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Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #75: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, Helen of Troy, but first…

Fan Mail: My comment in US#74 that Lance Loud was “the first gay character on American television that viewers of the time spent more than a minute-and-a-half with” upset David Ehrenstein. He thought I was using “character” as in “what a weird person” rather than as a person in a work of art. This led to a three-way debate between David, Matt Maul and me. You can read the comments at the bottom of that column. In his last comment, David suggested several films I could show in my course. As far as I can tell, most of those films are fiction films, and I was talking in my comments about my History of Documentary Film course.

However, the issue of showing films in my courses is now moot. As of this month I have retired after forty years of teaching film history and screenwriting courses at Los Angeles City College, so I will not be scheduling any more course screenings. It has been a terrific forty years, teaching at what is as far as I know the only community college film program whose former students have 12 Academy Award nominations (with five wins), 27 Emmy nominations (with at least three wins, but we are not done counting yet), and at least 2 Grammy nominations (we are not done counting all those either). And since the campus is located a block and a half away from the former site of the only film studio built for a woman director (Lois Webber in the ‘20s), it should not be surprising that we are the only film school, college or university, anywhere I know that had two films given wide releases in one year, each directed by a different woman alumnae.

Just because I am retiring from teaching, however, does not mean I am giving up this column. I intend to keep doing it as long as they will let me, since I don’t want my brain to atrophy. Although David Ehrenstein may sometimes think it already has atrophied.

Now, onto this load of films, and even though I am not yet dealing with The Tree of Life, I assure you I will eventually. I believe that is a legal requirement for writing for the House.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011. Screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. 137 minutes.)

Johnny Depp is an ungrateful miscreant: When Elliott & Rossio pitched the idea to Disney in the early ‘90s of doing a film based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, they were told Disney was not making movies based on their rides. But Disney eventually rethought it and hired Jay Wolpert to come up with a story. Wolpert made a crucial decision: that the movie should be fun. There had not been a great pirate movie since The Crimson Pirate in 1952. There had been several B-movie pirate movies, but the big-budget ones, such as Swashbuckler (1976) and Pirates (1986) were ponderous. The producers of those seemed to have forgotten that the pirate movies of yore were written by Hollywood wits like Ben Hecht (The Black Swan [1942]) and Herman J. Mankiewicz (The Spanish Main [1945]). Wolpert was replaced by Stuart Beattie, who worked out the story and named the characters after birds (Swann, Sparrow, etc). Then Disney approached Elliott & Rossio, who by then had been nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay for Shrek (2001). The boys went in and made the same pitch they had made ten years before: it will be a Gothic swashbuckler. When Disney hesitated, the boys said, “Hey, the ride starts with a talking skull.” The deal was on. When they were writing Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), neither they nor anybody at Disney had any notion of doing a sequel. So when Disney later wanted two sequels, to be shot at the same time, Elliott & Rossio had to decide: 1) do we make them totally separate adventures, like the Bond movies?, or 2) do we pretend we had a trilogy in mind all along? They went the latter route and came up with the best written film trilogy ever.

What? What? The reviews for #2 and especially #3 were terrible. But if you pay attention to the scripts, which most critics tend not to do, you will find that Elliott & Rossio have indeed told a coherent story, even though it is not the one you think it is. Yes, especially in the third film, people are constantly changing sides, but that’s because they’re PIRATES, folks. Yes, Elliott & Rossio had to make up a set of cards for themselves for the sea battle in the Vortex to remind themselves who was on what ship when. And at one point Johnny Depp told the director, Gore Verbinski, about a detail in the script, “I don’t really know what this means,” to which Verbinski replied, “Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.” Now, the common way to read that exchange is that the script was a mess. The other way is that Verbinski, who had worked with Elliott & Rossio, knew that the writers knew what they were doing and trusted them and their script. At one point in #3, a navy officer says of Captain Jack Sparrow, “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?” The correct answer for Sparrow and the writers is…both.

In Captain Jack Sparrow, Elliott & Rossio and the writers before them had created a great screen character, one that cemented Johnny Depp as a Movie Star. And Depp’s response? In the May 13, 2011 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Depp spends most of the article about the making of On Stranger Tides complaining about how confusing the script for #3 was. (The quote above is from that article.) A nice way to treat the boys who, in #1 gave Depp some exposition, which Depp hates to do, but added the word “miscreant” to the speech. Depp then thought it was a fair trade. Depp, by the way, never mentions Elliott & Rossio by name in the article, and they are mentioned only in passing in an article in the Los Angeles Times about the making of #4 (“On lower ’Tides,’” May 19th in the print edition, but a search of the Times website shows no trace of it). When the first three Pirates films opened, there were interviews with Elliott & Rossio in Creative Screenwriting, but neither the current issue of CS nor the current issue of Script has interviews with them. Trouble in the Magic Kingdom, do you think?

The Times article, as well the stuff not about Johnny Depp in the Entertainment Weekly piece, make a point that Disney had told Elliott & Rossio that they had to cut back on the special effects to reduce the budget. So in Stranger Tides we get no sea battle in the Vortex, no Kraken devouring ships, and no Davy Jones with his CGI tentacles. And we do not get a hugely complicated story (although if this turns out to be the first of a new trilogy, they may be laying in stuff that will pay off later, like the broken compass in #1). This, unlike the first three, is not an over-the-top movie. The storyline is fairly straightforward: assorted groups of pirates and navies try to find the legendary Fountain of Youth. The novel that “suggested” the film is about the search for the Fountain by Blackbeard and his zombie cohorts, and we follow a young puppeteer, John Chandagnac, who gets shanghaied by Blackbeard. It appears that what Elliott & Rossio brought over from the book were just Blackbeard, the zombies (although they are not used very effectively), and the Fountain.

The review in Variety (May 16-22 in the weekly edition) notes early on that this film has dropped “two key protagonists without explanation,” which means the reviewer paid no attention at all to the first three films. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s story was over at the end of the first trilogy. Here’s the thing many people do not realize about the first three films: they are not Jack Sparrow’s movie. He is not the main character in those stories. He is a supporting character. Yes, yes, I know, Johnny Depp, big star, name above the title, nominated for an Oscar for the first one for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But Brando won the same Oscar for The Godfather in what is a supporting role in Michael’s movie. Many critics complained that in #3, we don’t see Captain Jack for the first half hour of the film. No, we don’t. It’s not his movie, and Elliott & Rossio, trying to keep their name-above-the-title actor onscreen as much as they can, write in all kinds of surreal scenes for him that are not really needed in the story they are telling. See what I meant earlier about them not telling the story you think they are?

So now, with Will and Elizabeth gone, they move Captain Jack into the lead role, and it is not that great a fit. Owen Gleiberman, in his review in the May 27th Entertainment Weekly, begins to see the problem: “Jack, more than ever, is now front and center, the focal point of every scene, and the result is that he’s become less of a jester and more of a colorless expository hero. He ticks off the story for us, point by point, instead of standing to the side lobbing little verbal bombs at it. Depp’s delivery is still amusingly sozzled, but the performance has lost any trace of surprise or merry deranged zing. The more Jack says, the less funny he is.”

While Elliott & Rossio have had to cut down on the special effects, they have alas also cut down on the gallery of interesting supporting characters they came up with for the first three. Yes, Disney probably did not want to pay for those actors to return, but their “replacements” are just plain dull. There is no equivalent of Pintel and Ragetti, whose philosophical discussions were fun diversions. There is no equivalent of Murtogg and Mullroy, the British soldiers who keep popping up in the trilogy. The “young lover” leads are not a patch on Will and Elizabeth, and the actors playing them have none of the charisma of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. There is also a problem with taking Blackbeard over from Powers’ novel. He is essentially Barbossa. And Barbossa is back in this one, so we have two bad pirates it is hard to tell apart. Elliott & Rossio have made the “real” Barbossa a privateer for the king, but they don’t do a lot with that.

The one great addition to the cast is Angelica, a female pirate from the get-go. She doesn’t have to grow into it in the way Elizabeth did in the trilogy. It helps that they have Penélope Cruz at her most radiant and feisty in the part, although she’s sometimes caught without as much to do as they might have given her. The boys have also done better this time by Keith Richards as Jack’s dad. In #3 he showed up at the meeting of the pirate kings where Richards, not an actor, was blown off the screen by the other actors. Here he has a very short scene with Depp that gives him a great line and then he’s gone, a much better use of his limited talents.

Even within the budget limitations, the boys have given us some nice scenes. There is a chase through London that is fun, as well as a great swordfight with Captain Jack and a person who turns out to be Angelica. It is in the storage room of an inn, and like the first duel in #1 in the blacksmith shop between Captain Jack and Will, it very effectively uses the set and props. We do eventually get Ponce de Leon in his bed, a reference to a “scene” in the ride, and there is a nice special effect of one of the major characters dying. Less is more in that case. Well, dying for now, but there is very little feeling in this film of Elliott & Rossio’s idea that the first trilogy was a Gothic swashbuckler, so the character may actually be dead.

The script is also funnier than you will probably think it is as you watch it. Line after line went by with me thinking, “That was funny.” But the director of this one, Rob Marshall, apparently never got the memo from Jay Wolpert that these movies are supposed to be fun. Marshall can direct the action, but he is one of the most humor-impaired directors working in movies today. Chicago (2002) does not have nearly the laughs its predecessor Roxie Hart (1942) does, and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is not exactly a barrel of yucks.

The last fifteen minutes of the film are the best, with a nice final scene for the two young lovers, and a funny scene with Captain Jack leaving Angelica on a desert island, even though she claims to be pregnant by him. And then the old freewheeling plotting that Elliott & Rossi are so great at finally kicks in. Gibbs has rescued something, or somethings, from Blackbeard’s ship. We saw them before, but just assumed they were part of a scene with Blackbeard. Not a chance. And as usual with the Pirates films, stay through the credits for the final post-credit scene. If you did with #3, you finally got the answer to the question of whose movie the trilogy was. Here we get yet another detail that we thought was a nice one-off that answers the question an earlier scene in these last minutes have raised. It suggests there will be a next one. Free Elliott & Rossio! And maybe bring back Gore Verbinski.

Midnight in Paris (2011. Written by Woody Allen. 94 minutes.)

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is also an ungrateful miscreant: This is one of Allen’s most charming films in recent years. With one small exception, which we will talk about later, there is none of the misanthropy that mars many of his later films. See my comments on Whatever Works (2009) in US#61 for an example.

The setup is simple: Gil and his fiancee Inez have piggybacked a vacation in Paris with her rich parents. Gil loves Paris and thinks about moving there, but Inez is expecting him to stay put in Malibu. Gil is out walking one night and as the church bells ring midnight, a cab from the ‘20s pulls up and its occupants invite Gil to go to a party with them. He assumes it is a costume party until he gets there and realizes he is back in Paris. In the 1920s. And the couple he meets at the party really are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and that really is Cole Porter playing the piano and singing. He keeps coming back to the same spot each midnight and meets more and more famous people from the ‘20s, some he gets to know well, some briefly. You never know whom he is going to run into, which becomes a great running gag.

Gil is a screenwriter working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop, so if you had not guessed by the time you learn that, the movie is about nostalgia. Gil is nostalgic for the Paris he once visited and for Paris in the ‘20s. Adriana, a ‘20s artists’ muse and mistress he meets, is nostalgic for turn-of-the-century Paris, a great twist in the plot that carries out the theme of nostalgia. You can easily imagine Gil played by a young Woody Allen, but he is played by Owen Wilson, who is the perfect choice. Unlike John Cusack is Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (1998), he does not fall into an imitation of Allen. His California surfer-dude quality works surprisingly well delivering Allen’s lines and gives the character a charm that’s missing in the leads in a lot of Allen’s movies.

The other cast members are impeccable, especially those portraying the famous ones. If you only know Corey Stoll as the bald-headed cop in Law & Order: LA, you will probably not recognize him as Hemingway, but he brilliantly delivers Allen’s faux-Hemingway language. Adrien de Van as Luis Buñuel has a priceless reaction to Gil trying to suggest what obviously will become well, you figure it out. But the best combination of actor, character and the writing comes from Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí. Allen has written a scene in which Dalí becomes fascinated with the word “rhinoceros.” I have no idea how often the word was in the original script, but Brody does incredible things with it every time he pronounces it, and it gets funnier each time. A perfect example of my mantra that when writing a screenplay you are writing for performance.

Ah, yes, the one small exception. As much I loved this film (more than any Allen picture in years), I kept getting put off by his snotty attitude toward California and Hollywood screenwriters. OK, we are used to Allen’s anti-California zingers. The ones in Annie Hall (1977) was the reason the film was booed when it was shown at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. In this film, however, he has Gil being a Hollywood screenwriter who hates his work and is writing a novel. OK, but Allen is very, and I mean very, careful not to tell us anything about what Gil has written. For all we know Gil might have written something as rich and complex as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, or as morally compelling as Steve Zallian’s script of Schindler’s List (1993), or as fast and funny as Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for last year’s The Social Network. I know Allen is a New Yorker born and bred and grew up with that New York attitude about screenwriting that is the reason for this column, but you would have thought that by now he would have learned better. I generally did not agree with a lot of what Timothy Leary said, but I loved his comment in the ‘70s that Woody Allen needed to come out to California and get a tan.

The Wooden Horse (1950. Screenplay by Eric Williams, based on his novel. 101 minutes.)

The Wooden Horse

Where’s Steven McQueen when you need him?: A sub-genre of World War II films that emerged in the post-war era was the prisoner-of-war film. Some of them became classics, like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). Some, like this one, didn’t.

Eric Williams was a POW during the early years of the war and his novel is based on his actual escape from Stalag Luft III, the site of the activities shown in The Great Escape. Why he turned it into a novel I have no idea, since it follows the events rather closely, but with the names changed. The story shows us how a group of British POWs come up with an ingenious idea for a tunnel. They don’t start under the barracks, which as you may remember from The Great Escape are a fair distance from the barbed wire fences. They construct a wooden vaulting horse from assorted wood found around the camp. It is closed on both sides so a man or two can hide inside. The prisoners bring the horse out to the exercise area and the man inside digs the tunnel while the others exercise. Then he crawls back up into the horse, covers the hole, and is carried back to the barracks. Yes, the Germans seem really stupid not to guess what’s going on, but they were big on physical health so maybe it all seemed natural to them. Eventually three of the prisoners escape and make their way to Sweden. If my telling of the story seems rather flat, it’s because the movie is flat. As I mentioned, the script is based on a novel. I have not read the novel, but based on the film, it does not look like Williams took advantage of fictionalizing the material. The script falls into the trap so many films “based on true events” do: the makers assume that because the story is true, it will be interesting. The characters are bland, and the storytelling is as slow as molasses. If the characters were livelier, we wouldn’t mind the pace. The film is not helped by casting Leo Genn in one of the two leading roles. He was a terrific character actor but not a leading man. The other “star” was Anthony Steel, who had a minor career as a minor star, but is, shall we say, charisma-challenged. When he came to Hollywood a few years after this film with his then-wife, you can understand why he was known around town as “Mr. Anita Ekberg.”

The Colditz Story (1955. Adaptation and screenplay by Ivan Foxwell and Guy Hamilton, from the book by P.R. Reid, dialogue by William Douglas Home. 94 minutes.)

The Colditz Story

When you have John Mills, you don’t need McQueen: This one is a better known and much more successful POW story. And that’s because the screenplay is much better. The source material is sometimes identified as a novel, but it is appears to be more a non-fiction account. Its author, Pat Reid, was the head of escape attempts at Colditz, a castle in Saxony where, early in the war, the Germans put the most incorrigible POWs. For some reason the Germans felt that the smart thing to do was to take all the prisoners who made the most escapes and collect them in one place. It did not work here, just as it did not work later in Stalag Luft III (see above and The Great Escape). Colditz had one of the highest escape rates of all German POW camps.

Reid’s book is apparently a livelier read than Williams’, going by comments on Amazon.com, and the script is a whole lot livelier than Williams. I am sure that it is helped by the dialogue writing of William Douglas-Home, working here without his hyphen. He was a hugely successful playwright, perhaps best known in this country for his play and screenplay of The Reluctant Debutante (1958). The later was remade in 2003 as What a Girl Wants starring Amanda Bynes. Sorry, but I could not resist a paragraph that connected Amanda Bynes to Colditz. You may sing a chorus of “It’s a Small World” if you like.

What the script, complete with Douglas-Home’s dialogue, does is give us a great gallery of characters. Pat Reid is right in the younger John Mills’s wheelhouse and he carries the picture. But Colonel Richmond, the senior officer of the British group, has several sharp corners to him. I first assumed the character Theodore Bikel was playing was Russian, but he turns out to be Dutch. The script gets some entertainment value out of the different nationalities at Colditz, including the Germans. It’s been a couple of weeks since I saw these two films, and I can’t remember Brian Forbes’s Paul in The Wooden Horse, but his Jimmy Winslow here is still fresh in my mind.

The Wooden Horse drags out its single escape attempt to 101 minutes, but within the 94 minutes here, we get several escape attempts, some of them successful and some not. You never know which ones are going to work and which are not. In Horse, you pretty much know they are going to get out. Here, not so much.

If you are beginning to think there were so many escape attempts at Colditz that it should have been a TV series, the Brits were way ahead of you. In 1972-74, the BBC ran the series Colditz, with some material from Reid’s book and another one he wrote about Colditz. In 2005, Granada Television in England did a four-hour television movie on the subject. I haven’t seen that one yet.

Helen of Troy (1956. Screenplay by John Twist and Hugh Gray, adaptation by Hugh Gray and N. Richard Nash, uncredited adaptation of The Illiad by Homer. 111 minutes.)

Helen of TroyNot as bad as I remember it: In the book Understanding Screenwriting I have a chapter in the Not-Quite-So Good section called “Some Lawrence Wannabes.” I start the book with a discussion of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and this chapter deals with recent epics that are influenced by Lawrence. One of them was the 2004 film Troy, written by David Benioff. Benioff does some nice things in the script, but the film suffers from having Brad Pitt as Achilles. Achilles is the fiercest warrior of them all, and fierceness is not really in Pitt’s range. I mention in passing that Helen of Troy at least gets Achilles right and imply that is about the only thing it got right. My memories of the film, which I saw when it first came out, were not good. So when it popped up on TCM recently, I gave it a second try. It’s not that good a movie, not even as good as Troy, but it’s not terrible.

I had another reason to want to watch the film. As a grad student at UCLA in the late ‘60s, I had Hugh Gray as a teacher in a class or two. I was not impressed. He flaunted his classical education a little more than I thought seemly. I suspect he did it because of his credits on films like this one and the 1951 Quo Vadis? On the latter he contributed to the writing of the Roman songs used in the film. In 1954 he was one of the co-writers, along with Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw of the clunky but entertaining Ulysses. He later got into academia, and was perhaps best known for his translation of André Bazin’s essay collection What is Cinema? In spite of the fact that several reviewers noticed that his translations were awful.

Gray and Twist run into the same problem that Benioff does: what the hell do you do with Paris and Helen, the great lovers? In fact, in The Illiad Paris is pretty much a narcissistic jerk and a coward, and while Homer is somewhat sympathetic to Helen, there are still problems using her as a dramatic character. As I wrote in the book, “William Shakespeare, who was no slouch at writing romantic heroines (Cleopatra in Antony and, Juliet in Romeo and), knew enough to avoid Helen as a major character. In his one Trojan War play, Troilus and Cressida, Helen is a very minor supporting role. And Christopher Marlowe just makes her a walk-on in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so that Faustus can get off the great line about hers being the ’face that launched a thousand ships.’ The problem dramatically is that Helen is inert: everybody adores her (why, other than her good looks?), but she is acted upon rather than taking action. Will was one smart playwright: Cleopatra and Juliet do stuff.”

Benioff focuses on Achilles as his main character, but Gray and Twist focus on the love story. While Benioff gets us right into the affair, Gray and Twist start out with Paris’s trip to Menelaus’s court to try to establish a treaty with the Greeks. That does not work out well. He meets Helen before he knows she is a queen. Then a lot of time is taken up with the romance. These writers’ Helen at least has a little grit to her, unlike Benioff’s. Paris is played by the French actor Jacques Sernas (here credited as Jack), but his voice is dubbed by the English actor Edmund Purdom. Both Sernas and Purdom are blocks of wood visually, but Purdom’s voice gives the character a little heft. Helen is the Italian actress Rosanna Podesta, whose face could launch three, four hundred ships tops, but who at least shows some spark of life.

Because we are so focused on Paris and Helen, the other major characters in the story become minor. As I remembered, Stanley Baker is the perfect Achilles, and he gets a great entrance. If the writers had given the other actors more to do, they could have done more than they do here. Since the writers are not focused on Achilles, they do not give us the most moving scene in The Illiad (which Benioff does). Achilles has killed the Trojan hero Hector and dragged his body around Troy. Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles under a flag of truce to ask for the body back. We just don’t get that scene here.

The battle scenes are spectacular and this being 1956, not overload with CGI as Troy is. The original wooden horse (you don’t think I would have left that unreferenced do you?) shows up because, well, it has to. One thing everybody knows about the Trojan War is the Trojan Horse. Except it is not in either The Illiad or The Odyssey. It does not show up until Virgil’s Aeneid. But the audience would have thrown things at the screen if it were not included.

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: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

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

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

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

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Salt of Tears
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Greed
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Saint Frances
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

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

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

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

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

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

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

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

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

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

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

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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