Coming up in this column: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Dark Mirror, Rizzoli & Isles, Covert Affairs, Hot in Cleveland, but first…
Fan mail: If you did not read David Ehrenstein’s comments in US#50 on my comments, go back and read them, especially his explanation of the reference to Audrey Hepburn in his book review. On the other hand, his comments may tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Derek Jarman. David and I obviously both love Tilda Swinton. I just happened to think I Am Love was not all that good a film.
Edward Wilson asked if it wasn’t the case that there is a lot of rewriting on most movies. Yes, there is, so much so that actors notice it when there are NOT rewrites. See his line about Jeff Bridges, or my at least two so far references to Frances Fisher and the white pages on Unforgiven.
Matt Maul noted that in The Desert Rats James Mason had a German accent because he was Rommel speaking English to Richard Burton. But his earlier scenes are in German in that film and he is very guttural in them.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010. Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carl Bernard, screen story by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal and Matt Lopez, suggested by the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of Fantasia, and, although they don’t say so in the credits, a poem by Goethe. 109 minutes.)
You say Jerry Bruckheimer like that’s a bad thing: Jerry Bruckheimer is possibly the most critically reviled of contemporary film producers. His pictures make bazillions of dollars and critics complain that they are overproduced. The critics are right, they are, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is no exception. But here is the interesting thing about Bruckheimer: underneath the extreme production values of his films, there are very often interesting stories and scripts. Con Air (1997) has a terrific idea: what goes wrong on a plane full of the most dangerous convicts being transported to prison. Randall Wallace’s screenplay for Pearl Harbor (2001) has a nice throughline: how America moved from its isolationism of the thirties to its involvement with the rest of the world during the war. In fact, I put Pearl Harbor in the Not-Quite-So Good category in the book Understanding Screenwriting because of its script. And I noted in the book that Bruckheimer, unlike many, many film producers, has been tremendously successful in television, where story is more prominent than large budget expenditures. He and his company do the CSI franchises as well as Without a Trace. In addition there is the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. If the recession ever ends and publishers go back to publishing books about screenwriting, my Understanding Screenwriting II: Learning from More Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays will tell you why the Pirates trilogy is an example of great screenwriting.
Meanwhile, we have The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is, alas, not up to Bruckheimer’s best. Those credited writers are just the tip of the iceberg, and in this case the film shows it. The script lopes along from one big action scene to another, seeming to reinvent the rules of sorcery as it goes along. Bruckheimer also produced the National Treasure movies, and he has the director and star of them, Jon Turteltaub and Nicholas Cage, respectively, at work here. The script has some of the lightness of the Treasure movies, but not enough. Cage plays Balthazar, a sorcerer from Merlin’s time, who is still looking for the Prime Merlinian (I think that is what he is called, but it could be the Prime Meridian or the Prime Merlot) who will be the One True Sorcerer. Needless to say, there are bad sorcerers who want to stop that. Balthazar connects with Dave, a nerdy college science student, who, lo and behold, is the new PM. Here’s one problem: I have just told you everything there is to tell about Dave. The writers have given the actor playing him, Jay Baruchel, nothing to play other than nerd. Unlike Cage and Alfred Molina, in top form as the head villain Horvath, Baruchel does not have the acting chops to hold his own with those other two without help from the script. And maybe not even then. Cage and Molina do a lot with a little here. Compare Dave to Will Turner in the Pirates movies. Will starts out as a klutz and grows into a serious pirate. And compare Dave’s “love interest” Becky to Elizabeth Swann. Becky is cute. Well, Elizabeth is cute, but she is a whole lot more. She knows piracy, the pirate code (even if it is more like guidelines), and by the third film she is the Pirate King. Becky helps defeat the bad sorcerers, but without Elizabeth’s drive. And the writers here have not provided the wonderful gallery of supporting parts the writers of the Pirates movies did.
So we get a lot of special effects action, but it generally is not very inventive. I did like the Chinese dragon that became a real dragon, but other than that, the film seems mostly overstuffed, as Bruckheimer’s films often do. There is a little hope, however. In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times Bruckheimer discussed how he was working with the writers of Pirates 4 (Rossio and Elliott, thank God, since they wrote the first three) to cut the script because they have to cut the budget. Given that a lot of Bruckheimer’s best stuff is done on limited television budgets, maybe this will improve his films.
The Dark Mirror (1946. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on a story by Vladimir Pozner. 85 minutes.)
Watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff…: One of the big programs this summer at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles is ”’Oscar Noir’: 1940s Writing Nominees from Hollywood’s Dark Side,” featuring films noir that were nominated for Oscars in the writing categories. I have mixed feelings about the program. Mixed feelings, as the old joke goes, is watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff…in your new Cadillac (I told you it was an old joke). I am not a fan of film noir as a genre. After science fiction it is the most adolescent of all film genres: the big adult world is totally corrupt, and if you have actual sex with a brunette woman you will die. As someone who has been married to a brunette, although we are both a little grayer now, for 45 years, I find that message of film noir a little silly. In spite of what film historians have been preaching for the last forty years, film noir was not that popular a genre in its day. Of the 211 films of the ‘40s that brought in film rentals of $3 million or more, only nine were films noir, and those tended to be big star vehicles like Double Indemnity (1944). None of the top 287 films of the ‘50s that grossed that much were films noir. By the ‘60s the genre had died out. It came back to life in the ‘70s for two reasons. The first was that American society had gotten darker with the Kennedy and King assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate et al, and people were generally more cynical. Government lying will do that to you. The second reason is that the baby boomer kids were going to film school, and film noir appealed to male film school students. It was easy to write about if you were a critical studies student, and it was easy to make if you were a production student. You couldn’t make a western unless you knew somebody with horses and guns. You couldn’t afford sets and costumes to make bibilical pictures which, by the way, were a much more commercially successful genre in the ‘50s. But if you bought a trenchcoat for your hero and your girlfriend a slinky dress at a thrift shop and got a toy gun you were in business. And if it came out underexposed, hey, it was film noir. A fuller and better-written version of this anti-film noir rant appears in the “Black and Dark” chapter of my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, complete with footnotes.
On the other hand… The Academy program was focusing not on directors, actors, or cinematographers, but on the writing of the films. Not a lot of film programs at the Academy, the American Cinematheque, UCLA Film Archive, etc focus on writers. So that aspect of the program is encouraging. The film on July 12th was The Dark Mirror, with a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, the subject of my first book. It wasn’t Nunnally who was nominated for an Oscar, but Vladimir Pozner, who had written the story the film was based on. From 1940 to 1956 there were three writing categories. One was Best Story and Screenplay, which was essentially the current Best Original Screenplay category. Another was Best Screenplay, the equivalent of our Best Adapted Screenplay. The third category was Best Original Story. It evolved out of the two original categories, Best Story and Best Screenplay. The Best Original Story category was an oddball one, and I am surprised it took them 16 years to get rid of it. I have never read Pozner’s story, but I know from reading others that often very little of what made the films interesting was in the original stories. Read the chapter on Rear Window in the book Understanding Screenwriting for a great example. Or dig out the 1979 book Stories Into Film, edited by William Kittredge & Steven M. Krauzer. It has the stories that were made into such films as It Happened One Night (1934), Stagecoach (1939), and Blow-Up (1966), and you will be shocked to discover how much work the screenwriters had to do to make them work on screen.
I ended up going to see the program because, a) I hadn’t seen the film in forty years (it is not yet on DVD), and b) Roxie Johnson Lonergan, Nunnally’s daughter, insisted I come. She managed to get me into the Reserved Seat section set up for the Johnson family, of which there were several members present. I am delighted they are all still speaking to me. I generally avoid Reserved Seat sections since I like to think of film as a democratic art form, but sometimes it is fun to indulge in the privilege. If I am going to see a movie, I generally just want to see the movie without a lot of extras, but the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp knows how to put on a show. The program began with Chapter Seven “Human Targets” from the 1941 serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Each of the weekly programs runs one chapter of the serial. It is tacky and low budget and hardly even rises to camp, but it did seem to loosen the audience up. Next was the great 1953 nominee for Best Cartoon Short Subject, The Tell-Tale Heart, made by UPA with James Mason reading the narration. I guess it does put you into the mood for a film noir.
Haberkamp then introduced the guests, including not only the Johnson family, but also the widow and son of Lew Ayres, the male lead in the film. That was a nice touch, since part of the idea of these programs is to make us aware of our heritage. This was followed by Haberkamp’s best idea for the series. Each film is introduced by a contemporary screenwriter, who comments on the film, film noir, or whatever they want. You can read some of the comments so far in the series on the Oscar website linked to above. The screenwriter in this case was John August, whose varied credits include Go (1999), Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Corpse Bride (2005). He actually talked about the writing in The Dark Mirror, noting that Pozner and Johnson do something you could not get away with in a contemporary script, at least one for a studio. We start the film following the police detective who is investigating the murder, then shift to the twin sisters who are suspects and then to a psychologist who is trying to figure out which one is the killer. Most contemporary movies have one main character that we stay with all the way through. August also noted that the writers were willing to let the audience be confused, which would never happen in a studio film today.
Ordinarily the film would start after the screenwriter stopped, but Haberkamp came back with one of the surprises that the website promises. He had just received by e-mail a recording from the star of the film, Olivia de Havilland. She just turned 94, is living in Paris, and sounds it good health. Haberkamp played the recording over the sound system and we heard Melanie Hamilton her own self explain how she came to do the role and how difficult it was to play the psychotic twin. She admitted she had not seen the film in a while, but had been told it holds up well, and then, sounding like Alfred Hitchcock introducing one of his television shows, she said she hoped we found it… “terrifying.” Once an actress, always an actress.
Given all of that buildup, you can imagine that when the names of de Havilland and Ayres came on the screen, there was an ovation. Another ovation for Nunnally. Another for Dimitri Tiomkin’s credit for music. Another when Thomas Mitchell showed up as the detective. Another at de Havilland’s first appearance. Another at Ayres’ first appearance. Another for Richard Long’s first…huh? Richard Long was a callow young juvenile when he did this film, then went on to appear in a couple of the Ma and Pa Kettle films, and worked mostly in television. Well, this is Hollywood celebrating its past and sometimes that can get out of hand. That’s one of the downsides of this kind of program.
Fortunately, Nunnally’s script and the performances settled the audience down. The script moves with his typical swiftness and wit, but without sacrificing character. Look at how few lines it takes to establish each of the four witnesses in the opening scenes. Look at the hints he provides as to who is who. And what August did not mention, but which knocked me out, is how casually the revelation as to which twin is the bad one is eventually made. That is because Nunnally has been developing that in bits and pieces as the film progresses, so he does not need to give us a big ah-ha moment. You would never get that past development executives today.
Several years ago a guy at Universal contacted me. He told me they were thinking of making an old Nunnally Johnson screenplay they had found in the files. It never got made (it was written in the ‘40s and was a bit dated), but the guy told me that Richard Zanuck’s son had read it and commented to his dad how well written it was. Zanuck, who knew Nunnally, told him that yes, they had real screenwriters then.
Rizzoli & Isles (2010. “See One, Do One, Teach One” episode written by Janet Tamaro. Series based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen. 67 minutes.)
Not quite up to snuff: Angie Harmon has always been good to look at. In her turn as A.D.A. Abbie Carmichael in her years on Law & Order she was, like most of the women on the mothership, not given much to do as an actress, although she did have one great line. When asked about what should be done about some suspects, Abbie said, “Fry ’em all.” We could not tell what acting chops Jill Hennessy had on the basis of her work on L&O either; that had to wait until Crossing Jordan. The same thing with Harmon. In 2007-08 she starred in an unfortunately short-lived series called The Women’s Murder Club and I mean she STARRED in it. She played a detective who palled around with three other women: a prosecutor, a medical examiner, and a reporter trying to keep up with the others. The writers of that show gave her a real character to play and she held the screen the way she often hasn’t in other films and television shows.
Rizzoli & Isles is The Women’s Murder Club lite. Very, very lite. Here Harmon is detective Jane Rizzoli. We know she’s tough because we are introduced to her playing basketball with her brother and gets a bloody nose. OK, Harmon proved on Club she can do tough, but Tamaro has not given her a lot to play to show that. Harmon is OK, but even stars need the support of the writers. Her friend on the show is medical examiner Maura Isles, but we have no idea from this first episode how long they have been friends. They are not introduced to each other in the episode, and they seem to have been working together for at least a little while, but they do not seem particularly close. When Rizzoli has a sleepover at Isles (she’s avoiding a serial killer), the conversation is flat and not at all what you would expect from two friends. At the end of the episode, Isles shows up at Rizzoli’s apartment to help clean up the mess the killer has left. Rizzoli tells her to get into her work clothes (she is well-dressed and in high heels), and Isles replies these are her work clothes. Which we have seen throughout the episode (and strikes me as ridiculous that an M.E. would dress like, but let’s not now even begin to get into the issue of how women professionals dress in television shows). If we have noticed how Isles dresses, why hasn’t Rizzoli? I suspect the problem may come from the show being adapted from a series of novels that have been going on for ten years and for whatever reasons the show developers did not want to start at the beginning.
The supporting cast has not been given a lot to do. Rizzoli’s new partner Frost is a young black guy who throws up at murder sites. That’s it so far for characterization. Rizzoli’s mom is simply a pain in the ass, which is a criminal waste of Lorraine Brocco. The older cop, the equivalent of The Closer’s Lt. Provenza just sort of sulks around the edges. And the plot, about a serial killer who is training somebody else to be a serial killer is just more gross dead bodies.
Covert Affairs (2010. “Pilot” episode created and written by Matt Corman & Chris Ord. 74 minutes.)
Now this is the writers supporting their star: Piper Perabo has always been good to look at. But I have never been particularly impressed with her acting chops. This show is doing for her what The Women’s Murder Club did for Harmon. She is Annie Walker and we first meet her as she is being given a lie-detector test as she joins the C.I.A.. Corman & Ord not only give us information about her past, but give us a wonderful juxtaposition of the flashbacks of Annie’s romance with a guy in Sri Lanka and the clinical approach to it by the man running the polygraph. We see the lovemaking, Annie’s reaction to the questions and her yes and no answers. Perabo’s face is a lot more expressive here than it has been in previous films. In the flashback, her lover leaves a note saying, “The truth is complicated,” establishing that he is not an X-Files fan. Then we see Annie in training, mostly volunteering to be the first of a group of trainees to jump out of a plane. Yes, you may be hooked by Perabo’s great face by now, but you will also be willing to follow somebody who jumps first. See what I mean about supporting your star?
As soon as she hits the ground she is whisked off to C.I.A. headquarters and given a mission, even though she is still in training. Her new boss, Joan, tells her they need somebody who can pass for a hooker and speaks six languages. The mission is to pretend to be a hooker and meet a Russian assassin who is going to give them information in return for money. The hooker bit is to make anybody who is watching think the Russian is just in town to party. So the Russian gets killed by another assassin and Annie volunteers to go back to the crime scene to get the PDAs that were left synching the information when the shooting started. And she talks her way past the cops and the F.B.I. to do it. By this point, and we are only twenty minutes or so in, we will follow Perabo’s Annie anywhere. The writers have given her a lot to do, and a lot of reactions to play with as a woman on the first day on a new job.
Auggie, the blind computer geek, seems like he will become her new best friend. He is played by Christopher Gorham in a role totally different from his Henry on Ugly Betty. Auggie and Annie break into the morgue to prove that the “assassin” who was shot was not the real one. Yes, that may be far-fetched, but a lot of stuff intelligence services do is far-fetched. Shortly before I saw Covert Affairs, I read (in one sitting) Ben Macintyre’s new book Operation Mincement. It tells the true story of British Intelligence in World War II dressing a dead body up as a officer and floating it ashore in Spain with papers showing the Allied invasion in 1943 would be in Greece and Sardinia and not Sicily. The body was turned over to the Germans and they believed the false intelligence, which is why the Sicilian invasion went so well. You may have seen an earlier film about this, the 1956 The Man Who Never Was, but there was a lot that was still classified at the time that Macintyre has discovered. Anyway, just having read that, it was very easy to at least semi-believe everything that goes down in Covert Affairs.
Auggie is not the only interesting secondary character. Annie’s immediate boss is Joan, a tough, tough cookie. Her boss, who turns out to be her husband, is Arthur, a real office politician who is trying to silence leaks from insiders. Joan uses company resources to tap his phone to find out if he is having an affair, so she may be a little more vulnerable than she looks. Annie has a sister, Danielle, who has no idea Annie is in the C.I.A. and keeps trying to fix her up with wimps who get in the way. Much more interesting than Rizzoli’s whiny mom.
Annie eventually chases down the real assassin. He nearly kills her but is shot by, well, it looks to her like her lover from Sri Lanka. But she was being strangled at the time, so probably she was not seeing clearly. Joan assures her it was just one of the regular agents. Except that Joan and Arthur talk and it is clear it is Sri Lankan guy and they have pushed Annie into action before her training is complete as bait to get him. You still not hooked?
I happened to be emailing back and forth with an Ivy League acquaintance of mine who prefers to be identified only as “a source with several years experience working closely with the intelligence community.” His take on the show is: “It was certainly interesting and fun, but of course for programming sake, they cut out a lot of the training prep—including a RIGOROUS screening of backgrounds. The characters DO behave a lot like some Intel officers—quick to take advantage of a situation, letting their operatives know only half the story, playing it by ear, etc. The one thing that was really off-center is the husband/wife team that work with each other and are fighting about infidelities—they would be instantly separated and placed elsewhere, if not dropped.” Yeah, but he hasn’t read about the relationship between “Will” and “Pam” in Operation Mincemeat yet.
Hot in Cleveland (2010. “The Sex That Got Away” episode written by Ann Flett-Giordano & Chuck Ranberg. “Good Neighbors” episode written by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil. Each episode 30 minutes.)
Running hot and cold: You may remember from US#49 that I had real reservations about this show, mainly with the fact that the show seemed to agree that women in their forties and fifties were over the hill. “The Sex That Got Away” seemed a little sharper than the first two I wrote about. The girls are going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Victoria wants to reconnect with a rocker she had hot sex with years ago. They do, then have a funny scene where they realize they are not as agile as they were. They talk about having just adult sex, decide not to, then do anyway. That scene is one of the best of the series so far because it assumes adults can behave like adults. Melanie wants to thank a woman rocker for the song Melanie listened to on her prom night…when she was home alone. Melanie keeps falling over the rocker, then spilling stuff on her. The payoff in the final scene is that the rocker is gay and assumes Melanie is coming on to her. Melanie’s not, which would be interesting, but the show doesn’t want to go there.
So far I have not mentioned the show’s not-so-secret weapon. Elka, the housekeeper who comes with the house the girls are renting, is played by the woman who is currently the hottest actress in show business, Betty White. The part was originally supposed to be just a couple of episodes, but the showrunners talked White into doing more, so she is constantly popping up with good zingers delivered as only Betty White can. When they are all talking about the woman rocker being gay, Elka remembers she had a crush on Liberace. The girls ask her if she knew he was gay. Elka: “I could have turned him.” You see why they want White to stay around.
“Good Neighbors” was a relapse. Melanie gives a party to meet the neighbors, including Rick, a local newspaper columnist. She says things that sound insulting to Cleveland and its citizens, so then she feels she has to sneak into his house and check the column in his computer. Very standard hijinks ensue, with him coming on to her. Since he is played by Wayne (“Newman!”) Knight, we agree with her reluctance. This episode was mostly jokes, with not even a hint of the some of the character writing in the previous episode. If you tune into the show, I hope you get one of the good episodes.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.2
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
Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love
It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.
It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.
Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.
The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.
Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?
Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.
Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?
Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.
Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?
Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—
Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.
Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?
Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?
Neeson: Yeah, we did.
Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.
Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?
Were they more like chemistry sessions?
Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!
Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?
Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.
I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.
Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?
Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”
When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?
Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.
Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.
There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?
Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.
Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?
Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.
We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?
Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.
Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.
It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.
Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.
You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?
Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.
Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.
In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?
Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.
Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.
Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…
Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.
Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”
Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.
Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!
Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?
Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.
Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.3
The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.
It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.
Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.
In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.
This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.
A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book
Review: Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Robertson’s sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.2.5
Toward the end of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights movement and the counterculture in bloom, art was about taking political and aesthetic sides. As such, one can understand how Bob Dylan’s electric guitar could be met with violent boos, as it signified a crossing of the bridge over into the complacent mainstream, to which folk music was supposed to represent a marked resistance. In this context, one can also appreciate the daring of the Band, whose music offered beautiful and melancholic examinations of heritage that refuted easy generational demonizing, while blending blues, rock, and folk together to create a slipstream of American memory—Americana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldn’t be reduced to editorial battle hymns. Complicating matters of identity even further, the prime architects of Americana are mostly Canadian. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all from Ontario, while Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is concerned mostly with celebrating the Band’s early rise and influence on American culture, as well as their sense of connecting the past and present together through empathetic lyrics. Holding court over the film is Robertson, the dapper and charismatic songwriter and guitarist who looks and sounds every inch like the classic-rock elder statesman. Airing sentiments from his memoir, Testimony, Robertson mentions his mixed heritage as a citizen of the Six Nations of Grand River reservation who also had Jewish gangster relatives, and who moved to Canada at a formative age. Richardson learned his first chords on the reservation, and began writing songs professionally at 15, after he met Ronnie Hawkins and Helm. Hawkins’s group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.
Director Daniel Roher’s glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorsese’s Band concert film The Last Waltz, signifies that Once Were Brothers is going to steer clear of controversy. Was Hawkins bitter to have his band usurped by the teenage prodigy Robertson? Even if he wasn’t, such feelings merit exploration, though here they’re left hanging. The documentary’s title is all too apropos, as this is Robertson’s experience of the Band, rather than a collective exploration of their rise and fall. To be fair, Danko, Manuel, and Helm are all deceased, the former two dying far too young, though Hudson perhaps pointedly refused to participate in this project—another event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this story—Robertson’s intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helm—is broached only in an obligatory fashion.
Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the former’s view of things, as he maintains that much of the group succumbed to drugs and booze, leaving him to write most of the music and to shepherd their joint career as long as he could. (Robertson’s wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Band’s collective influence on musical arrangements merited a bigger slice of royalties all around. Robertson and various other talking heads remind us of these grievances, though Roher quickly pushes on to the next plot point. Robertson is a magnificent musician and subject, but his devotion to his side of the story renders him suspicious—a cultivator of brand.
For these omissions and elisions, Once Were Brothers is a slim, if ultimately enjoyable, rock testimony. The highlight is the archival footage of the Band practicing and recording, including a privileged moment with Dylan after one of the controversial electric concerts, as well as interludes at the pink house in Woodstock where they recorded their defining Music from Big Pink, an album that included their classic “The Weight,” which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertson’s idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertson’s sadness, his sense of having witnessed friends and collaborators get washed away by bitterness and addiction, was more fulsomely evoked by Scorsese in The Last Waltz, as he looked at the Band and saw an entire group, a dying unit, rather than Robbie Robertson and the other guys.
Director: Daniel Roher Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality
It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.4
War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.
We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).
Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.
The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.
And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.
Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.
Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.
Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.
As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.
Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985
Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith
It’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.3
Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but he’s also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.
This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Daniel’s fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland that’s grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Daniel’s irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.
That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confession—by Googling, no less—and reciting Father Tomasz’s prayers, discovering that it’s easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the town’s official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the man’s place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But it’s one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.
The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Daniel’s own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, it’s the vehement young man’s dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagers’ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.
It’s a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoples’ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Daniel’s adversarial presence both shines a light on the town’s hypocrisy and their leaders’ corruption, his own duplicity isn’t overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyone’s behavior in the film.
Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, it’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.
Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stella Meghie’s The Photograph Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words
The film is at its best when it’s focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.2.5
Near the middle of Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Green’s I’m Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Al’s dulcet tones, but it’s not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, it’s the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow “For the Good Times” smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michael’s seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.
The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, there’s a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one that’s judiciously tempered by their characters’ Achilles heels, be it Mae’s reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michael’s commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the film’s portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.
The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michael’s burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Mae’s estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks aren’t only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the film’s depiction of Mae and Michael’s relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.
The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film that’s at its best when it’s focused on Michael and Mae’s love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christina’s many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michael’s love affair, it’s rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Y’lan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
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