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Understanding Screenwriting #65: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #65: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, The Good Wife, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, Casanova Brown, Yellow Sky, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: What we all hoped would be a lively discussion of the Hero’s Journey sort of fizzled out. As always David Ehrenstein had a couple of good zingers about the Journey’s use in Hollywood, and I loved “Joel”’s logic on why it makes all movies good. But “Juicer243” really let the side down. Rather than engaging with the issues I raised, he simply repeated his ad for a website and then resorted to the old, “if you don’t like it, it’s probably that you don’t really get it.” The other possibility is that I really get it and that’s why I don’t like it. As we have all discovered in politics, religion and film, it’s hard to have an interesting discussion with a True Believer.

The problem I have with any doctrinaire approach to screenwriting (or the creation of any art for that matter) is that it limits the creative mind. I mentioned three films in my rant that you could maybe fit into the Hero’s Journey: Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), but what makes those films interesting is not the Hero’s Journey pattern, but all the details the writers of those films use to fill out the patterns (yes, that’s plural) of the film. Look at them if you don’t believe me.

Hereafter (2010. Written by Peter Morgan. 129 minutes)

Will somebody around here please call rewrite?: I am afraid I have beaten you over the head (in US#11, 18, 40, among others) about how Clint Eastwood tends to shoot first drafts, even when the scripts need work. Well, here’s another one that needed a lot of revision, and Peter Morgan knew it, as he told an interviewer in the November 6th Creative Screenwriting Weekly. He had done a first draft and passed it to his agent, just to gets notes on it. The agent passed it on to producer Kathleen Kennedy, who passed it to her producing partner Steven Spielberg, who passed it on to Eastwood. Who wanted to do it and did not go along with Morgan’s request to do revisions.

As often with first drafts, the script is very slow getting going. That may sound odd since the opening scene is French journalist Marie LeLay getting caught in a large tsunami and drowning. She comes back to life, but is haunted by the other side that she has seen. The sequence is spectacular, but the script slows down after that. We then meet George, who has the gift for communicating with those who have passed over. He used to do it professionally, but has given up. He finds it more of a curse than a blessing, especially since he is legitimate. We get a lot more than we need about his not wanting to do it and a job he has on the docks of San Francisco. Why do we need all that stuff about his job? We don’t and it should have been cut. We then meet twin boys in London, Marcus and Jason, and we get a lot more than we need about them before Jason is killed in an accident. Then we get a lot more than we need about Marie’s job as a television host of a newsmagazine in France. She’s still feeling the effects of her death-experience, so her boss and lover encourages her to take time off and write a book. So she gets a contract to write a book about…François Mitterand. Huh? What does that have to do with death experiences? So after a long discussion with the publisher about Mitterand, she ends up writing a book about, well, it’s sort of hard to say what it’s about. Some of what we hear makes it appear to be about her own death experiences. But on the other hand, she goes to visit a scholar of death and death-like experiences, who assures her it’s all real and there are mountains of scientific evidence. The good scholar gives her piles of folders, but we never find out what is in them. Morgan is trying to do what Spielberg claimed he was trying to do in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Morgan is using a fiction film to try to persuade us of a scientific truth, just as Spielberg said that he hoped audiences would believe there really were flying saucers after they saw his film. Sorry guys, I love many films by both of you, but that’s something that fiction does not do. Why not? Because you are trying to provide fictional evidence of factual events. For purposes of fiction we will, at least for the length of the work, believe anything that entertains us, whether we accept it in real life or not. How many people who like Shakespeare’s Macbeth actually believe in witches?

So Marie takes her manuscript back to the publisher, who does not want to publish it, and the film implies he’s a bad person for doing this. Sorry, but Marie, who seems reasonably smart elsewhere in the film, comes across as the idiot here. She has contracted with a publisher of political books to do a book about a politician, and then violates her contract by delivering a manuscript that has nothing to do with politics. One of the elements I like in both Morgan and Eastwood’s work elsewhere is that both men seem to have a sense of humor, which has totally gone missing here. The French publisher suggests that maybe an English or American publisher might be interested, and it is written and played as though he is just trying to be helpful. Did neither Morgan nor Eastwood get the joke? The French guy thinks that the English and the Americans are the only ones gullible enough to want to read her story.

Back in San Francisco, George is taking a class in Italian cooking (and way too much time is spent on that as well) and he is paired up with Melanie. This leads to one of the best scenes in the picture, in which George tells her why he has given up doing readings, and then agrees to do a reading with her that does not go that well. In this scene there is something at stake emotionally for both of them, and it is dramatic rather than ploddingly literal the way other scenes have been. It is a given in the script that George truly does have the gift, but it might be more fun if we, and/or him, never knew for sure. Morgan does deal with the fake psychics, but confines them to a sequence were Marcus is trying to find somebody to connect him with his dead brother. Morgan and Eastwood skate over what could be a terrific counterpoint to the rest of the story.

With a lot of pulling and shoving, Morgan gets the three characters we have been following to London. Marcus, who has seen George’s website, recognizes him at a book fair, and wears him down into doing a reading. George connects with Jason, although I thought I detected a slight glint in Matt Damon’s eye that suggested George was just telling Marcus what he needed to hear, but by then it was late in a picture that was not working for me. George/Jason gives Marcus the sort of homilies you would expect a dead ten-year-old to give to his brother. Meanwhile, George has heard Melanie give a reading and is attracted to her. He writes a letter to her, presumably asking her to meet him at a mall coffee shop. She does and they are—wait a minute. What did he say in the letter? We never get to read it, and we never hear from it in either his or her voiceover. And why would George be interested, aside from the fact that Damon and Cécile de France, who plays Marie, are the two prettiest people in the film? We have no idea, since one of the big plot holes in the film is that while George and Marcus have a connection (George talks to dead people, Marcus wants to talk to one), George and Marie don’t. Yes, she was dead, but now she is back among the living, and we have had no indication that there was anybody on the other side she needed to talk to.

Another small point, this one about characterization. George listens to audio book versions of Charles Dickens novels and when he is at the book fair, he attends a reading from Little Dorritt by Derek Jacobi, playing himself. I saw Jacobi play Cyrano brilliantly at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles in 1984, and then off-stage with his cast-mates going wherever they were off to. Jacobi is a much more interesting character in person than Morgan makes him out to be.

Fair Game (2010. Screenplay by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, based on the books The Politics of Truth by Joseph Wilson and Fair Game by Valerie Plame. 108 minutes)

Fair Game

A slightly different screenwriting problem: If Peter Morgan’s job on Hereafter was to get us to buy the premise so we would buy the bit, as Johnny Carson used to put it, the Butterworths have a more complicated job. Morgan simply had to establish for that film that the rules involved life after death. The Butterworths are condensing into less than two hours several events that not only happened in real life, but were publicly known and argued about in the media. In case you missed it, Valerie Plame was an undercover C.I.A. agent who was outed by the Bush administration. Joe Wilson, her husband, had pointed out in a New York Times piece that he found there was no evidence that Iraq was trying to buy yellow cake uranium from Niger. The sale of yellow cake uranium was one of the pieces of “intelligence” the Bush administration used to try to persuade people that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. So what the Butterworths are dealing with is a very complicated story that is also politically controversial. They have to keep the story clear to the audience, but not simplify it so much we don’t believe it. They do an adequate but not perfect job.

They focus on Plame and Wilson, particularly the former. We meet her in the middle of an operation, and over the opening scenes she changes identity at least a couple of times. She is smart and professional. Once we get her established as an experienced agent, we get her with her husband, and one of the major focuses of the film is on how their marriage survived throughout their ordeal. I suspect this comes from the two books, but it is also in the American film tradition of telling political stories through individual characters. At least some of the reviews have felt there may be too much family material. I am not sure there is too much of it, but some of those scenes have the feeling of the writers reading them in the books or hearing about them from the principals and deciding, “That’s too good to pass up.” Some, such as Wilson’s pre-Iraq War talk to a small class, have some nice lines in them, but I am not sure you needed that entire scene. Even though they are telling a “true story” here, the Butterworths could have condensed the family material even more than they probably already did. I notice that there are a couple of scenes with the Wilsons and their friends, and I suspect there were probably more in the earlier drafts of the script, since the friends include such relatively high-priced actors as Ty Burrell and Jessica Hecht. We may yet see a “director’s cut” that includes more of those scenes.

The Butterworths have made some interesting choices in handling the political side of the story. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are only seen on television in news clips, while Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are played by actors. Adam LeFevre looks so much like Rove that when we see the real Rove in the TV clips, we hardly notice the difference. Rove is not a particularly well-written part, rather like Jacobi in Hereafter, and LeFevre does not do that much with it. David Andrews is fine as Libby, partially because he is given more to work with, and the character really carries the burden in the film of the nastiness of the Bush administration. We do get other scenes that at least show some of the determination of the administration to find the right kind of intelligence so they can go to war. There is a particularly good scene early in the film where a flunky from Cheney’s office comes to the C.I.A. to persuade them that the aluminum tubes are for nuclear materials, and the C.I.A. analysts, including Plame, just take him apart. It makes you wish the media had done that in the run-up to the war.

If you followed the story in the press, you may be bothered by missing details, since as the U.N. nuclear inspection teams visits to Iraq and what they found and did not find. I am sure that if you are a Bush supporter, you may be appalled that the film is making heroes about of people you feel were traitors. There is a nice emotional scene where Wilson is trying to restart his consulting business. He is having lunch with two potential clients in a Washington restaurant when what I think is supposed to be a reporter comes up and starts yelling at the potential clients about what a traitor Wilson is. It is the feature film equivalent of what Robert Greenwald has done in a number of his films that show the wretched excesses of the political right. That the filmmakers could have done more of. The filmmakers on this one may have tried to be too balanced.

Morocco (1930. Screenplay by Jules Furthman, based on the play Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny. 92 minutes)

Morocco

Good script, terrible direction: As I mentioned in writing about Nightmare Alley in US#46, the Screenwriting Historiographers Code require that any time Jules Furthman is mentioned, Pauline Kael’s line that Furthman “has written about half of the most entertaining movies to come out of Hollywood” must be used. You can read a little more about Furthman in that item. Now, down to business.

Furthman had been contributing stories and screenplays to movies since 1915, and in the late ‘20s, he wrote five screenplays that were directed by Josef Von Sternberg. Those scripts tended to be in the realistic vein that Von Sternberg favored at the time, as in the 1928 film The Docks of New York. Von Sternberg went off to Germany and made The Blue Angel (1930), which made a star of Marlene Dietrich and convinced Von Sternberg to move more towards the exotic. Given Furthman’s versatility, it is not surprising that he wrote three films in that style for Von Sternberg. Morocco is the first of the three, and while Furthman found his footing right away, it took Von Sternberg another picture to get into the groove.

Morocco begins with a French Foreign Legion unit returning to town. Furthman had just written another Foreign Legion picture, Renegades, before taking on Morocco, so maybe he was in the right mood. As the soldiers are lined up in town, one Legionnaire, Tom Brown, is making hand signals to a woman he intends to meet later. His sergeant asks him what he is doing with this hands, and this being a pre-Production Code film, Brown replies, “Nothing…yet.” Unfortunately, Von Sternberg’s direction takes forever to get to the line. We see more marching of the Legion than we need, both here and everywhere else in the picture. And Von Sternberg loves his shadows, often holding a beautiful shot Lee Garmes, his cinematographer, has set up for him.

Brown becomes attracted to the new singer in the nightclub, Amy Jolly, and they flirt and more. Brown is played by Gary Cooper before he resorted to being excessively folksy (see below) and boy, is he sexy. Dietrich smolders as Amy, but Von Sternberg has her, and everybody else, read their lines at a snail’s pace, with enough pauses for any two Antonioni films you could name. Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, who plays the older man Amy is also involved with, are good enough to make the slow delivery work for them, but the others are at sea. So you have to wait for the good Furthman lines. Just try not to fall asleep.

Two years later Furthman’s script for Shanghai Express is even better and tighter and Von Sternberg learned how to direct that sort of thing. Someday I’ll deal with that film in this column.

Casanova Brown (1944. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the play The Little Accident by Thomas Mitchell and Floyd Dell, and the book An Unmarried Father by Floyd Dell. 94 minutes)

Casanova Brown

Gary Cooper, post Production Code: In 1943 Nunnally Johnson left his contract at 20th Century-Fox, and on the advice of his lawyers and agents became a partner in a new company called International. They pointed out to him that as a co-owner in the company he would be making money that was taxed at a lower rate than his salary at Fox had been. Johnson also thought he might not be tied down as much in terms of subject matter as he had been working for Darryl Zanuck at Fox. Johnson’s first International project is the sort of thing that Zanuck and Fox might have stayed away from.

Casanova Brown is based on a novel by Floyd Dell and a Broadway play by Dell and Thomas Mitchell. Dell is virtually forgotten now, but he was a very influential left-wing critic and author in the first decades of the twentieth century. He hung out with the New York left-wing intelligentsia, including John Reed and Louise Bryant (Max Wright, who is not nearly as handsome as Dell was, plays him in what amounts to a cameo in the 1981 film Reds). He actively supported feminist causes, and was writing about feminism early in the teens. His 1927 novel An Unmarried Father is about a man about to be married who discovers that a woman he had a quick fling with is giving up the baby she had with him. She has no desire to be a mother. The man kidnaps the baby and shows that fathers can take care of kids as well as or better than mothers. The following year Dell, who also wrote plays, collaborated with the actor Thomas Mitchell on an adaptation of the novel called The Little Accident. What appealed to Mitchell was the potential farce of a father taking care of a baby. The play had a good run of 303 performances, and became the basis for a 1930 film of the same name, although in that film the man discovers that his fiancée is the one who had the baby. There was also a French version in 1932 called A Father Without Knowning It (the title suggests it was more faithful to the play than the 1930 film), as well as a 1939 American film under the original title, but with the plot changed to be about the baby after the father gives it up.

Nunnally had seen the original play and liked it, but he realized that although International was an independent company, it still had to submit films to the Production Code. So while there are a lot of jokes that suggest Casanova Brown is an unmarried father, we learn about half an hour into the film that he had in fact married Isabel. James Agee hit the nail on the head in his review in The Nation (reprinted in Agee on Film, Volume One) when he noted “It is also the first production of International Pictures, a new ’independent’ corporation for which both [Gary] Cooper and Johnson will produce from now on. I put independent in quotes without vindictiveness or deep sorrow, merely to indicate that, judging by Casanova Brown, nothing independent in any interesting sense is likely to come from the new studio. It’s just Hollywood with its stays a little loosened; but even that is better than nothing, and far better than the bad serious stuff which independent producers sometimes attempt.” Looking at the film now, almost seventy years later, it seems even more dated than it did to Agee. We get a lot more explicitness about sex every night on network television, not to mention cable.

There was another problem with the script. I used to think that Nunnally, because he was something of an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, probably could not conceive, as Floyd Dell could, of a woman who would give up a baby. However, I was mentioning this movie to Nunnally’s daughter Roxie, and she told me that Nunnally’s first wife Alice left their daughter Marjorie (who grew up to become a film editor) with her mother after the divorce so she could go off and have adventures. I knew Alice was an adventurous free-spirit, but I did not know that included passing off the baby to her mom. So Nunnally had a first-hand example of Dell’s character in his own experience. Perhaps his Isabel is an attempt to write the Alice-Marjorie story. In Nunnally’s script, Isabel is obviously letting Casanova know about the baby because she wants to get back together with him. That is obvious to us, but not to Casanova, but which makes him a little on the stupid side. It also takes away any motivation to steal the baby. Nunnally was normally great at giving all his characters motivations, but he does not here. This is one of the very few films I know, from Nunnally Johnson or anyone else, where the movie is better than the script. It is not because of the director (Sam Wood’s direction is lethargic), but because of the star. Gary Cooper, even in his folksy mode here, makes us believe he is doing the right thing because, well, he is Gary Cooper, for God’s sake.

Yellow Sky (1948. Screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on a story by W.R. Burnett. 98 minutes)

Yellow Sky

No, it’s not another adaptation of Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle: See US#58 for an explanation of that snarky sub-head.

The 1950 film The Gunfighter is now considered one of the classic westerns, and a forerunner of the adult westerns of the ‘50s and beyond. Yellow Sky, on the other hand, is almost forgotten now, which is too bad, because it’s a solid picture. Trotti gets things off to a nice start when a group of seven guys ride into town, have a couple of drinks at the saloon, lustfully eye the painting of the naked lady above the bar, and then very politely…rob the bank. A posse gives chase, killing one of the gang, but the gang escapes across what was probably Death Valley. The gang ends up in Yellow Sky, a ghost town. They intend to hide out while their horses recover from the desert. The only people living near the town are “Mike,” a tough tomboy, and her grandfather. It slowly dawns on the gang that the only reason Mike and the grandfather are there is that they must have struck gold or silver and are hiding it somewhere. We get a lot of nice character scenes as everybody decides what to do about the situation, and we end up back in the bank that was robbed in a scene that nicely mirrors the robbery.

Trotti, one of the top writers at Fox, gives us some wonderful characterizations for the gang members as well as Mike and Grandpa, so we are perfectly willing to sit around and listen to them. That is also because Trotti as producer, William Wellman as director, and Joe MacDonald as cinematographer have beautifully utilized the locations of the first town, the salt flats and especially the ghost town. According to a trivia item on the IMDb, Gregory Peck thought he was miscast as the gang leader, but he’s not. He’s tough, but not mean, and we can believe how gentlemanly he becomes.

I mentioned The Gunfighter earlier because in spite of its critical acclaim at the time, it did less business than Yellow Sky. Rudy Behlmer, in his book Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, includes a memo Zanuck wrote to Nunnally Johnson, who produced The Gunfighter and wrote the last draft of the screenplay for it. Zanuck is writing during the first weeks of The Gunfighter’s release and comparing how it did in relation to Yellow Sky. He thinks that Gunfighter broke too many rules (Peck wearing a moustache, which audiences of young girls at the Roxy Theater in New York hated; Peck dying at the end, etc). He writes, “Yellow Sky, in my opinion, is not half the picture that The Gunfighter is. Yet it went more into a formula mold and obviously had broader popular appeal.” Then he added, “But, on the other hand, there was certainly no formula mold about The Snake Pit (1948; an exposé of conditions in mental hospitals that was a big hit) and look what it did…” According to Aubrey Solomon’s book Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Yellow Sky brought in $2.8 million dollars in film rentals, while The Gunfighter made only $1.95 million.

The Good Wife (2010. “On Tap” episode written by Leonard Dick. 30 minutes)

The Good Wife

Using the material the story gives you: This episode is one of the best examples I have seen of using a plot detail as fully as you can. Alicia’s firm is hired to defend Matthew Wade, a Chicago alderman, who is accused of taking money from Muslim extremists. Part of the government’s evidence that is turned over to the firm is hours and hours of wiretaps. O., you are the writer, what can you do with wiretaps from this case? The first thing is that they help the case. So our guys find that Wade was just joking around about Muslim extremists. Yeah, but was he really joking? Well, late in the episode (you don’t want to have it too early for obvious reasons), we learn one of the people whom he was joking with was a Chicago politician who now works for…a certain family living in a big white house in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, the prosecutors beat a hasty retreat. If you watch the episode, listen to how Dick lets us know slowly as we listen to the tape and the lawyers involved talk about it what the significance of it is.

Fine, that’s the main plot. But what else can you do with the taps? What else can Alicia hear? For one thing, she hears Eli Gold on the tapes, and realizes it is not just Wade’s phone that is being tapped, but Eli’s. Yeah, her husband’s campaign manager, whom she talks to all the time about…everything. Watch her try to avoid talking to Eli the next time he is on the phone. Does she tell Eli or not? In terms of legal ethics she is not supposed to reveal what she hears. Fortunately Diane takes that out of her hands and tells Eli, since Eli a) is a client of the firm, and b) Diane is setting up to leave the firm (I hope she doesn’t; we’ll miss her) and wants to take Eli’s business with her.

One of the reasons the firm is taking Wade’s case is that Will and Wade are buddies who play basketball together. So Will shows up on one of the tapes. Guess what he’s talking about? About how he sent those two messages to Alicia, one calling it all off, and the second saying he did not want to call it off between them. You may remember that Eli had Alicia’s cellphone at the time, heard both messages and deleted the second one. So Alicia never heard it, but Will assumes she did and did not want to restart their not-yet affair. Now Alicia knows about the second call. So she goes to Will’s office, and is about to say something when Will’s new fling comes in. Another missed opportunity.

And that’s how you use what may at first seem like just a single plot element in as many interesting ways as you can.

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

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

2.5

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

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

2

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

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

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

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

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

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

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

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

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

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

2

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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