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Understanding Screenwriting #54: The Kids Are All Right, The Informant!, Siberiade, Rubicon, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #54: The Kids Are All Right, The Informant!, Siberiade, Rubicon, & More

Coming Up in this Column: The Kids Are All Right, Tom Mankiewicz: an Appreciation, The Informant!, Siberiade, Manhattan Melodrama, Rubicon, White Collar, Covert Affairs, but first…

Fan Mail: You may have missed Elaine Lennon’s comments on Inception, which were a late addition in the comments section on US#52. She is very perceptive about what the lack of Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan working on the Inception screenplay may have meant for it.

When I turned in US#53, my computer was misbehaving and dropped a section where I was writing about the scholarly article I had written. The paragraph just stopped when it got sent off to a publisher’s reader. To find out what happened you can go back to #53, where Keith and I have added the section that got dropped. It will also give you a link to the article.

On US#53, David Ehrenstein caught one of my occasional errors. I had the last name of the director as Waters, not Walters. Now you know why I do not wear a robe and a pointy hat and claim to infallibility. He also asked about my not mentioning the director Jacques Tourneur in the item on Canyon Passage. I had thought about it, since I liked Tourneur’s direction, especially his handling of Ward Bond and Brian Donlevy, but passed on it. I do sometimes mention directors, and sometimes don’t. After all, this is a column on screenwriting. And I also consider it a kind of karmic payback for all those times directors get mentioned and often credited with stuff the writer did while the writer does not get mentioned at all. David and others mentioned Tourneur’s other westerns, including Great Day in the Morning (1956), which I intend to watch when TCM shows it on Monday, August 16th.

I know Tourneur is something of a cult figure, but at least one person who worked with him was not enormously impressed. Tourneur did two films that Philip Dunne wrote, Anne of the Indies (1951), which I will have to tell you about some time, and Way of the Gaucho (1952), which Dunne was the producer on. The latter was shot in Argentina to use up Fox funds frozen by the government, and Zanuck assigned Dunne to produce it in Argentina. Zanuck figured that since Dunne loved politics, he would have fun playing with the Juan Peron regime. You can read Dunne’s autobiography Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics for the details. Anyway, when I did an oral history with Dunne, I asked what he thought of Tourneur. He said, “Jacques is a very, very nice fellow, perfectly competent and capable. He’s a very decent man. We had no problems at all… I did the script and I was the producer, but I would listen to him. He is not a creative man in that sense. He was not really a script man at all. You gave him the stuff and he shot it.” As we talked about several times before, a lot of directors, including many critical favorites are like that: you give them a good script and they give you a good movie.

“BilliPilgrim,” just back from Tramalfador I would guess, liked the discussion of spy films (see below for another item about Covert Affairs) and suggested other theme weeks. I really work more by targets of opportunity than thinking out grand strategic designs. He does suggest dealing with films about hit men, which I am not likely to do. As I tell my screenwriting students, if you believe American films and television, most American men work as cops or hit men or both and most American women work as strippers or hookers or both. I think it is about time for a moratorium on movies about hit men.

The Kids Are All Right (2010. Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg. 106 minutes)

The Kids Are All Right

And the grown-ups are even better: This picture started with Lisa Cholodenko, who also directed, having two ideas. The first was to show a functional lesbian family. That’s a situation, not a story. The second was, what would happen if a child in that family grew up wanting to know about the man who donated the sperm. That’s a story: the characters in the family are going to do certain things, other family members are going to have reactions to that, and the donor may turn out to be…well, who? And what happens then? That’s where the estimated fifty drafts of the script started.

Cholodenko started writing on her own, as she had on her two previous features, the 1998 High Art and the 2002 Laurel Canyon. She ran into Stuart Blumberg, who wrote more commercial films than she did, such as Keeping the Faith (2000) and The Girl Next Door (2004). He brought some comedy chops to the project, which helped make the characters more accessible, since Cholodenko wanted to go beyond the art house niche of her previous films. Cholodenko and Blumberg discussed almost every possible option for every event. Think of all the possibilities that could go wrong. The choices they make of which option they pick could be the wrong ones. The comedy could trivialize the material. It’s not enough to come up with a pile of good ideas. Creative work is not just coming up with great ideas. Selection of which ones you use is crucial: you have to pick the ones that will work best for your script. (The background on the development of the screenplay is from Peter Debruge’s article in the July/August 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting.)

Fortunately, Cholodenko and Blumberg picked right. Let’s start with the family. This script gives us one of the best looks I have ever seen at what I would call a “lived-in marriage.” Nic and Jules have been together for a long time and it shows. They love each other; they get on each other’s nerves. They are not, thank God, the standard “love us because we are neurotic” types that Nora Ephron gives us. They have their flaws, but they have their strengths as well. And they are a great couple: Nic, the doctor, is hard charging (for better or worse), while Jules is more down-to-earth (also for better or worse). The writers have come up with a lot of details about these two that ring true of any married couple. I particularly love that they watch gay male porn in their bedroom.

The kids are nicely drawn as well. Laser, the younger brother, ticks off his parents by hanging out with Clay, whom we and his parents can see is nothing but trouble on a stick. How much more interesting that is than if, as they had thought at one point, Laser had a relationship with his sister’s slutty friend Sasha. Then you would be in typical teen movie land. Joni, the elder sister, has just finished high school and is preparing to go away to college, which provides a structural tension to the film. It is Laser, along with Clay of course, who finds the gay porn, which we thought was just a comic detail. This leads to a terrific scene of Nic and Jules talking to Clay, thinking he might be gay. How do you liberal gay women deal with the possibility he is gay. However, he only wants to know why they watch it. And we get an interesting answer from them.

It is Laser who wants to track down the father. Joni is reluctant, but since she is eighteen, she can get the information from the adoption agency. And Paul, the father, turns out to be an equally multi-faceted character. He is nice and at the first dinner with the family, he makes a good impression, although less so on Nic. Now the family dynamic changes, which gives Cholodenko and Blumberg new scenes to write. Cholodenko’s earlier films were weak on structure, and Blumberg obviously helped here. We get a sense of the story moving, as the scenes fit into place. The turning point is when Jules has sex with Paul. Wait a minute, she’s gay. But he is paying attention to her, as she designs his garden, which Jules feels Nic is not doing. This is easily the trickiest scene in the film. If Cholodenko and Blumberg had not made all the right choices leading up to it and in the scene itself, the scene could have been a disaster and killed the picture. As it is, the Jules-Paul affair has caused a lot of discussion on the Internet and elsewhere. What the writers avoid suggesting is that Jules is just temporarily gay and can be “cured” by a “real man.” The film does not think that, as indicated by Jules knowing the affair is wrong and eventually dumping Paul, and the film also subtly lets us know that Paul does not think that either. He is just a guy who has been doing what he wants for most of his life and more or less getting away with it. Notice how his relationship with Tanya, one of the workers in his restaurant, establishes his attitudes toward relationships, which helps us see his affair with Jules accurately. And since Jules is the earthy but flaky one, the affair with Paul is something she could easily fall into, as she does in the film.

I have written a lot about the characters here, which leads to one of my mantras about screenwriting. When you are writing for the screen (or the stage), you are writing for performance. The writers have created a gallery of great roles for the actors to play. And, boy, do they play the hell out of them. I have always found Annette Bening a little cold and distant, both on film and in the stage productions she has done in LA. That fits Nic’s brittle personality, as in her wonderful outburst about composting. The writers and Cholodenko have given her a lot more to play as well. Look at the variety of reactions she has as she discovers the “evidence” of Jules and Paul’s affair. Bening gives us an aria of visual reactions. This may be her richest performance ever. Julianne Moore gets her moments as Jules as well. The writers, following in the Nicole Holofcener pattern (see US#47), give their characters unpleasant sides as well. Look at Jules firing her Latino gardner helper because he sort-of knows about her and Paul. Maybe Holofcener’s Catherine Keener is the only other actress alive who could make us both irritated and sympathetic in that scene, but Moore manages it here. Listen to and watch Jules’s “apology” to her family at the end. It’s a verbal aria and Moore gives it a great reading.

As good as Bening and Moore are individually, they are also great at getting that “live-in marriage” feeling the writers provide. You believe these two are married and have been for years, not only in what they say, but how they physically deal with each other, and I don’t mean sexually. And they also play well off the two actors playing their kids, especially Mia Wasikowska as Joni. You may remember I thought she was brilliant as Alice in this year’s version of Alice in Wonderland, and she is just as good here. Unless she goes all Lindsay Lohan on us, she is going to be a BIG star. Josh Hutcherson as Laser is not bad, but he suffers in comparison with the three women. On the other hand, he gets and beautifully delivers a great payoff line at the end of the film.

Tom MankiewiczTom Mankiewicz: An Appreciation: While I was working on this column, I came across a notice that Tom Mankiewicz died of cancer on July 31st. As I mentioned in US#44, Tom was a Yale classmate of mine who went on to write three of the James Bond films. You can check out what he had to say about writing Bond films in that column. We were more acquaintances than friends in college. I think he thought I was a hillbilly from the Midwest and I thought he was an East Coast snob. I may have just been put off by the fact that the would-be actresses in the Yale Drama School found him a lot more interesting than they did me, especially after they found out he was the son of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve [1950], et al). We met up again about ten years later when he came to one of my classes at LACC and talked about his adventures in screenwriting. We had both matured a bit by then, and he was charming and delightful. When he was directing on Hart to Hart in the early ‘80s I tried to arrange to go on the set and see him work. Unfortunately, the one day I was available, they were shooting with a live lion and the insurance company would not let anybody else on the set.

While Tom is best known for his work on the Bond films, he also worked on the ‘70s-‘80s Superman films, and did a lot of script doctoring. The best piece I have found on him is on a British website on all things Bond, although the Los Angeles Times obituary has some nice quotes from people who worked with him. His career was not quite up to that of his father or his uncle Herman, but then whose is? Tom certainly entertained us over the years. And he was happy with that. As he told the Miami Herald in 1987, “I don’t apologize for entertaining people.”

The Informant! (2009. Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald. 108 minutes)

The Informant!

Talk about your unreliable narrator!: I had missed this one when it came out last year, but I wanted to take a look at it. Or rather a listen to it, since it has an extreme example of what is called, in literary circles, an unreliable narrator.

When Burns came across the non-fiction book by Eichenwald, what struck him was not only the story, but the main character. Mark Whitacre was a vice-president at Archer Daniels Midlands in the early ‘90s. He eventually became an informant for the F.B.I. about price-fixing at ADM. Except that there were all sorts of things that he did not tell the F.B.I.. As in the close to eleven million dollars he arranged to have himself paid in the form of kickbacks. Burns figured that the time was ripe for an informant story, since The Insider (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000) had just come out. But Burns had a problem. The more he looked into the story, the funnier he found it. It was not unlike the problem T.E.B. Clarke had in the early ‘50s when he started out to write a screenplay about heisting gold bars from the Bank of England. Clarke intended it to be serious, but the details seemed funny to him. So he turned it into the classic 1951 comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. Fortunately, Burns’s pitch was picked up by Steven Soderbergh, the director of Erin Brockovich. (The background is from Peter Clines’s article in the September/October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting.) Soderbergh had done his serious version with Brockovich, and he felt that The Insider was the definitive whistle-blower movie. And he found the material funny as well.

What struck Burns about Whitacre (from the book; Burns did not meet him or his wife while he was working on the script) was that he seemed bi-polar. Burns told Clines that he had always liked the unreliable narrator in Melville’s The Confidence Man adding, “I always thought that would be a really cool device to have in a movie. When you start looking at Whitacre as a character and his demons, it lends itself perfectly to the idea of an unreliable narrator, because that’s how the world experienced him. I hope the fun is in some ways like the experience that Shephard and Herndon (the two primary F.B.I. agents) had of him or that his friends had of him. He’s the charming, funny, kind of goofy guy who seems, if nothing else, kind of harmless and nerdy. He’s a Ph.D. in some very arcane field. And then all of a sudden you realize there are inconsistencies in his story and then the fun begins. You go on this ride of realizing, ’Oh my God, did this guy take us in because he’s a master criminal? Or is he someone who—because he has a real psychological disorder—can’t control himself?’”

But Burns goes beyond just unreliable. Yes, there is information we get that turns out not to be true. But one of Whitacre’s characteristics is that he goes off on tangents, and that becomes part of the narration as well. You know how I always say that you shouldn’t write anything in the script you don’t need? Well, this is sort of an exception. We don’t need to hear the tangents in story terms, but we do in terms of Whitacre’s character, as well as in terms of making the film different from the whistle-blower movies that have come before. One of the few things Marx (Karl not Groucho) said that is still true is that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. If you are writing a film about a subject that has been done to death seriously, it is probably time to to do it as farce.

The Informant! (both the exclamation point in the title and Marvin Hamlisch’s relentlessly jaunty score make sure we know it’s a comedy) did not do well at the box office, and I suspect the total unreliability of the narration may be the cause. The narration is funny, bizarre, and inventive, but it may have been too much for regular audiences. There is also a bit of Hollywood condescension towards the people of the Midwest that did not help. But somebody else is going to do what Burns did and make it work better. It is too interesting a technique not to use again sometime.

Siberiade (1979. Written by Valentin Ezhov and Andrey Konchalovskiy. 260 minutes on the current DVD. Check the IMDb for other running times)

Siberiade

Not Doctor Zhivago: This is one of those legendary Russian films I have heard about for years and never seen. I found it browsing through the foreign film sections of Netflix. Given its running time, it may be best to watch on home video when you can take as many potty breaks as you need.

As you might guess from its length, this is an epic. It begins in the early years of the 20th century and goes up to the late ‘60s. Mostly we are in the village of Elan in Siberia, and we follow members of two families, The Solonins, who are the richest people in the village, which does not mean much, except to them and the villagers. The other family is the Ustyuzhanins, who are poorer. That description suggests more of a family saga than the film turns out to be, since we tend to focus on individuals in different parts of the film. The film was made at the beginning of the last decade of the Soviet Union, so it is still sympathetic to Communism, although we do get a variety of responses to it over the years from the characters. In the last hour or so it is critical of the bureaucrats in Moscow, but only to a limited degree. I ended up not finding this film as compelling as the 1999 film Sunshine, which follows a Hungarian family through most of the twentieth century. Because it was made after the fall of the Soviet Empire, it can deal with the politics better than Siberiade. Sunshine’s characters are also better drawn than the ones here.

We are introduced to Kolya Ustyuzhanin as a boy stealing dumplings from the Solonins. Even as a kid, he is flirting with Anastasia Solonin, and she with him. But it is not a Romeo and Juliet romance. Kolya becomes enchanted with a revolutionary, Rodin, who hides out in the village. Kolya grows up to be Nikolai, who runs off with Anastasia to join the revolution. She is killed, but he comes back with their son, Alexei, to try to find oil in the area. Nikolai is killed by one of the Solonins, and Alexei goes to World War II, where he saves the life of Phil Solinin, without realizing who it is. Alexei becomes an oil driller and returns to the area, as does Phil, who is now the Party Regional Secretary. Phil hopes they find oil, since otherwise Moscow wants to flood the whole area. The well finally comes in—in terms of Russia in the ‘60s, that’s a happy ending.

Yes, it is very Russian. Kolya’s father hears the trees weeping when he cuts them down to make a road. Everybody is superstitiously afraid of the Devil’s Mane, one of the local natural landmarks. They all drink a lot, and laugh uproariously. The characterizations are rather shallow, and the acting variable. Andrey Konchalovskiy also directs, and his brother, Nikita Mikhalkov (also a director) plays the adult Alexei, and Andrey lets him get away with a little too much. Igor Okhulpin is too much of a blank as Phil, especially since he is the dominant character in the last hour.

Yes, the film is not as sentimental and soap opera-ish as Doctor Zhivago (1965) and probably more authentically Russian. On the other hand, as nicely photographed as it is in Russia, I missed Freddy Young’s brilliant cinematography that convinces you Spain, Finland, and Canada are Russia. Not to mention Maurice Jarre’s score and the definitive Lara, Julie Christie. On the other hand, if you happen to be near a haystack with Natalya Andreychenk’s grownup Anastasia…

Manhattan Melodrama (1934. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the story “Three Men” by Arthur Caesar. 93 minutes)

Manhattan MelodramaMelodrama’s the word for it: This one is famous for being the film John Dillinger went out to see the night he was shot. Michael Mann uses clips from it in last year’s Public Enemies, but I found that the clips only emphasized how little dramatic action there is in Public Enemies. There is a lot of drama going on in Manhattan Melodrama, which lives up to both words in its title.

Manhattan Melodrama sets the pattern for most of the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the later ‘30s: Two kids, Blackie and Jim Wade, are orphaned at a young age. They grow up to be on opposite sides of the law. Blackie runs gambling clubs and occasionally shoots people, but only those who deserve it. Jim grows up to be a fighting D.A. and later governor, Blackie having conveniently killed off the one guy who threatened to ruin Jim’s campaign. Blackie is eventually convicted of another murder, and when Jim offers him a pardon, Blackie tells Jim of the other murder and nobly agrees to go to the chair.

Wait a minute. Warner Brothers? Manhattan Melodrama was an MGM film. Well, the studios all stole from each other, and if MGM was going to lay down a good template, why not steal it? Especially since Manhattan Melodrama won an Oscar for Best Story. (See the discussion of The Dark Mirror in US#51 for the nuances of the writing awards in those days.)

Well, at least it’s got the MGM gloss. Not really. This was produced by David O. Selznick during one of his stays at his father-in-law’s studio before he went independent. The budget, according to Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System, was only about $300,000, while Selznick’s production of David Copperfield (1935) was a little over $1,000,000. The budget limitations show. Yes, the fire on the cruise boat is a nice Slavko Vorkapich montage but it’s not expensive, and the political convention where Jim is nominated for governor is done with one large closeup of a man making the nominating speech. Yes, Clark Gable, who plays Blackie, was one of MGM’s biggest stars, but Myrna Loy, who plays Eleanor, his girlfriend who marries Jim (I told you it was melodrama), was not yet a big star. And Selznick had to fight to cast William Powell as Jim, since everybody else at MGM thought his career was over. Early in the picture, Blackie sends Eleanor to let Jim know Blackie will be late for a meeting. Eleanor jumps into Jim’s car. They have never met before and they sit in the car and get acquainted. Pretty straightforward scene. Except that this is the first teaming of Loy and Powell, and boy, does the chemistry between them just jump off the screen. They followed this a few months later with The Thin Man, also a low-budget movie, just in case everybody had guessed wrong about the Loy-Powell chemistry. They weren’t wrong, and the sequel two years later had all the MGM production gloss that Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man do not have.

The film helped the career of Tom’s dad Joseph L. Mankiewicz as well, although there is very little that is distinctively Mankiewiczian about the script. Mankiewicz had come out to Hollywood at the encouragement of his brother Herman and worked at Paramount. According to Mankiewicz’s biographer, Kenneth L. Geist, he came to MGM and proceeded to turn down the first three assignments he was given, infuriating the powerful producer Harry Rapf. He ended up on this one, and it was a hit while all the other three were flops. He stayed at MGM until the early ‘40s, when he moved to 20th Century-Fox and eventually took up directing.

Rubicon (2010. “Gone in the Teeth” episode written by James Horwitch. “The First Day of School” episode teleplay by Henry Bromell, story by Henry Bromell & James Horwitch. Each episode 60 minutes)

Rubicon

Agreeing with Robert Lloyd: The Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd began his review of the two-part series opener of this show this way: “With its new series Rubicon, AMC appears to have set itself the challenge of mounting a show even slower than its Mad Men. And it has succeeded.” He’s right. Boy, is he ever right.

I don’t mind slow. See my comments in US#40 on the Romanian film Police, Adjective (2009) for a discussion on the uses of slow. Or my comments on any of the Mad Men episodes. But if you are going to go as slowly as this show goes, you had better give us something in return. Look at my comments on Don’s first date on the season opener of Mad Men in US#53. Or look at the “morning after, in the office” scene in the “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” episode of Mad Men, written by Tracy McMillan & Matthew Weiner, in which Don, who has seduced his secretary the night before doesn’t talk to her about it. Both are slow scenes, especially the latter, but there is a lot of character detail we get.

No such luck in this show. Will Travers, our hero, is an intelligence analyst at one of those many private firms that contract work from the government. But he’s been a really bad mood since his wife and child were killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11. OK, he deserves to grieve, but it does not make him much fun to watch, since all he seems to do is sulk. There appear to be no other colors to his personality. The same is true of the other characters. In “Gone in the Teeth” we do get a lively character, Will’s boss David, but he is killed off early on. Will’s associates are one-note at best.

We might stick with them if we saw them actually doing any intelligence analysis. Process is always a useful thing to show, since it can involve the audience. Look at Thomas looking at the blowups of his photographs in Blow-Up (1966) trying to figure out if a murder has been committed. We get virtually nothing here in terms of the process of analysis. At one point Will and his team (he has taken over from the late David as head of the team by the second episode) are tasked with finding out who a couple of people in a photograph are. They find out about one of them, but we have no idea how. Think of how previous films and series have used the occupations of their characters, such as making Don Draper as an ad man.

White Collar (2010. “By the Book” episode written by Alexandra McNally. 60 minutes)

White Collar

Tuesday August 3rd was a good night from the USA network, take one: One of the advantages of creating a whole gallery of interesting characters in a series is that every so often you can let one of the minor ones be the focus of an episode. It was Mozzie’s turn on this one. Mozzie, for those of you who don’t watch, is a friend of Neal, the con man working with Peter, the F.B.I. guy who captured him. Mozzie is into all kinds of not so legal stuff, as we saw in the “Need to Know” episode. Here we find out he has a crush on Gina, a waitress in a local coffee shop. When he thinks she has been kidnapped, he asks Neal to see what the F.B.I. can find. Eventually Peter et al realize what Neal is up to, and McNally neatly balances the professionalism of the F.B.I. against the rogue antics of Mozzie, who threatens to upset everybody’s plans. The F.B.I. is going to send Tommy, Gina’s boyfriend who has stolen money from a weapons dealer, to make the exchange, but Mozzie gets there first and bluffs his way in. Meanwhile, he has left Neal a message that he is setting up a “perfect exchange,” a plan he and Neal worked up. Unfortunately they never had a chance to try it and they discover it is not so perfect: the weapons dealer can kill the middle man, Mozzie, once he tells him the details of the exchange. Mozzie gets rescued, thank goodness. He is too much fun to kill off.

Covert Affairs (2010. “No Quarter” episode written by Steven Hootstein in the on-screen credits, or by Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin on IMDb. 60 minutes)

Covert Affairs

Tuesday August 3rd was a good night from the USA network, take two: The Company obviously does not want to send Annie Walker out on a difficult assignment, so she is assigned an easy one: go to Zurich to trade suitcases in the airport with an agent of the Mossad, Eyal. If everything goes well, the episode is over in two minutes. Everything does not go well. A grenade goes off in the airport, but Annie manages to hold on to her case. She eventually ends up at the safe house where she is nearly killed by Eyal, since he didn’t think she would be there. Well, what with budget cuts, the Company and Mossad have to share safe houses (that’s not my line, it’s Eyal’s). Can she trust him? Can he trust her? He’s almost as good looking as she is, so is romance going to blossom? And who’s trying to kill them? The writer(s) get a lot out of the by-play between them, both dramatic and romantic, and it is obvious Piper Perabo (Annie) and Oded Fehr (Eyal) are having a lot of fun. There is action (Annie rappelling down an elevator shaft) and comedy (trying to get a bride in a leg cast up to dance so they can recover Annie’s briefcase hidden under the table), as well as some interesting reactions. Eyal figures out the guy trying to kill them is a rogue Mossad agent by the way he attacks the building, and Eyal says at the end he is rather ashamed that such a well-trained rogue agent was not able to kill him and Annie. We think he is probably joking.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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

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

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

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

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

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

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

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

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

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

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

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

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

According to A24’s official description of the film:

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

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

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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

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

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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