed away while the film was being completed. Ari Rubin, the son of Bruce Joel Rubin, does not yet have a credit. There are big names like William Goldman and Paul Schrader and several you may never have heard of. As you would expect in a film about Hollywood screenwriting, there are not a lot of people of color.

I like the way the filmmakers have organized the film into sections, which at least gives the illusion of forward momentum. The sections are ones you might suspect, but I particularly liked the sections about dealing with directors and stars. In the old studio system, writers almost never talked to directors and stars, only to producers. Nowadays they have to talk to everybody. Ronald Shusett tells a wonderful tale of convincing Dino De Laurentiis to use his idea for King Kong Lives (1986), which unfortunately led to a terrible movie. Guinevere Turner’s comments on director Uwe Boll and what he did to her script of BloodRayne (2005) are even better. Justin Zackham’s description on the first reading of his script for The Bucket List (2007) with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson shows you what stars mean to writers.

The film recently played for one week in Los Angeles, and it is due to come out on DVD later in the spring. Or if you cannot wait, the book of the same title is now available. But see the movie as well, since it shows you what these guys (and gals) are like in a room pitching a story.

Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009. Screenplay by Patrick Pacheco. 86 minutes)

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Another great documentary from Disney: When we think Disney, we think animation. But old Uncle Walt got into making documentaries early on. In 1943 he was so taken with Alexander de Seversky’s book, Victory Through Air Power, that he made an animated documentary from it to promote strategic bombing as a way to win World War II. In the late ‘40s Disney started the True Life Adventure series of shorts and eventually features about nature, proving there was a commercial market for them. I recently saw the trailer for the new Disney Oceans, and shots it in could have come from the earlier TLA films Seal Island (1949) and Water Birds (1952). In the first season of his Disneyland television show in 1954-55, there was each week a mini-documentary about the progress on the building of the theme park, culminating in an entire one-hour program at the end of the season. Bill Foster, the director of that episode, was still amazed, over 30 years later when he talked to a class at LACC, that the film had won an Emmy, since it was essentially a “one-hour commercial.”

Recently Disney has done several documentaries on aspects of the history of the company. I wrote about The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009) in US#27 and Walt & El Grupo (2008) in US#33. This new one is about the revival of Disney animation from 1984 to 1994. Success, as the saying goes, has a thousand fathers, and the filmmakers have interviews with nearly all of the prospective dads. Talk about an ego-fest! I had gotten the impression during those years that the major force behind the push in animation was Jeffrey “3D NOW AND FOREVER!!!” Katzenberg, but it appears, note I say appears, from the documentary that may just have been Katzenberg’s self-promotion. Keep in mind that the director of this film is Don Hahn, who was the producer of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). Hahn’s co-producer is Peter Schneider, who was the direct head of the animation unit during those years. To be fair, Schneider does not come off as an easy guy to work with. The filmmakers have collected interviews with nearly all the major players, and then bounce these off each other as off-screen narration. Sometimes the interviewees are just self-promoting, and sometimes they are reasonably honest. I was particularly struck by Katzenberg talking about a New York Times article promoting Katzenberg’s image that was published on the eve of the release of The Lion King. He recognized when he read it how arrogant he came across and, as he told his wife that morning, he knew he was through at Disney. Which turned out to be true.

If we hear the clashing egos, we also get some wonderful home movies the animation crews filmed of themselves at the time that show why the unit needed tough guys like Michael Eisner, Katzenberg, and Schneider to run the place. The artists were of course crazy. That’s why they are artists. And that’s why they needed the grown-up supervision their bosses provided. We like to think that artists deserve complete creative freedom, but they don’t, really. Every artist needs a good sounding board who can tell them when they are full of shit. Which they are more times than they would like to admit. The trick, which the Disney studio managed for ten years, was to keep the elements balanced. John Lasseter is now doing that at Pixar/Disney, although the theater people quoted in the article mentioned below dismiss the Pixar crowd as “boys with their toys” for not making the kind of animated musicals they did. Did I mention ego-fest? Meanwhile, Katzenberg is now balancing the elements at DreamWorks Animation, as we will see below. Maybe he was right about his contribution to Disney.

When the film opened in Los Angeles recently, there was an interesting article about it in the Los Angeles Times. Writing from New York, James C. Taylor pointed out that a lot of the impact of Disney animation in the period the movie deals with came from the theater people connected with the films. Peter Schneider had a theater background and later went into Disney Theatricals. He and his partner Tomas Schumacher there raised the ire of Los Angeles theater people by saying they were not going to try out the stage version of The Lion King in Los Angeles because L.A. was not a good theatre town. That’s the reason several of us refused to ever see the show. But there is evidence in the film that Taylor has a point. One of the most fascinating scenes is Howard Ashman, the lyricist on The Little Mermaid, working with Jodi Benson, who sings Ariel. Well, as we learned from Tales from the Script, writers do sometimes get to talk to performers these days. The scene is way too short, and Schneider says in the article that the entire session will be seen on the DVD. Nothing like a chance to see real creativity at work.

Alice in Wonderland (2010. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. 109 minutes)

Alice in Wonderland

Progress marches on—another live Disney mother: For all the hype and titles that tell us this is A TIM BURTON FILM, it’s really more A LINDA WOOLVERTON FILM. She is the screenwriter of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. And Mr. Hahn and Mr. Schneider, why the hell is she NOT in Waking Sleeping Beauty? Did I tell you about the latter being an ego-fest?

It was Woolverton who had the idea of a new take on Alice and her adventures, according to Peter Clines’s article on the film in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting. It was her pitch to producing sisters Suzanne and Jennifer Todd that was taken to Disney back in 2006. Woolverton’s idea was “Wouldn’t it be cooler if she was older and went back?” Yes, Linda, it is. I always thought Alice was a little brat who deserved everything the Red Queen wanted to give her. Woolverton makes her a 19-year-old who is being forced by her mother into an engagement with a real twit. Her father, whom we meet briefly in the prologue, is very understanding. Woolverton had me at hello when the six-year-old Alice asks him, “Am I going around the bend?” He replies that all the best people are crazy. (Yes, a very young and already very strange Tim Burton shows up in Waking Sleeping Beauty.) His widow is not quite so understanding; sometimes a live mother is a problem. Avoiding the twit’s proposal, Alice slips down the rabbit hole, and meets her old friends. Except she thinks it is just a dream, like the other dreams she has had of the place. It takes her a while to twig that it’s real and she is the Chosen One. The place has gone to hell since she was there last, and it is up to her to set things right, which provides a dramatic structure Lewis Carroll could not be bothered with. This structure means turning her into a warrior princess. Mia Wasikowka, who plays Alice (brilliantly—she and Anne Hathway, who has a wonderfully ditzy turn as the White Queen, give the best performances in the film), and her stunt double Tarah Paige, make her completely convincing as she battles the Jabberwocky at the end.

Woolverton finished the screenplay in 2007 and it got the attention of Burton. According to Woolverton, his suggestions were mostly for different ways to do things, and the plot remained unchanged. She also talked to Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter, and his suggestions about the real mercury poisoning hatters developed made the character more “mercurial.” Woolverton says, “I went through the character and sort of re-vamped it according to some of his thoughts. It was very cool.” It may have been for her, but not necessarily for us. You can defend his performance intellectually, but compared to Wasikowska and Hathaway, it seems completely unfocused, with his accent shifting from scene to scene. Sometimes stars ought to be stomped on. And directors: Burton’s direction and visual look for the film are just as overly busy as Depp’s performance. I had the good fortune to see the film in 2-D rather than 3-D and I suspect it is even busier in 3-D.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010. Screenplay by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, based on the novel by Cressida Cowell. 98 minutes)

How to Train Your Dragon

Yeah, it’s in 3-D, Jeffrey. So?: DreamWorks animation had been working on this one for a while and not getting anywhere. Well, not anywhere they wanted to go. The kids’ novel it is based on is a slight, simple story of a pre-teen Viking boy who finds a baby dragon the size of an iguana and makes friends. The earliest drafts by various writers stuck pretty much to that, although they did add a girl who was not in the book to the mix. According to Peter Clines’s interview with Sanders and De Blois in the March 26 Creative Screenwriting Weekly, DreamWorks “loved the idea and aspects of the plot.” In October 2008, Jeffrey Katzenberg and another executive, Bill Damaschke, called in Chris Sanders to see if he wanted to have a go at it. He had worked on the stories for, among others, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin (1992), and co-wrote the screenplays for Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002). Sanders asked his co-writer on Lilo and Stitch, Dean DeBlois, to join him. (And where are they in Waking—oh, never mind.) The writers worked on a regular basis with Katzenberg and Damaschke. They made the kid, Hiccup, a teenager. They made the dragon, Toothless, the size of real dragon. The turned the girl Astrid into a star athlete (remember that Sanders had worked on Mulan). They had Hiccup fly the dragon, which he does not do in the book. They figured in an animated film he could not NOT fly the dragon. OK, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In the book, some of the dragons are friendly to the Vikings and some are not. Sanders and DeBlois made them all the bad guys, which creates more dramatic tension when Hiccup befriends one. Unfortunately, it also means the film starts off with an over-the-top attack on the Viking village that plays like something out of a really bad Michael Bay film (no, that’s not redundant). The final battle with the biggest dragon of them all is also Michael Bay-like. In between, some of what was probably the charm of the book comes through. Yes, Hiccup is a typical nerdy teen, and do we really need another one of those? But when he discovers Toothless and realizes he is missing part of his tailfin, Hiccup uses his day job as an assistant to the local blacksmith to design and build an artificial fin. If the mechanics look a little familiar here, it is because the writers are big fans of Hayao Miyazaki. Film is good for showing process and the training scenes here are beautiful examples of that. The first flight—and boy were they right to include Hiccup flying the dragon—is such a sheer delight I assumed it was from the book, but it is not. The flight Hiccup and Toothless take Astrid on is as charming as the flight Superman takes Lois on in the 1978 Superman. And then it is back to the action.

Tell you what. Come in 15 minutes into the movie and leave when the last battle starts and you will probably enjoy it more.

Ambush (1950. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, based on a story by Luke Short. 90 minutes)

Ambush

Meanwhile, back at Fort Apache: When they say they don’t make movies like they used to, this is the kind of movie they are talking about. First of all, it’s a western. And a relatively modest western at that. But one with a bunch of stars in it (Robert Taylor, John Hodiak, Arlene Dahl), since this was an MGM production. And it is in black-and-white. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible either.

Luke Short wrote a pile of western novels and stories, many of them made into films. The screenwriter in this case, Marguerite Roberts, started writing films in the ‘30s, and spent the early part of her career at MGM, where her credits include such star vehicles as the 1941 Clark Gable-Lana Turner Honky Tonk. Shortly after Ambush, she was blacklisted and did not have an on-screen credit for ten years. In the second part of her career, she wrote the script she is best remembered for, the 1969 film True Grit, which won John Wayne his Oscar. Whoa! Wait a minute! John Wayne agreeing to appear in a script that a once-blacklisted writer had written? People in Hollywood were often not as doctrinaire about the connections between their professional and political lives as legend would have it. If you were Wayne, would you have turned down True Grit for political reasons?

Besides, Roberts appears to have had an ability to get along with the right-wingers in Hollywood. Ambush was produced and directed by Sam Wood, just as much a virulent anti-Communist as Wayne, which explains the literal flag-waving in the final scene at the fort. I suspect that Wood wanted to do this film to show he could bring off a classic western the way Ford had two years before with Fort Apache. He can’t, but that may explain why the script makes such an effort to identify some of the cavalry soldiers as Irish. And it may explain why the fort sequences were shot at the fort built for Fort Apache out in the northwestern part of the San Fernando Valley. According to David Rothel’s entertaining book An Ambush of Ghosts: A Personal Guide to Favorite Western Film Locations, the fort was used in western movies and television shows throughout the ‘50s. It may look like Fort Apache in Ambush, but it does not feel like it. Sam Wood was not John Ford.

The script for Ambush is fairly straightforward stuff. A prospector and scout, Kinsman, is talked into helping the cavalry run down the renegade Indian Diablito, since he has kidnapped a white woman. Her sister shows up at the fort to encourage the expedition, and Kinsman falls in love with her. This is only one of two love triangles that bog down the central part of the film, as Roberts gives the stars emotional moments to play. Before you assume this is because she was a woman, keep in mind she wrote a lot of westerns, and Sam Wood usually directed more emotional dramas, like the 1942 Kings Row. Never make assumptions about women writers in Hollywood.

Fort Worth (1951. Screenplay by John Twist. 80 minutes)

Fort WorthThe advantages of writing for a big studio: You may remember that in US#17 I gave you a list of ingredients in the 1939 Warner Brothers epic western Dodge City. Included in that were a race between a stagecoach and a train, and a fight in a burning railroad baggage car. Guess what shows up in this film? The very same footage.

This was not uncommon in the days of the major studios, and it still happens. Material that is shot for one of their expensive A-pictures gets recycled for an A-/B+ picture like this to give it a little more size. Somebody, whether it is the writer, the producer, or the studio executive, thinks “Hmm, you remember that great scene in Dodge City? We can use that here.” So the writer is instructed to build, if not the entire story, at least a scene or two around the material that was already shot. On How to Train Your Dragon, DeBlois and Sanders had a similar situation. They had to fit what they were doing with what had already been designed for the film. As Sanders said, “So there was a little bit of…a puzzle. In the best sense.”

At Warners they did that a lot in the ‘50s when they went into television, which made their television series look a lot more lavishly produced than the syndicated series smaller companies were making. The second season episode of Maverick entitled “The Brasada Spur” makes no sense at all in terms of story as Bart Maverick gets involved with railroad men. The story ends up with a spectacular head-on train collision and brawl that was taken from the 1945 Warners’ release Saratoga Trunk.

In more recent times, studios buy footage from each other. The 1976 Universal release Midway begins with footage of Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo from the 1944 MGM classic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. The footage was in black-and-white, but tinted to look sepia-toned. The model shots of the Japanese carriers are from a Japanese film. With the exception of a guard tower falling over, all the footage of the attack on Midway Island is made up of footage, including outtakes shot, but not used, from Fox’s 1970 Tora! Tora! Tora!.

No Questions Asked (1951. Screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, story by Berne Giler. 80 minutes)

No Questions Asked

A good idea, but: How about this for a movie: A lawyer, working for an insurance company, hears his boss say the company would be glad to pay to get back stolen property, no questions asked, if it will save them having to pay out the insurance claims. Keiver, the lawyer, starts getting back a LOT of stolen stuff. The cops are not happy. The crooks are not either, because they don’t trust Keiver. Throw in an ex-girlfriend who may not be a nice person, and hijinks ensue. So what went wrong?

The story is by Berne Giler, who wrote just about every kind of story you could imagine for both movies and television. The screenplay was turned over to Sidney Seldon. Yes, that Sidney Sheldon, who after a long career in movies got into writing best-selling potboiler novels. In his movie days, though, Sheldon specialized in comedies and musicals. He won his Oscar in 1947 for the story for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, then did the scripts for the 1948 Easter Parade and the 1950 Annie Get Your Gun. He later created two famous TV series, The Patty Duke Show (1963-66) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-69). You see anything in there that would suggest an ability to do film noir? The plotting here is lackluster and there are not nearly enough interesting and interestingly sleazy characters to make it go.

There is one good line. When Keiver is about to introduce his current girlfriend Joan to his ex, Ellen, Joan’s comment is simply, “Goodie.” It helps that you have Lina Lamont her ownself, Jean Hagen, delivering it.

The Las Vegas Story (1952. Screenplay by Earl Felton and Harry Essex, and uncredited, Paul Jarrico, story by Jay Dratler. 88 minutes)

The Las Vegas Story

Casablanca goes to Las Vegas: Here’s the story. A woman and her husband show up in a party town. The woman runs into an old boyfriend she dumped some time back because of the war. The husband gets into trouble with the local law, and the ex-boyfriend helps out.

Here’s why you need screenwriters and producers who help, like Hal Wallis on Casablanca, instead of screwing it up, like Howard Hughes on this one. The Casablanca screenplay is teeming with rich characters, lots of plot turns, and great texture. The main cast of characters here is skimpy. In addition to the woman, her husband, the ex-boyfriend, we have a folksy sheriff, who is not a patch on Renault’s “poor, corrupt official.” We have a piano player, and he has a little more to do than Sam, but is not as crucial to the plot. I suppose they have cast Hoagy Carmichael so that people will think of his Cricket in the 1944 To Have and Have Not, but that was already a rip-off of Casablanca. The insurance investigator tracking down the husband I suppose is the equivalent of Colonel Strasser, but he is not as sleek nor as shifty. There is about 50 minutes of story here, if that, and we keep waiting around for it to get going. The murder at the heart of the story does not take place until nearly an hour into it. As for texture, we get a lot more second unit shots of Vegas than we need, and the interiors shot on the RKO lot give us nothing to look at.

This was one of the films Hughes produced when he ran RKO, and his main creative contribution here is to have as many close-ups as he can squeeze in of his star Jane Russell. Well, I have loved Jane Russell ever since I hit puberty. There are two kinds of straight men in the world: those who love Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and those who love Monroe. As a guy who has always liked smart women, I prefer Russell. But still. She does get to show a bit of a lighter side here, as well as that great sullen look that made her a star in Hughes’ 1943 The Outlaw. What, you thought it was just her cleavage? The problem is that Hughes, unlike Wallis, was simply unable to focus on what Fitzgerald called “The Whole Equation” of producing a film. If you want a more detailed examination of what that meant in filmmaking at RKO during the Hughes years, read the section in Richard Fleischer’s memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry on the making, unmaking, and remaking of the 1951 film His Kind of Woman.

Hughes, who had no sympathy for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, still took Jarrico’s name off the credits of the film when Jarrico was blacklisted. Both the Screen Writers Guild, the forerunner of the Writers Guild of America, and Jarrico sued Hughes and both lost. Not one of America’s finest hours, but in the long run, it may be just as well Jarrico did not have his name on the film. Except for a nice helicopter chase at the end, there is not a lot you would want credit for.

Some Spring 2010 Television

TV

Some quick takes: First of all, I have given up on Parenthood and The Pacific, for reasons discussed in US#44.

30 Rock finished the Jack and Nancy story with a line that she has gone back to her husband, so we probably won’t be getting Alec and Julianne having fun anymore. On the upside, the various writers have been having a lot of fun with NBC’s sale to “Kabletown.” Why not call it by its real name: Comcast? Simply so they can get some great moments out of 91% of Kabletown’s profits coming out of cable porn, as “Don Geiss, American Hope,” written by Jack Burditt & Tracey Wigfield, tells us.

Justified’s pilot, “Fire in the Hole,” written by Graham Yost, did not turn me on. It is based on a story of the same name by Elmore Leonard and the episode did not have that distinctive Leonard tone in either character or dialogue. Leonard’s characters see the world in unusual but not always the most accurate ways and that vision comes out in their dialogue. I figured that if the show could not get it right working from a Leonard story, there probably was not much hope for the rest of the series. Guess again, Tom. This is why you have to look at more than the pilot. Once they got away from the original story, the tone got more Leonard rather than less. Go figure. Maybe they were less intimidated. Raylan Givens is a U.S. marshal who guns down a gangster in Miami after telling him to get out of town. For his sins, Raylan is sent back to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. He knows the people there, and they know him, not always for the best in either case. The show is introducing us to those characters fairly slowly, but at least, unlike Parenthood, you have a sense there are characters there. In the second episode, “Riverbrook,” also by Yost, there is a nice scene with Raylan sitting around on a stakeout in a car with another deputy, just talking. It’s what we expect from Leonard.

Saving Grace came back and I am still having a hard time understanding anything Holly Hunter and several of the other actors are saying. Would it kill them to open their mouths? In the “Let’s Talk” episode, written by Sibyl Gardner & Annie Brunner, there was a lot more about religion than about detective work, which since the show is in its last episodes, makes sense. It makes sense, but it doesn’t make it dramatic.

In Plain Sight also came back, but a bit livelier than Saving Grace. In “When Mary Met Marshall,” written by Brynn Malone, we not only get flashbacks of when Mary and Marshall met on a case, but the introduction of Allison Pearson, a senior U.S. Marshal who has come to Albuquerque to examine the budget of the WitSec office. It is established before she shows up that she is a political appointee and not highly thought of. So who walks in the door as Allison but Allison Janney, C.J. Craig from The West Wing, which leads to a great in-joke about Allison and the President. Now here is somebody who can stand up to Mary McCormack’s Mary. Allison leaves at the end of the episode but promises to come back, since she admits she is impressed by Mary calling her on leaving her security badge where one of the witnesses could use it to escape from the building. I for one look forward to seeing Allison and Mary going head to head.

Castle did something similar in its two parter, “Tick, tick, tick,” written by Moira Kirkland, and “Boom,” written by Elizabeth Davis. A case brings in Jordan Shaw, an F.B.I. Special Agent, whom Castle is entranced by, because she is even better at her job than Beckett is at hers. So Beckett is a little jealous, which everybody else assumes must be because she and Castle are sleeping together. They’re not, but nobody is convinced. This all ups the pressure on finding the serial killer who is obsessed with “Nikki Heat,” the version of Beckett Castle has created in his novels. The addition of Jordan really gave a jolt to the show, but there was no indication at the end of the two-parter that she would be back. And she is played by Dana Delany, who at least for now has a day job over at Desperate Housewives, but given the way Marc Cherry kills off people…

The Good Wife came up with a doozy of an episode with “Doubt,” written by Robert King & Michelle King & Barry Schkolnick. Way back in US#34 I mentioned that I liked that the first episode this show got into some details about the jury on a case, something most law shows never do. I wrote at the time that I hoped they would do it again, and with this episode they have. Gosh, do you suppose somebody connected with the show actually reads this column? Don’t bet the farm on it. I suspect the writers just saw an opportunity that was too good to pass up. The episode begins with the jury coming into the jury room talking about the case the way real juries do, e.g., somebody vaguely remembers that Alicia is the wife of a politician who got caught in a sex scandal, but they get the details wrong. The jurors noticed that Alicia was there to support the defendant, a college girl accused of murder. As we go through the case, we cut back to the jury room and get their take on the participants: lawyers, witnesses, people in the courtroom. Late in the jury’s deliberation, one male juror says that he feels they were not given enough information. I have been on five juries and everybody on the juries always feels that way. In discussing the question of reasonable doubt, the man says he feels he has “reasonable ignorance,” which nails it beautifully. Just as they have reached the verdict, the judge comes in and tells them they are excused. The defendant has taken a plea bargain. The last thing we see is that the jury had voted her “not guilty.” Yeah, that’s the way the American judicial system works. And thank God for that, because if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have all these great lawyer shows.

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: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears Forecloses Feeling for the Sake of Fantasy

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple without humor or wit.

1.5

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The Salt of Tears
Photo: Berlinale

Two strangers, a man and a woman, meet at a bus stop in Paris. He’s from the countryside and has come to the city to live out his father’s dreams, which in Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears means taking an entrance exam for a top carpentry school. He insists on seeing her again, and they meet for coffee after his test. They want to make love but have nowhere to go; he seems upset that she can’t host, and ends up taking her to his cousin’s place. She isn’t comfortable with all his touching, perhaps afraid that if he makes love to her right away he’ll have no reason to come back. Indeed, she seems more invested in the future of their encounter, what it can become, than in the encounter itself, whereas he sees no reason for her to stay if she won’t put out. By the time he kicks her out, she’s already in love.

The strangers’ names are Luc (Logann Antuofermo) and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but they might as well be called Man and Woman. That’s because The Salt of Tears unfolds like an archetypal narrative of heterosexual impossibility where Luc is the everyman and Djemila is interchangeable with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), Luc’s subsequent fling, or whatever woman comes next. He seems fond of collecting rather than replacing lovers. In the course of his brief encounters, which are nevertheless always long enough for the women to get attached and promptly burned, Luc is inoculated from heartache. His only emotional allegiance seems to be to his father (André Wilms), which tells us a thing or two about heterosexuality’s peculiar tendency to forge male allegiances at the expense of women, who circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency.

We’ve seen, and lived, this story a million times—in real life and in cinema. You, too, may have waited for a lover who never showed up after making meticulous plans for an encounter, wrapped up in the sweetest of promises, like the one Luc makes to Djemila when he says, “For the room, I’ll refund the whole amount.” It’s then that she takes the train to see him. At a hotel, she puts on her prettiest nightgown, powdering her face in preemptive bliss. But Luc never shows up. And when Djemila goes to the hotel lobby to ask for a cigarette from the night porter (Michel Charrel), we see that the scenario, the woman who waits, is quite familiar to the man as well. “I’ve seen women wait for their men all their lives,” he tells her.

And yet, despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity.

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc, he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride.

Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi, Michel Charrel, Stefan Crepon, Lucie Epicureo, Alice Rahimi Director: Philippe Garrel Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Greed Is an Unsubtle Satire of Global Capitalism’s Race to the Bottom

The film takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie, but it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness.

2.5

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Greed
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A morality tale about a piratical fast-fashion clothing entrepreneur, Greed takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie. Each time, though, it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness. That uneven mixture of tones, not to mention its easy and somewhat restrained shots at obvious targets, keeps writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s film from achieving the Felliniesque excess it strives for.

Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard he’s polished to a sheen in Winterbottom’s The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed “Greedy” by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the “king of the high street,” peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos.

While McCreadie plans an extravagantly tacky Gladiator-themed 60th birthday for himself featuring togas and a seemingly somnolent lion, the film skips back in time episodically to show how this grifter made his billions. Although specifically inspired by the life of Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Top Shop (and who was also investigated by Parliament for the bankruptcy of one of his brands), Greed is meant as a broader indictment of global capitalism’s race to the bottom. Cutting back from the somewhat bored birthday bacchanal—Winterbottom does a good job illustrating the wallowing “is this all there is?” dullness of the ultra-rich lifestyle—the film shows McCreadie’s ascent from Soho clothing-mart hustler to mercantilist wheeler and dealer leveraging a string of tatty bargain emporiums into a fortune.

Linking the flashbacks about McCreadie’s up-and-comer past to his bloated and smug present is Nick (David Mitchell), a weaselly hired-gun writer researching an authorized biography and hating himself for it. Thinking he’s just slapping together an ego-boosting puff piece, Nick inadvertently comes across the secret to McCreadie’s success: the women hunched over sewing machines in Sri Lankan sweatshops earning $4 a day to produce his cheap togs. The Sri Lanka connection also provides the film with its only true hero: Amanda (Dinita Gohil), another of McCreadie’s self-hating assistants, but the only one who ultimately does anything about the literal and metaphorical casualties generated by her boss’s avarice.

With McCreadie as a big shining target, Winterbottom uses him to symbolize an especially vulgar manifestation of jet-set wheeler-dealers who imagine their wealth has freed them from limitations on taste and morality. That means giving McCreadie massive snow-white dentures, having him yell at the lion he’s imported sending him storming out on the beach to yell at the Syrian refugees he thinks are spoiling the backdrop for his party. He’s the kind of man who, when his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) calls him out for cheating by using his phone to look like he’s reciting classical poetry by heart, shouts proudly and unironically, “BrainyQuote!”

Greed isn’t a subtle satire. But, then, what’s the point of going small when the target is the entire global clothing supply chain, as well as the consumerism and celebrity worship (“adding a bit of sparkle to a $10 party dress,” as McCreadie puts it)? Despite his deft ability to authentically inhabit numerous geographical spaces without condescension (the scenes in Sri Lanka feel particularly organic), Winterbottom often has a harder time summoning the kind of deep, gut-level emotions needed to drive home an angry, issue-oriented comedy of this kind. But even though he isn’t able to balance buffoonery and outrage as effectively as Steven Soderbergh did with his Panama Papers satire The Laundromat, Winterbottom at least knew to pick a big enough target that it would be nearly impossible to miss.

Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson Director: Michael Winterbottom Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: With Saint Frances, the Rise of the of the Abortion Comedy Continues

It has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

2.5

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Saint Frances
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Even for American liberals, abortion has long been a touchy subject. “Legal but rare” is the watchword of cautious Democratic candidates, and popular film has long preferred to romanticize the independent women who make the brave choice not to terminate a pregnancy (see Juno). With Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and, now, Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances, we may be seeing the emergence of something like the abortion comedy. The very concept of such a thing is probably enough to make a heartland conservative retch, which Thompson and his screenwriter and lead actress, Kelly O’Sullivan, no doubt count on.

Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a white Chicagoland millennial who, like so many of her generation, finds herself still living the life of a twentysomething at the age of 34. Messy and a little irresponsible—qualities that could be largely chalked up to the inert decade of post-college poverty she’s endured—she struggles to admit in conversation with her ostensible peers that she works as a server at a greasy diner. In the film’s opening scene, a tidy encapsulation of the tragicomedy of being an underachieving hanger-on in bougie social circles, she’s brought to the verge of tears when a yuppie dude she’s chatting with loses interest in her after her age and employment come up. She immediately pounces on Jace (Max Lipchitz), the next guy who talks to her, after he casually reveals that he, too, works as a waiter.

Fortunately, Jace turns out to be an indefatigably cheerful and supportive 26-year-old who comes across as perhaps a tad too perfect until the precise moment in Saint Frances that the filmmakers need him to come off more like a Wrigleyville bro. At some point during their initial hook-up, Bridget gets her period, and the couple wakes up fairly covered in blood. (Bridget’s nigh-constant unexpected vaginal bleeding and the stains it leaves will serve as both metaphor and punchline throughout the film, and it works better than you may think.) Amused but unphased by the incident, Jace will also prove to be a supportive partner when Bridget chooses to terminate her accidental pregnancy later in the film, even though Bridget remains openly uncertain about whether or not they’re actually dating.

In the wake of her abortion, Bridget is taken on as a nanny for Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), a mixed-race lesbian couple who need someone to look after their unruly daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), while Maya cares for their newborn. Frances is a self-possessed kindergartner whose dialogue sometimes drifts into “kids say the darnedest things” terrain, even though it can be funny (“My guitar class is a patriarchy,” she proclaims at one point). But O’Sullivan’s screenplay doesn’t overly sentimentalize childhood—or motherhood for that matter. One important subplot involves Bridget’s mother’s (Mary Beth Fisher) reminiscing that she sometimes fantasized about bashing the infant Bridget’s head against the wall, a revelation that helps Maya through her post-partum depression.

Maya and Annie live in Evanston, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, and Bridget counts as an alumna of sorts, though in conversation she emphasizes that she was only there for a year. She clearly views the town as the epicenter of her shame; underlining this is that the couple’s next-door neighbor turns out to be Cheryl (Rebekah Ward), an insufferable snob who Bridget knew in college, whose “lean in” brand of upper-class feminism doesn’t preclude her from treating her erstwhile peer like an all-purpose servant. Frances’s smarmy guitar teacher, Isaac (Jim True-Frost), also embodies the moral ickiness of the privileged, as he takes advantage of Bridget’s foolhardy crush on him.

Bridget’s relationship with Frances and her parents changes her, but the film isn’t making the point that she learns the majesty of child-rearing and the awesome responsibility of parenthood. It’s that Bridget finds strength in intersectional and intergenerational solidarity, emerging from the isolating cell she’s built herself out of quiet self-shame. If that approach sounds academic, it’s true that at times Saint Frances is staged too much like dramatic enactment of feminist principles—a public confrontation with an anti-public-breast-feeding woman ends up feeling like an after-school special about conflict mediation—but it has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

Cast: Kelly O’Sullivan, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz, Jim True-Frost, Ramona Edith Williams, Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, Rebecca Spence, Rebekah Ward Director: Alex Thompson Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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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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