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Understanding Screenwriting #77: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, & More

Let’s go back to the first film for a minute.

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Understanding Screenwriting #77: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, & More
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Follow Me Quietly, Desperate, The Malta Story, Some Late Spring-Early Summer Television 2011, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein, to no one’s surprise, objected that I said that in The Tree of Life “The poetry overpowers the characters and story.” His point was that there should be room for a Cinema of Poetry. I agree there should be. The problem I had with the film is that Malick did not structure his poetry in as compelling a way as he could have. With a little more attention to connections via not only characters and story, but visually and thematically, the film would have been better.

Olaf Barthel raised several interesting points, specifically in regard to my references to Kubrick. He pointed out that the unreality of certain films, and it is true not only of Kubrick, is part of their artificial style. That’s true, but if the artificiality becomes distracting, then there is a problem. He suggested that the only way to solve the problem is for the filmmaker to do everything. I’d suggest the opposite. Kubrick tried to do everything, and it meant that he probably was not getting the collaborative input that can be so crucial to making a film.

A note for my Portuguese-reading fans. My book Understanding Screenwriting has now been translated into Portuguese. It was published in Brazil in May by the Zahar publishing company under the title Por Dentro do Roteiro. Erik de Castro, a former student of mine who is now a writer/director in Brazil, helped with the translation and tells me that one line is funnier in Portuguese than it was in English. I was making fun of Lucas’s silly names and wrote of Count Dooku “try saying that name out loud and not laughing.” In Portugeuse Dooku means something really dirty. In Brazil the name was translated in the subtitles as Dookan, but people heard it anyway and laughed.

This is the first official translation of one of my books. In the early ‘90s there was an unofficial translation of Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. I found out about it from a student of mine. Maguy was a French woman who went back to Paris during one of the vacations. She was talking with some friends of hers from the Ecole Lumiere film school. When she mentioned she attended Los Angeles City College, one of her friends asked her if she knew me. She said she did, but asked how they happened to know of me. The friend said they were reading Storytellers in class. She asked if they were reading it in English. Many were, but the teacher had provided a French translation. Maguy asked to see it, so they went off to the library where it was on reserve. She read about five pages of it and later told me it made no sense at all. So that’s the French: they love Jerry Lewis, Sharon Stone, and me in a bad translation.

Super 8 (2011. Written by J.J. Abrams. 112 minutes)

The Tree of Kaboom: I saw this one two days after I saw Tree of Life (see US#76) and because of the similarities I was struck immediately at how much more textured this is than Tree. We are in small-town America, with a bunch of pre-teen boys, one of whose father is not perfect, and right away we are dealing with death. In this case, it is the mother of Joe Lamb, who will turn out to be our main character. She has died, and we see the ways people are grieving. The actions and emotions are much more specific than anything in Tree, as are the physical details of the town, the houses, the rooms, the streets. Film is a concrete medium not an abstract one, and the details here are very particular.

The emotions and the characters are also very specific. We quickly get the gang that Joe hangs out with. Look at Joe’s reaction when Charles, the would-be movie director of the group, tells the guys that he has asked Alice to appear in their movie. And Abrams follows that up with a nice scene of Joe and Alice as he applies her makeup for the film. Like most kid filmmakers Charles (a wonderfully satirical take on directors of all ages) wants more “production values” in his film, so when they are filming one night at an abandoned train station and a train shows up, they quickly arrange to shoot—Kaboom! The train crashes. Big Time. As in what Leonard Maltin calls the “swell train wreck” at the end of De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. We are no longer in art house cinema land. But that’s OK. No, really it is.

Super 8 shows the advantage of having a writer (and a director; Abrams also directed) who has learned his craft by working constantly, both in film and especially in television. I mentioned in my item on Tree that Malick may have “developed” the life out of the material by working it over so much. That can be a disadvantage of having too much time to work on a piece.

Abrams started out writing features, including the comic book Armageddon (1998) and the more subtle Regarding Henry (1991), but he made his name writing and producing for television, where both story and character are often more crucial than blow-’em-up-real-good scenes, and speed is of the essence. Both Felicity (1998-2002) and Alias (2001-2005) not only focus on character, but on female characters. Not surprising that in Super 8 Alice is the smartest person in the group and we spend as much time with her as we do with the boys, something that would not likely happen in say, a Steven Spielberg movie. But wait a minute, this is a Spielberg movie.

Abrams had the idea for a film about a bunch of boys making Super 8 movies and he talked to Spielberg about it, according to the interview with Abrams in the May/June Creative Screenwriting. Spielberg told him he needed to develop it further, and Abrams remembered an idea he’d had about an alien creature from Area 51 escaping from a train. Spielberg liked the idea and mentioned that he had wanted to do a movie about divorce but couldn’t make it work until he added an alien. So the director (but not the writer; that was Melissa Mathison) of E.T. (1982) became one of the producers of Super 8. But Abrams did not lose his sense of balance. Yes we get big scenes suggesting the alien on a rampage (influenced by Jaws [1975] where we don’t see a lot of the shark), but they are balanced by the character scenes with the kids. And unlike the younger Spielberg, Abrams is good at character, both as a writer and director. Yes, the adults here are pretty much standard issue, but his work with the kids is excellent. I did not think much of Elle Fanning in Somewhere (2010; see US#68), but she is spectacularly good under Abrams’s direction, as is Joel Courtney as Joe. When Abrams the director gives them close-ups, it is because Abrams the writer has given them some emotions to express.

Not only does Abrams’s work in television make him focus on character, it also has taught him storytelling. The train wreck comes as surprise, and Abrams immediately begins setting up questions. Why was the kids’ science teacher driving a truck into the train? Why does the Air Force swoop down on the wreck? What are those red trucks with the white dots? Why are all the pets running away from the town? What are those little white things that look like Rubik’s Cubes? And why, in one of the most memorable shots in the film, does one of them attach itself to the town’s water tower? Most of those questions get answered, although I am not sure about the red trucks. It may be that Abrams is a little too profligate with his twists and turns. Between the twists and the elaborate (and sometimes evocative) special effects, the last hour of the movie gets exhausting. One begins to long for a simple Terrence Malick loping, poetic dolly shot following a kid down a leafy street.

Spoiler alert here. Skip this paragraph if you have not yet seen the film. It turns out the alien only wants to get back to his home planet. But he is no cute little E.T. He looks like something out of the Alien movies, and I had a hard time buying the “sensitive” scene between Joe and the alien. As with several of the adults, Abrams’s gift for character is less present with the alien.

But when Abrams has his mojo working, he’s very good. There is a nicely written and directed scene of some of the characters attacked in a bus by the alien. The scene is almost as good as the sequence with the two trailers, the baby T-Rex, the rope, the winch, the cracking glass and the backpack that David Koepp wrote and Spielberg directed in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).

Cars 2 (2011. Screenplay by Ben Queen, story by John Lasseter & Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman. 106 minutes)

Cars 2

Passion: When I wrote about WALL-E in US#2, I mentioned that when we walked out of seeing Cars (2006), I turned to my wife and said, “This is the beginning of the end of Pixar as we know it.” I was wrong, of course, about it being the end of Pixar, as you can see in my comments on not only WALL-E, but also Up (2009, in US#27) and Toy Story 3 (2010, in US#50). Given my feelings about the first Cars, you can imagine I approached 2 with some trepidation. Especially when it got a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 35% from the critics, who hadn’t liked the first one either. And while it opened well, 2 dropped 52% at the box office in its second weekend, and another 52% the third weekend. But Cars 2 does turn out to be a better film than Cars. And it may just be too smart for the room, the room with both the critics and the audiences in it.

Let’s go back to the first film for a minute. I wrote about in US#2 that my problem with the film was that “Previous Pixar films…focused on characters and story. Cars, especially in the never-ending opening race, seemed much more interested in how dazzling the animation could be.” The GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) were over-impressed with how flashy they could make the animation, so it detracted from the film rather than add to it. The filmmakers tried to give the car characters the kind of depth that they had done with the toys in the Toy Story franchise, but the GAPS couldn’t do it, and the film simply did not have the emotional resonance the other Pixar films did. John Lasseter’s love of cars got in the way of making the film as rich as the other films. A lot of the critics seemed to hate the idea of a sequel.

So why would John Lasseter want to do a sequel? Well, he still has a passion for cars. And for the characters. And as some cynics have suggested, a passion for the money he can make from the toy tie-ins. But Lasseter is also smart, which you shouldn’t have to be told at this point. So 2 is different. It is not trying for the emotional qualities of Up and Toy Story 3, and it is not as good a film as those, or other Pixar classics. Lasseter recognized instinctively that Lightning and Mater won’t take you down that road. So the emphasis is more on the fun we can have with these characters. Lasseter wants to play with the characters the way kids play with toy cars, and he wants us to enjoy the game. Ben Queen, the screenwriter, told Danny Munso in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, “John, from the beginning of this movie, just wanted it to be a fun ride. I’m not saying that’s going to trump the emotion of it, but it’s not a tearjerker. We really wanted it to be a fun time.”

As a result, the focus is more on plot than in the first film. For the first film, Pixar had a sequence of Lightning taking Sally to a drive-in to see a spy movie with British secret agent Finn McMissile. The sequence was dropped because it took away from the main story, but Lasseter loved the character. As he toured the world for the openings of Cars, he imagined how Lightning would behave in places like Tokyo, Paris, and London, which brought him back to McMissile. Lasseter loved Hitchcock, so he put those characters into a spy story. And then he decided that people would assume that Mater, the redneck tow truck, was really a master spy.

What?!? Mater was the Jar Jar Binks of Cars. He’s a character actor, not a leading man. Never underestimate the artistic intelligence of the GAPS. Real logic says don’t put Mater in a starring role, creative logic says, sure, if you surround him with a lively story, terrific “location” work, and a whole pile of other characters. Plus the great joke that while we know Mater is a doofus, everybody else thinks it’s all a disguise. The Lightning-Mater relationship was key to the first film, so it makes sense it is key to the second one, but in a wholly different situation. The balance is right, and the structure works. That’s Lasseter and Pixar: the balance between passion and artistic intelligence. Even if critics and audiences don’t necessarily see it.

The locations provide great opportunities for the Pixar designers. Each city is both real and not real, with assorted clever “car” details, some visual, some verbal (Big Ben is now Big Bentley). The opening scene, of McMissile on a set of oil derricks, is intentionally something out of a James Bond movie and makes you wonder if you have stumbled into the wrong theater. But it sets up the spy story in a flashy visual way, which lets the next scene spend some time talking, giving us that bane of all sequels, exposition.

The opening scene also establishes, as if it needs to at this point in time, that Pixar is the true heir to Walt Disney. One thing the Disney animated films did better than anybody else was water. Look at “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia (1940) or the whale sequence in Pinocchio (1940). The ocean in Cars 2 is the equal of those, so much so that I found myself getting seasick. Or maybe that was just the stupid 3-D and those stupid glasses.

Larry Crowne (2001. Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos. 98 minutes)

Larry Crowne

Well, they got one thing right: In US#34 I gave the then-new television series Community a hard time for geeking all the details about community colleges. I stopped watching after about the third episode, and nothing I have read about it since has suggested that got on the right track. Most of the critical comments have been about how full of pop culture references the show is. Cannot we call a moratorium on the use of pop culture references in movies and television? Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) managed to do OK without them. On the other hand, the Hope-Crosby road pictures are so full of them that the pictures don’t make a lot of sense to modern audiences.

The problem I had with Community is that it shared the general condescension that exists in America toward community colleges. Listen to any references to the CCs from any late-night comic. A colleague of mine at Los Angeles City College, Jonathan Kuntz gets interviewed by the media all the time, but since he teaches part-time at UCLA, he gets identified as “an adjunct professor at UCLA” rather than as a full-time one at LACC. Recently he was asked by the New York Times to do a piece on Elizabeth Taylor for their online blog, and he was identified as someone who teaches at LACC as well as UCLA. That may be the millennium coming, but I suspect somebody at the Times got fired for letting it through. Interestingly, that condescension toward our CCs does not exist overseas. We got a lot of foreign students who attended LACC because they didn’t know they were not supposed to. And I recently supplied a blurb for a book published in England, and to my astonishment I was identified as being from Los Angeles City College.

So you can see why I wanted to see and like Larry Crowne. Larry is an early middle-aged guy who loses his job at a big box store because he never went to college (the writers really have to do some tap dancing to make that even slightly convincing). At the advice of a neighbor, he enrolls in a community college. And it is not treated as part of his failure in life, but as a way to help him out of a difficult situation, which is one, and only one, of the things the CCs are there for. So Larry Crowne starts out ahead on points on my scorecard. Then it goes to hell.

The writing is very flat and “on the nose.” We get very few details about Larry, and they are not very expressive. We know he was a chef in the Navy, but that does not come into play until late in the film. There are a couple of mentions of his ex-wife, but we learn nothing about her. Larry mentions to his friend that he intended to live with his wife and watch his kids grow up in his home. But the line never makes it clear whether he had kids, or was just thinking about having them. When he has to give up his house to foreclosure, he drives away from it for the last time. Unlike the long shot of the similar scene in Tree of Life, we hold on Larry’s face in a closeup, but the only expression we get is sadness. There is a lot more that could be done with that scene. Meredes Tainot, his teacher in his Informal Public Speaking course, is given a little more detail, but it is standard issue. She is a borderline alcoholic who has a husband who surfs Internet porn all day while claiming to be writing a novel. Their arguments are nothing we have not seen before.

And those are the star parts. Hanks plays Larry Crowne, and directs as well. Unlike Welles, Olivier, and Eastwood, he does not direct himself well, so there is a hole in the middle of the film. Julia Roberts is Mercedes, and the writing gives her some stuff to do, but not that much. The implication of the promotion for the film is that the story is going to be a love story between Larry and Mercedes, but that only develops late in the film. Most of the film seems to be about Larry developing self-confidence from taking classes. I applaud that for obvious reasons, but it means most of the film plays like Julia Roberts is the elephant in the room.

The writing of the supporting parts, and Hanks’s direction of them, is much better. So the film will not be suggesting that all CC instructors are borderline alcoholics, we are given an instructor Larry has in an Economics class. He is Doctor Matsutani, and he is given a lot of character detail. He is played by George Takei in a way to make you forget he played what’s-his-name on that old TV show. Larry’s platonic classmate, Talia, is a lively character, as is her suspicious-but-not-too suspicious boyfriend. And the students in Mercedes’s class seem like a real collection of community college students. I suppose for now we have to make do with that.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011. Written by Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi. 88 minutes)

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Structure, structure, structure and structure: William Goldman says in his Adventures in the Screen Trade that screenwriting is structure, etc. He is right. And that applies to the structure of documentaries as well.

In writing about Tree of Life (we can’t seem to avoid it these days, can we?), I quoted Wiseman’s line that the editing of his documentaries is “non-rational, that is to say, irrational.” That may be his process, but the result is that his films end up with very rich and complex structures. Wiseman’s films of course deal with institutions, and what he looks for when he shoots is the way the institution relates to its clients. How does the hospital in Hospital (1970) deal with its patients? How does the Kansas City police force in Law and Order (1969) deal with both the crooks and the victims? The scenes then coalesce around the theme.

As the subtitle of Page One suggests, this film is going to take a look at the institution of the New York Times. Well, is it going to take the Wiseman approach and look at how the Times deals with its clients? No, because who are the Times’ clients? The readers? We get nothing from the readers here. The advertisers? We get nothing from them. So Wiseman’s approach is out. Well, how about the ideas of Robert Drew, the founder of the American Direct Cinema movement? He looked for situations that provided what he called “turning points,” and what others have described as providing a “crisis structure.” Certainly the Times, and print media, are seen these days as undergoing a crisis, but unlike the Kennedys trying to integrate the University of Alabama in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), it is long rather than sort-term crisis. So the film is unable to follow that kind of dramatic structure. Do we follow a charismatic individual, as D.A. Pennebaker does in Don’t Look Back (1967)? Not really, although one Times columnist, David Carr, steals every scene he is in, so the filmmakers might have done better to focus on him. They could have made him our access character.

The problem may be that the Times is simply too big and complex an organization to be covered in one film. The filmmakers (Rossi also directed) had surprising but occasionally limited access to people at the Times, but as talking heads, those people don’t tell us much we don’t already know, if we have followed the problems the print media have had over the last decade. There are some sequences, such as the Times dealing with Wikileaks and the Tribune bankruptcy, that work as sequences, and do in fact connect to the themes of the film, but the filmmakers have not done enough of those well enough to keep the film from seeming unfocused. In other words, they have not found a workable structure for the film.

Follow Me Quietly (1949. Screenplay by Lillie Hayward, story by Francis Rosenwald and Anthony Mann. 60 minutes)

Follow Me Quietly

Forgettable: This popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies. It is directed by Richard Fleischer and sounded like it might be one of those great little films noir he did in the period. It was done three years before he did the classic The Narrow Margin.

So I started watching and almost immediately began counting up the standard film noir elements. We begin in a bar/café (it is RKO cheap, so use one set instead of two), run by a guy who bets on the horses. A beautiful woman reporter comes in looking for a police lieutenant to give her a story on the serial killer called “The Judge.” The detective shows up and brushes her off, but they later get involved. The Judge only kills on rainy nights and it’s raining…(one of the big problems I have always had with films noir set in L.A. is: where do all those wet streets come from? It never rains in L.A.) and The Judge throws a crusading newspaper editor out the window. Out of the clues the police do have, the detective has a mannequin built with similar features. That is a bit unusual, but I am sure I have seen some variation of it before in a film noir. The cop finally tracks down the killer and they have a nice chase through a gasworks, very much a standard in…wait a minute. It is not just that all these elements are standard film noir, it is that I had seen the picture before.

Usually I have a pretty good memory for films I have seen, but this one, which I probably saw in the last few years, had gone completely out of my mind. Yes, it has all the standard elements, but even in genre filmmaking you have to add a little creativity to the mix to make the cake rise. This particular cake has not put them together in any memorable way.
I am not the only one who forgot about the film. Richard Fleischer doesn’t mention it in his autobiography at all.

Desperate (1947. Screenplay by Harry Essex, additional dialogue by Martin Rackin, story by Dorothy Atlas and Anthony Mann. 73 minutes)

Desperate

Not that desperate: Steve is your usual film noir veteran, now driving a truck. He gets talked into unknowingly participating in a heist. A cop is killed, and the boss’s brother is arrested. The boss wants Steve to take the fall for the brother. So the cops and the boss are after Steve. But then Steve does the smart thing. He calls his wife, tells her to take the train out of town. He catches up with her on the train, and after some adventures, they end up staying with relatives of hers where the cops and the boss can’t find them. Smart move, but what’s so desperate about that? I very often ping on movies for having the characters doing dumb things just so we can have some action. Why do those stupid kids keep going back to that camp in the Friday the 13th movies? Here Steve behaves intelligently and it kills the picture.

Steve eventually goes back to talk to the police, who are not really interested in arresting him. That does not increase the desperation factor, at least not until we learn the cops are using him as bait to catch the boss. We do get some nice suspense at the end as the boss (Raymond Burr, not only at his most villainous but at his most sensuous if you can imagine it) threatens to kill Steve at the stroke of midnight, when his brother is to be executed. We end with a nice shootout in a stairwell. But the ending hardly makes up for the sagging middle.

The Malta Story (1953. Screenplay by William Fairchild and Nigel Balchin, story by William Fairchild, based on an idea by Thorold Dickinson and Peter de Sarigny, with material from Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd, K.C.B. K.B.E. M.C. D.F.C. 103 minutes)

The Malta Story

Actors, you have to see this film: I picked this up from Netflix, since I think I had seen it when it came out, and I wanted to take another look at it. I was not going to write about it, but one element demands mention. This film has the worst single performance Alec Guinness ever gave on screen. And it is not like he was just starting out. He had already done Great Expectations (1946), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Man in the White Suit (1951). What happened?

As you might guess from the number of contributors to the screenplay, the problem begins with the script. The film is about the English Royal Air Force and Navy on the island of Malta in the summer of 1942. They are under constant attack from the German’s, since from Malta the Brits can disrupt German shipping to the Mediterranean. Much of the material is given the kind of documentary treatment I discussed in writing about The Wooden Horse (1950) in US#75: assuming that the fact that these things happened is enough to make it interesting. It’s not. The screenplay is very unfocused, skipping all over the place. After a scene that goes nowhere, we get a lot of stock newsreel footage. I suspect the reason the incident of the Ohio, a tanker ship bringing fuel, is used is that they had footage of the crippled tanker coming into the harbor in Malta.

And what does this have to do with Guinness? Well, not much, unfortunately. He is playing Flight Lt. Peter Ross, whose specialty is taking aerial reconnaissance photos. He is on a flight to Cairo that lands in Malta. The Germans bomb the plane and he is assigned to stay in Malta. Guinness starts out playing him as a rather whimsical character, probably because one of the other military men describes him as “not exactly military.” But nothing more is done with that, and Guinness seems completely lost in the picture. The director, Brian Desmond Hurst, does not help. In one scene Ross is supposed to fall in love at first sight with a Maltese woman, Maria. Hurst has him give the most obvious reaction he can, rather than the kind of subtlety Guinness is noted for. Neither the script nor Hurst, nor Guinness for that matter, have any idea how to play this non-existent character, even when he becomes heroic late in the picture. Actors should see this film to learn how even a great actor can be at sea without a smart script and/or a smart director.

The Good Wife

Some Late Spring-Early Summer Television 2011. No, I haven’t stopped watching television this spring, but I have gotten behind on writing about it. Here are some assorted comments on assorted shows.

Because of the end of the school year and my retirement and other stuff, I did not get around to watching the season finale of The Good Wife until late June, but it was worth the wait. “Closing Arguments” had a teleplay by Robert and Michelle King from a story by Corinne Brinkerhoff. Will and Alicia win a tricky case and they go out for drinks afterwards. What follows is probably the best six minutes the show has had. We pick up the two of them in a hotel bar, and they are both a little tipsy. Will tells her that his girlfriend Tammy was going to fly off to London the day before. He was going over to talk her into staying, but just then the crucial piece of evidence showed up. So Tammy is gone. Will says he and Alicia always had bad timing and wonders what it would be like if they had good timing. Tammy’s gone, Alicia has dumped Peter. Sounds like good timing to me. But the writers are very smart not to rush into it. At the reception desk, they have trouble getting the attention of the clerk, who is on the phone. Then there are no rooms because there is a convention in town. Well, there is the Presidential Suite, but it’s $7,800 a night. Look at Alicia and Will’s reaction to that. Will pulls out his Gold Card. Yeah, I think she’s worth too, Will. The first elevator that opens its doors is full of service carts. Some joker has pressed all the buttons in the second one, so Will and Alicia take their time, necking in the elevator. Then Will’s door card does not seem to work. And they both take it very coolly. Alicia turns his card upside down, and it works. Now, that is true suspense. Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend’s would be proud.

Burn Notice has returned with an interesting change in the franchise. At the end of the last season, Michael was cleared to go back to work for the C.I.A.. That changes the dynamics of the show. In the first episode of the season, “Company Man” (written by Matt Nix), Michael is assigned to be part of a team that tracks down the guy he thinks got him burned. The guy is in Venezuela, and Michael insists he be allowed to take Sam and Fi on the assignment. Needless to say, when the official plan goes south, Sam and Fi can improvise and save everybody’s asses. Except for that of the bad guy, who dies. So Michael won’t get to talk to him about why he was burned. In the following episode “Bloodlines,” written by Alfredo Barrios Jr., Jesse, who is now working for a security company asks Michael to use his C.I.A. contacts to help him on a case. The third episode “No Good Deed,” written by Michael Horowitz, has Michael obsessed with going over the documents he has on his burn situation. So now we have the three elements that are going to play out in the season’s episodes: Michael’s friends helping him in C.I.A. work, Michael using his C.I.A. contacts to help his friends, and Michael still looking into his being burned.

Franklin & Bash is just what we need, another lawyer show. Well, no, we don’t need it, and you probably would not want to watch it in the winter, but it’s passable in the summer. Franklin and Bash are two hot-shot (are there any other kind?) young lawyers who are brought into a posh firm by its head to help shake things up. They do. They win cases. The best thing about the show is their boss at the posh firm. He is Stanton Infield, and he is what looks to be a retired hippy who has a variety of interests besides the law. He is played by Malcolm McDowell, and I was delighted to see that he actually handled a case in the third episode, “Jennifer of Troy,” written by Dana Calvo. The Chinese computer geek fixing Franklin and Bash’s computer system needs help dealing with a problem in Chinatown, and since Infield lived in China, he goes to talk to the “Council of Elders” gets the issue settled. I hope they keep giving cases to Infield, simply because McDowell is more fun to watch than anybody else on the show.

Necessary Roughness is The Good Wife with jockstraps. Dr. Dani Santino is a therapist who discovers her husband is cheating on her (the bed in the guestroom is a little too neatly made up) and kicks him out. To augment her income, she agrees to take on as a patient Terrence King, a pro football player who keeps dropping passes. She is also dealing with two teenage children, especially a daughter who is a real pain in the ass.

The good news is that the show finally gives the wondrous Callie Thorne a show of her own. The writers have given Dani has a lot of sides to her, and Thorne is up to the task. In the “Pilot,” written by Liz Kruger, Thorne was a little more than up to the task, but in the following episodes she has settled into the part. The franchise is going to be Dani dealing not only with King and other players on the team, but as word of her success gets out, other people in high stress situations. King continued as a patient, but in the second episode, “Anchor Management” (written by Jeffrey Lieber & Tracy McMillan) she is primarily treating a network TV anchor, and in the third, “Spinning Out” (written by Liz Kruger & Craig Shapiro) the patient is a race car driver. The downside of the series is that, as in all movies and most TV shows, the cures come very quickly, with just a smidgen of psychobabble. The writers keep the scenes lively and the storylines moving, but at some point you just have to say, did that psychological cliché really work? I suppose they do, but I am not the only one who is a bit dubious. The Los Angeles Times runs an occasional column called “The Unreal World” that gives you the truth about the medical cases presented on television. You can read the one about Necessary Roughness here.

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

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

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

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.

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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