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Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Caprice but first…

Fan Mail: I trust you all marked it down on your calendars. In his comments on US#54, David Ehrenstein and I actually seem to be in agreement over something. In this case it was the handling of the Jules-Paul affair in The Kids Are All Right. In regard to Phil Dunne’s comments on Jacques Tourneur, David returns with a quote from Fritz Lang from Contempt that “…on screen it’s pictures. Moving pictures they call it.” That’s absolutely true, and it is indeed the director’s job to find the pictures that will tell the story. Later on in this column you will get a nice demonstration of a director who doesn’t quite handle it right. In one of the great Kevin Brownlow documentaries (I think it is Hollywood: The Pioneers) he has an interview with Byron Haskin, a cinematographer and later director. Haskin is making fun of Michael Curtiz, of whom Peter Ustinov said in his memoir Dear Me that he “never learned American, let alone English, and he had forgotten his Hungarian, which left him in a limbo of his own, both entertaining and wild.” Haskin says that Curtiz used to walk around the set saying, “We visualize! We visualize!” Haskin thinks this is funny, but it struck me that it is the heart of directing.

“Doniphon” thinks the script for Way of the Gaucho (1952) was not very good, and Phil Dunne, who wrote it, would agree with him. Fox decided to produce the film primarily to use up money they had earned in Argentina, which Argentina had frozen. When Dunne and company got to Argentina, he discovered the book he had based the screenplay on was completely inaccurate. He also had to deal with Juan Peron’s “censors” who insisted on changes. Having heard about what happened, I am surprised the screenplay makes any sense at all. Doniphon says that Tourneur’s direction is the only reason people watch it today. It may be why Tourneur’s fans watch it, but people generally watch movies for all different kinds of reasons. The director is usually the least of those reasons. See my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, especially the chapter on directors, for a detailed discussion of that issue.

Life During Wartime (2009. Written by Todd Solondz. 98 minutes.)

Life During Wartime

But I LIKED Happiness: I have always had mixed feelings about Solondz’s films, which I expect is exactly what he wants. There is always a nasty side to his work, but the dark humor makes it work in the best of his films. That was particularly true of the 1998 film Happiness, which dealt with three sisters and their family. The script for that film built to a powerful, creepy scene in which a pedophile talks about what he does. Life During Wartime is a sequel of sorts to Happiness, which immediately raises the question: do we really want to check in with these people twelve years later? Well, as Raymond the butler says in Citizen Kane, umm, yes and no.

These are not characters you would probably want to hang out with in real life, but they can be interesting for 98 minutes on screen. In the opening scene, Joy and her boyfriend Allen are having dinner, but she seems to be upset about something. The waitress comes to take their order, but when Allen asks about the specials, the waitress gets furious with him, since she recognizes him as a phone stalker. Then we go to another scene of a couple talking over food, Trish, the oldest sister, and her new boyfriend, Harvey. And then we get a whole lot more two people scenes, often over food. You would think Nora Ephron co-wrote the script. Some of the scenes are interesting and the acting is terrific in all of them, but visually if not verbally they are very repetitive. We are caught in Solondz’s world in which the one person who smiles, Tish, is seen as in denial. Solondz’s films are hermetically sealed universes, and in this case it gets rather tiresome.

The film is about forgiveness and whether it is possible, but the dialogue spells that out in the most obvious ways. Solondz can write nice, subtle scenes, but he can also be a rather clumsy writer. He does break up all the dialogue scenes with some nice wordless ones featuring Bill, Trish’s husband and her kids’ father. He is just getting out of prison and he comes down to Florida, where Trish has moved, to try to reconnect. We see him walking around, following people, and in one scene breaking into Trish’s house to see where she and his kids live. Eventually he tracks down his oldest son at college and confronts him. I think structurally this is supposed to be the equivalent of his admission scene at the end of Happiness, but it just does not have the same power.

Much has been made of Solondz’s recasting all the major roles. Looking at the two films together, which I have not done, I suspect you will get a master class in what different actors bring to the same part. For example, in Happiness, Joy is played by Jane Adams with a wonderful deadpan expression. Shirley Henderson’s Joy in the new film emphasizes the neediness of the character, which gets tiresome. Dylan Baker was astonishing as Bill in the first film, but Ciarán Hinds brings a totally different quality to the part. Hinds embodies the emotional exhaustion that Bill has developed as a result of his years in prison. As much as I love Baker, I am not sure that quality is in his range.

The title is a bit baffling. Yes, there are occasional references to the War on Terror, etc., but they seem more like throwaway lines than any serious attempt to make the issue part of the film. After all, Solondz is not really interested in social issues except as they impinge on his universe. One review I read suggested the “wartime” is the war within the family, but these folks are just rather grim as opposed to warlike.

Get Low (2010. Screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, story by Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke. 100 minutes.)

Get Low

Well, it’s not as depressing as Is Anybody There?: The night before my wife and I saw Get Low, we watched a 2008 British film called Is Anybody There? on DVD. I’m not doing a full item on it because it was a real downer. Written by Peter Harness, it stars Michael Caine in another of his great performances. Caine plays Clarence, a retired magician who comes to stay in a retirement home, where he sort of makes friends with Edward, the 10 year-old-son of the owners. Edward has a morbid fascination with the dead and dying and hopes to communicate with Clarence when he dies. Clarence dies and appears to come back as a badger. The film is relentlessly dreary. So when we went out to a movie the next night, we were looking for something a little more lighthearted. Unfortunately the one we were aiming for was in a small auditorium and only had seats in the front row, and we know enough about the auditoriums in this theater to know we would both have cricks in our necks if we sat there. Get Low, which was on our list to see, started at the same time, so we gave it a shot instead.

The script is based on a story told to Seeke by his wife’s family about a hermit in Tennessee in the ‘30s who arranged his own funeral while he was still alive. You can see why we might not want to see this after Is Anybody There? Seeke and his friend Provenzano could not find any background information on the story, which meant they could make it up as they wanted to. Provenzano developed the first drafts of the script ten years ago and eventually it found its way to producer Dean Zanuck (yes, of that family; he is Darryl’s grandson and Richard’s son) in 2002. Zanuck got Robert Duvall to play Felix, the hermit. The director selected, Aaron Schneider, did a draft and then when Provenzano was unavailable, Mitchell was brought on. (The background is from an article by Peter Clines in the July/August Creative Screenwriting. You can also look at a WGA interview with Provenzano and Mitchell who, unlike a lot of “collaborators,” actually seem to get along even though one was rewriting the other.)

So Felix wants his funeral while he is still alive so he can hear the stories people tell about him. And in Frank Quinn, who runs a funeral parlor, he finds somebody who is willing to do it for him. Two things right away: the film is promising us we will hear a lot of people’s stories about Felix, but it welches on that deal. We occasionally get some suggestions of stories about Felix, but not that many, since it turns out Felix wants to tell his story to a crowd. This not only gives Robert Duvall, who makes Felix different from all the other older curmudgeons he has played recently, a wonderful aria to play, but it keeps the film from dribbling away with a lot of unrelated talk. The writers set up a lot of mysteries about Felix, giving us hints of his past, so that we are perfectly willing not to hear the stories of others as long as we get his story.

The second thing is the character of Frank Quinn. He’s funny. There is no equivalent character in Is Anybody There? and it makes all the difference. Whatever depressing elements there are in Get Low, and there are more than a few, they are lightened by Quinn. Especially since Bill Murray plays him. Duvall and Murray, whom you might not think would have great chemistry, do since, in these roles, they both fight to see who can underplay the other. You have to watch and listen closely to get everything they are doing, but it the results are very rewarding.

The downside of the film is its director, Aaron Schneider. He was the co-writer and director of the 2003 short film Two Soldiers, which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. He is primarily a cinematographer, working in both theatrical films and television. Get Low is very good to look at, but often his choices of where to put the camera in relation to the actors are not the best. A shot may be a great shot, but it may not tell the story as well as some other angle. And the coverage he got leaves Schneider, who also edited the film, with some odd cuts. Every cinematographer I have ever known always thought he could direct the picture he was working on better than the director. But direction and cinematography are two very different crafts. Some people, like Steven Soderbergh, can do both. Schneider can’t yet, but he may learn.

Flipped (2010. Screenplay by Rob Reiner & Andrew Sheinman, based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen. 90 minutes.)


Much less depressing than Life During Wartime: Writing about The Informant! in US#54, I discussed its use of the unreliable narrator. Here we have two narrators, both of them reliable, even though they are telling us very different things about the same events. If you think that makes for a lot of narration in this film, you are absolutely right. And every screenwriting textbook in the world will tell you to avoid narration. They are right. And the multiple narrators and piles of narration work perfectly here. Go figure.

The setup is simple: we are going to follow Bryce Lotski and Juli Baker through about six years of their lives, starting in grade school and ending in junior high. They live across the street from each other and sometimes he likes her and she doesn’t like him, and sometimes it is the reverse. What the script does (and I assume they get this from the book) is have Bryce and Juli narrate the film. Separately. In the opening scene we see Bryce and his family moving in and we get him telling us how he did not like Juli from the first time he saw her. Then we get Juli’s version of what happened. Yes, this could get very schematic, but it doesn’t. What the writers have done is make sure each time that Julie tells us her side, that tells us something more we, and Bryce, did not know. When we see one version, we look forward to seeing and hearing the other version, because the writers establish that pattern from the opening scenes. Late in the picture, there is a sequence where the junior high boys are raffled off as “basket boys,” complete with picnic baskets for a lunch with whichever girl bids the most for them. Bryce assumes because Juli has a pile of money with her that she intends to bid on him. Her version is very different.

The double narration works here at least partly because of the ages of the kids. They are, as kids those ages usually are, willing to change their minds on a dime. So we sort of need the narration to keep up with where each one of them is emotionally. The writers are also very, very good at setting up reactions for the actors to have that add to, or at least reflect off, the narration we hear.

In addition to Bryce and Juli, we also get their families and the writers give the family members a lot to play in their scenes. And a lot of variety to play, unlike Solondz in Life During Wartime. Flipped is intended as a much lighter film than Wartime, but the writers have given us a few surprising moments of depth with the older generation to help anchor the film.

The novel is set in the indeterminate present, but Rob Reiner, who also directs, wanted it set in a more innocent time. The film takes place from 1957 to 1963, and the writers and the production do not beat us over the head with the period detail. The costumes and cars are right, and even though I am not a particularly musical person, I appreciated the choices for the music of the period used on the soundtrack. It is not the usual relentlessly nostalgic stuff we have traditionally had in pictures like this.

So. There is no incest. No pedophilia. No car chases. No explosions. No “Rock Around the Clock.” Nobody dies. It stops before the Kennedy assassination. Enjoy, enjoy.

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009. Screenplay by Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vigon, based on the novel by Eric Holder. 101 minutes.)

Mademoiselle Chambon

I was so in the mood for this: The first ten minutes of this film is one of the worst openings of a movie I have ever seen. Every screenwriting textbook and every screenwriting instructor make the same point: the first ten pages of the script are crucial to get an agent to read it, to get a studio reader to read it, to get actors and directors to read it, and to capture the audience when the film is made. John Sayles once said you can do anything in the first ten minutes of a film, because you are establishing the world of the film. Brother Sayles and I should have a little talk about that “do anything” after he sees this movie.

We open on Jean, a construction guy, using a jackhammer. The particular sound effect they use this first time for the jackhammer is so obnoxious you want to scream. The other times we hear the jackhammer, the sound effect is less harsh. OK, that may be a directorial mistake. (Brizé directed as well as co-wrote.) But then we pick up on Jean, his wife Anne-Marie, and their son Jérémy on a picnic. Great, picnic on the grass, happy family. Jérémy is trying to understand his lessons on the direct object in a sentence. So they talk about it. And talk some more. And talk some more. About the “direct object,” for God’s sake. Well, I suppose Sayles is right: this first ten minutes establishes the world of the film: a long, talky, and slow world.

Needless to say, if the family is that happy at the beginning, bad stuff is going to happen. When Anne-Marie is unable to pick up their son at school, Jean does and meets the teacher, Véronique Chambon. Ah, sparks fly. Well, no, they don’t. She asks Jean to come to the French equivalent of career day and talk about his work. He does. Ah, sparks fly. No, but the camera slowly dollies in on her. This would suggest she is interested in him, but neither her expression nor his lecture justifies our imagining she is getting the hots for him. Later, we do know what makes him first interested in her. Then they jump into bed. Well, no they don’t. This film has been promoted as a French Brief Encounter (1945), in which a couple falls in love but manage not to consummate the affair. Except that Noel Coward’s lovers struggle over the effort they have to make not to sleep together. Jean and Véronique never break a sweat. And then, 85 minutes into the film, they do the nasty. That’s either too late (if they were going to do it, we want to see the outcome, as in Jules and Paul in The Kids Are All Right) or too early (leave it for the big finish). Jean has Véronique bring her violin to play for his father’s wedding, and hearing her play, Anne-Marie understands there may be something between Jean and Véronique. This is virtually the only scene in the entire film where we get a reaction that tells us about the emotions of any of the characters in the film.

When Véronique decides in the end to leave their town, Jean says he is going to come with her. She waits at the train station for him, but when he does not show up on the platform, she gets on the train and leaves. He has come to the station, but loses his nerve and does not join her. He goes back to his wife. Now go back and look at the similar train station sequences in Casablanca (1942), Brief Encounter, Love in the Afternoon (1957), and this year’s The Secret in Their Eyes. Enough said.

As you may gather from that list of train station scenes, I am a sucker for great romantic movies, particular when the lovers have to part because of duty and honor. One of my favorite lines in Roman Holiday is the Princess reacting to one of her staff reminding her of her responsibilities after she’s had her fling with the reporter: “If I were not completely aware of my duty, I would not have returned tonight. Or, indeed, ever again.” We don’t get a lot of romantic dramas like that much any more, which is why I had high hopes for Mademoiselle Chambon. It is not a good movie, but it may also just be the times we live in. I long since stopped trying to show Brief Encounter in my film history class at Los Angeles City College. The younger generation’s reaction to it was, “If they had the hots for each other, why didn’t they just, you know, do it?”

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009. Written by Serge Bromberg. 94 minutes in the American release.)

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

Welcome to the ’60, take one: Henri-Georges Clouzot was one of the great pre-New Wave French film screenwriters and directors, with at least three certifiable classics to his filmography: Le Corbeau (1943), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), and another, Quai des Orfèvre (1947), that comes close. He was a master of putting the screws on his characters, who usually were not very nice people. In Diabolique, for example, a wife and a mistress collaborate on killing their husband/lover. Or so we think, but it turns out to be even worse than that. Both The Wages of Fear and Diabolique were international hits, and in 1964 he was one of a number of foreign directors of the time given more money than he was used to by American sources to make a film. L’inferno was to star one of the biggest European stars of the time, Romy Schneider, as Odette, a young wife whose husband Marcel (Serge Reggiani) grows increasingly convinced in his fantasies that she is being unfaithful to him. Sounds like material that was right in his wheelhouse. The film was never completed.

Several years ago, Serge Bromberg, a French documentary filmmaker, found himself stuck in an elevator for two hours with Clouzot’s widow and they got to talking about the film. Reels of footage that were shot still existed, mostly without the accompanying soundtracks. What Bromberg has done is make this documentary about the making and unmaking of the original film, using the original footage, interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, and a couple of contemporary actors acting out scenes from Clouzot’s script. It is the best “unmaking of a movie” documentary since Lost in La Mancha (2002).

At the risk of sounding like a complete auteurist, the fault for the production falling apart was completely Clouzot’s. As his former crewmembers point out, in the past he had been a perfectionist, but a disciplined one. Now he had the money not to be. He kept shooting material, particularly for the fantasy sequences, that was not in the script, always a danger sign. He also had three complete film crews, with the idea that one would be setting up the next scenes while he shot the current scenes. That did not work out because he was by nature obsessive about detail and would not let anything be set up unless he was there to personally supervise it.

The other problem was that he had seen the New Wave films, the films of Antonioni, and especially Fellini’s 8 ½. Like most directors and would-be directors, he was fascinated by the way Fellini was playing around with cinema, including flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies. Clouzot recognized the great change that was taking place in international films and he wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at that. The scenes in the footage that work best are the black-and-white “realistic” scenes where Marcel is growing more and more psychotic. There is a good Clouzot movie in those scenes, but the fantasy scenes, shot in color, are bad late-‘60s hippy LSD trip scenes. Unlike Fellini he had no feel for that kind of imagery. The most stunning image in the film is one of the black-and-white shots involving Romy Schneider, nude, on railroad tracks with a train bearing down on her. And it’s not rear projection. It is a bad Fellini shot, but a perfect Henri-Georges Clouzot shot.

Clouzot drove the actors so hard that Serge Reggiani, who had worked with him before, walked off the film. Clouzot had a heart attack, and the film was never finished. Clouzot’s script, however, was eventually sold to Claude Chabrol, who was closer in artistic temperament to Clouzot than any of the other New Wave filmmakers. Chabrol made it into the 1994 film Hell, which I alas have not seen. Maybe Todd Solondz will do an American remake.

Caprice (1967. Screenplay by Jay Jayson and Frank Tashlin, story by Martin Hale and Jay Jayson. 98 minutes)


Welcome to the ‘60s, take two, or, why are we watching a Doris Day movie?: Since we have been talking about spying and intelligence work a lot recently, I thought I would give this one a watch. It deals with industrial intelligence, one company spying on another, not a traditional subject in films, although last year’s Duplicity handled it very well, much better than this one.

The critical word on Caprice has been all over the map. Leonard Maltin lists it as a “Bomb” in his movie and video guides, but Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema puts it in italics in his listing of director Frank Tashlin’s film, Sarris’s designation of quality. Most of the user comments on the comment board on IMDb are not good, but Leslie Halliwell in his film guide gives it a star indicating there are some positive aspects to it. Halliwell’s thumbnail critique is “Incoherent kaleidoscope which switches from farce to suspense and Bond-style action, scattering in-jokes along the way. Bits of it however are funny, and it looks good.” I’m going to go with Halliwell on this one, although I like it less that I suspect he did. There was at least one scene in the middle of the picture that has stuck in my mind since I saw the film for the first time in 1967, so it was time to look at it again.

The film opens with very “Bond-style action” as two skiers zoom down the slopes of Switzerland, the one in black shooting at the one in white. The one in white dies and we go to an imitation-Maurice Binder credit sequence. Then Patricia is arrested by the French Sécurité and at the end of the scene we learn she has stolen plans for…a new underarm deodorant. The subject, as Frank Gilroy knew when he wrote about cosmetic thievery in Duplicity, is ripe for satire. But we do not get satire here. I don’t know what the original story was like, but subtle satire is not in Frank Tashlin’s wheelhouse. He got into films writing and directing cartoons, and he is best known for his slapstick comedies of the ‘50s with such living cartoons as Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield. Patricia is played here by Doris Day, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Her specialty was perky, and nobody gave better perk than Day. The film is co-produced by her husband, Martin Melcher, and he made sure the film looked good. It is gorgeously photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, maybe a little too gorgeously. And Day is wearing very fashionable, mid-‘60s clothes. Fashionable if you were in your twenties, but Day was 45 the year this film was made. Her kind of perk at age 45 is a little hard to take. While she could do serious, as in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and light comedy, as in the 1959 Pillow Talk, being a serious spy in a partially serious film was not in her wheelhouse. And speaking of wheelhouses, her co-star was Richard Harris, trying to make a Hollywood career for himself, but light comedy was not what he did well. Day and Harris try, but there is no chemistry between them. The script does not help, since we are not sure in the beginning whether they are attracted to each other or not.

I suspect the script problems came from Tashlin trying to make it into something he felt comfortable with. On the one hand it is a big, glossy vehicle for a major female star, but her costumes are trying to be trendy. On the other hand, it is obviously influenced by the Bond films. The slapstick calls to mind the Pink Panther films. And one of the in-jokes involves Patricia going to a movie theater that is playing Caprice, starring Doris Day and Richard Harris, which is the sort of self-reflexivity the French New Wave would love. I suspect that Tashlin was just as confused about the changes in film in the ‘60s as Clouzot was.

The action scenes, particularly the two skiing scenes, are rather ordinary, although that may be because we are now watching them after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and the current Inception. The slapstick comedy sequences work the best. One involves Harris’s Christopher trying to get Patricia to admit she is working for her former boss against her current boss. She realizes he has a microphone in a sugar cube at an outdoor restaurant and does everything to drown out the sound, while Tashlin cuts away to her current boss trying to listen and reacting apoplectically to the other sounds.

Another slapstick scene is the one that stuck in my mind all these years. Patricia is trying to get a strand of hair off Su Ling, the sexy Chinese secretary to Stuart Clancy. Clancy has invented a water-resistant hair spray and Su Ling uses it. Patricia follows Su Ling to her home in the hills, and while Su Ling sunbathes on a deck built out over the hills, Patricia tries to cut a bit of her hair. This involves climbing out on the underside of the deck with a pair of garden shears, dealing with Su Ling’s large dog, and assorted other problems. Tashlin and his fellow writers have come up with a great slapstick scene, although, since Day was not particularly good at slapstick, it depends more on the writing and direction than it does the performance. The juxtaposition of Day’s stunt woman scrambling around as opposed to the nonchalance of Su Ling in her bikini is both funny and sexy at the same time, the sort of thing that Tashlin could bring off well. The rest of the script is the same sort of hodgepodge we have already discussed. It even ends up with a man dressed as a woman, possibly a nod to Psycho (1960).

There is another reason the deck scene stuck in my mind over the years. Su Ling is played by a young Chinese American actress named Irene Tsu. While I had seen a couple of pictures she had done before, this scene firmly implanted her in my mind. So much so that, five years later, when she enrolled in my History of the Motion Pictures class at LACC, I recognized her right away. It was the second semester I was teaching the course, and at the end of the semester I took some of the class time and had her tell the class about her experiences. She had worked with John Ford on 7 Women (1966) (Ford not only intimidated Irene, but Anne Bancroft as well) and Buster Keaton on the How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). She said she was near tears when she saw Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) in class because she knew nothing about his early days when she had worked with him.

Irene was fun to have as a student, both in that class and in my Screenwriting class. When I talked to her a few years ago, she asked me if she had been a “brat” in class. I said I would have described her instead as feisty. In the ‘60s she was one of only three Asian-American actresses who worked regularly in Hollywood. If you wanted dramatic/tragic, you went with France Nuyen. If you wanted perky girl-next-door, you went with Nancy Kwan. For glamor and humor, you went with Irene. One day I was walking on campus and saw her coming down the path towards me. When she got close, I put on a fan-boy face and said, “It’s, it’s…Nancy Kwan.” Irene, who is a friend of Kwan’s, may well have just lost a part to her. Anyway, she hauled off and slugged me in the arm. When I encouraged her to write scripts that dealt with her Chinese heritage, she eventually turned on me and said, “What do you want from me? I’m just a girl from New Rochelle, New York.” She was born in Shanghai, but came to this country when she was a small child.

I continued to follow Irene’s career after she left LACC. In 2006 my intrepid projectionist at LACC, Amos Rothbaum, scored a print of the 1996 Hong Kong film, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, in which Irene gives one of her best performances as an auntie to one of the major characters. I persuaded Irene to come to class and talk about the film and her career. Most of the men in the class fell in love with her, even though, as I reminded some of them later, she was old enough to be their mother. MILF. She still acts occasionally, although as she said that night, the only parts she gets offered these days are “Mothers, either with or without accents.” Which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about ageism, racism and sexism in Hollywood. You can check out Irene and her career on the IMDb.

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

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




The Salt of Tears
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saint Frances
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

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




Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.




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.




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.




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.




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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