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Understanding Screenwriting #78: Friends with Benefits, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #78: Friends with Benefits, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Friends with Benefits; Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; Point Blank (2010); Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005); The Great Escape; MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot (book); The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography (book); Covert Affairs, but first…

Fan Mail: Contrary to what David E. thinks, I love films that are poetically structured. If you can find it, look at the great British documentary Song of Ceylon (1934), one of the most poetically structured films of all time. In my History of Documentary film course, the classes were always split: there were those who loved it and those who hated it because it didn’t tell a story. That gave me a chance early in the course to let them know that all films do not have to tell stories.

“Pippa” appears to be upset with David and me for taking things to “the Nth degree of irrelevance.” Then, alas, she goes on to provide a link to the “film structure in a circle” site that I wrote about in US#76. She ought to go back and read my comments on it. The problem I have with so much writing about screenwriting is that it is often only about structure (Syd Field’s plot points; the Hero’s Journey, etc) without a lot of understanding of the nuances of character, tone, et al involved. As in some of the films in this column…

Friends with Benefits (2011. Screenplay by Keith Merryman & David A Newman and Will Gluck, story by Harley Patton and Keith Merryman & David A Newman. 109 minutes)

Haven’t we recently seen this? Take one: No, actually we haven’t. In US#70, I wrote about No Strings Attached (2011) which has a similar plot: Two friends agree to have sex without any emotional attachments, but one of them naturally falls in love with the other and complications ensue. It was not particularly well done, for reasons I will come back to as we discuss this one. Friends is much better in a variety of ways.

One problem I had with Strings is that the characters were not equals. Emma was a doctor, Adam was a television production assistant who was just devoted to her since they were kids. So you can see where the story is going right away. In Friends, Jamie (Mila Kunis) is an executive headhunter who recruits Dylan to come to New York from California to become the new art director at GQ magazine. So they start out as equals. Will Gluck, who also directed, has said he wanted to do something in the vein of the old Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movies, and you can see and hear that influence. But Kunis and Justin Timberlake, who plays Dylan, don’t have that maturity or emotional weight. Which is OK, and Gluck and the others recognize that. These two are young professionals, but professionals nonetheless. The two characters and the actors who play them are much better balanced than Natalie Portman and Aston Kutcher are in Strings. Both Kunis and Timberlake have great chemistry on-screen and are hot, the latter of which is not normally said about Tracy and Hepburn. In Strings the sex was played mostly for slapstick jokes, but the sex here is very much in character.

One problem I have with most sex scenes in movies is that they tend to be very generic. The sex scenes here are not; you have probably never heard the word “burlap” the way it is used here. The writers focus on how these characters, having what they hope is unemotional sex, talk and screw and react. It is much funnier than just slapstick. It is very raunchy stuff—you are embarrassed to think of Tracy and Hepburn saying any of what gets said here—but it is not as off-putting as the raunch has been in other recent films, such as Bridesmaids (US#76) or Going the Distance (US#59). Character and attitude ground it.

Gluck, who directed but did not write Easy A (2010), also directs here, and he again shows a feeling for interesting supporting characters. They are not as well written here as those Bert V. Royal wrote in Easy A, but the script gives some nice moments to Woody Harrelson as Tommy, the gay sports editor at GQ. So it’s Dylan who has the gay best friend, not Jamie. Jamie’s mother Lorna shows up, played by Patricia Clarkson, who was great as the mother in Easy A. She’s not given as much to work with her, but there is a great running gag as to the ethnic identity of Jamie’s father, taking advantage of Kunis’s “ethnic” look (in Hollywood terms that means she is not a pasty-faced blonde). The most interesting supporting character is Dylan’s father, who is in first-stage Alzheimer’s. That’s a tricky character to throw into a rom-com, but the writers balance his crazy and sane moments nicely and everybody was smart enough to get Richard Jenkins for the part.

The writers also realize their film is coming along late in the current rom-com cycle, so there are a lot of jokes, a la Scream (1996) as to the rules of the genre. Jamie and Dylan never go the top of the Empire State Building, but to a rooftop where they can look at it. There is even a film-within-a-film that demonstrates all the cliches. Stick with Friends all the way through the end of the credits to see a funny payoff to that.

One way Friends is better than Strings is that it’s not just one character who falls in love with the other. Here both characters do, which leads to a nice scene where Dylan’s sister simply explains to him why the whole friends-with-benefits idea doesn’t work. We watch Jamie and Dylan truly sweat over the situation. We may not cry real tears over them, but we at least cry genuine cardboard tears.

The film also gets a lot of mileage out of the New York-California conflict, but I have to tell you this: My daughter saw the film in a suburb of New Orleans and she and her husband were the only two people in the theater that laughed at the New York and L.A. jokes. Maybe the rest of the country just doesn’t care about us, folks.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011. Written by Dan Fogelman. 118 minutes)

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Tone: Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, one plot in romantic comedies involved a divorced couple getting back together again. The great opening of The Philadelphia Story (1940) showed us the breakup in which Tracy Lords throws her husband C.K. Dexter Haven out of the house, golf clubs and all. But then we jump ahead to some time later when she is planning to marry someone else. His Girl Friday (1940) begins with Walter and Hildy already divorced (and Hildy planning on remarrying). What neither film shows us is what happens immediately after the breakup, because that is a little more serious than either film wants to be. Crazy, Stupid, Love. starts with the breakup and then follows what happens afterwards. So the tone is different. The film is funny, but there is an undercurrent of rueful sadness as well. While Friends With Benefits follows in the fast-talking spirit of films like His Girl Friday, Crazy, Stupid, Love. creates a different kind of balance. The almost completely forgotten 1957 film Divorce American Style tried something similar, but did not do it as well as the current film.

In the title sequence we can tell Cal and Emily are not on the same page by their shoes under the restaurant table. Emily tells Cal she wants a divorce and shortly thereafter he jumps out of the car on the way home. You could write that for pure laughs, but Fogelman gives it an edge, and the directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, capture the tone the script sets by keeping the action slow enough so that we can watch everybody’s reactions to the events. We get drawn into the characters and their situations. Fogelman co-wrote the screenplay for Cars (2006), worked on the story for this year’s Cars 2, and wrote the screenplay for 2010’s Tangled, so he knows both comedy and character. We get a subplot with Cal and Emily’s 13-year-old son, Robbie, who is madly in love with the 17-year-old baby sitter (Robbie has a younger sister, whom we don’t learn that much about) named Jessica. And Jessica has a mad crush on…Cal. The main plotline is Cal being taught by Jacob how to be a swinger, complete with a makeover of the kind one usually sees in chick flicks. It’s funny to see the shopping montage with guys.
Fogelman is very careful to set up the continuity of the film, usually letting us know what the next scene is going to be by having someone mention an upcoming event. That way we end up suspecting right away that when we do not see the teacher in Robbie’s classroom but only hear her, she will show up in some other situation, which she does. We can tell what’s coming and we anticipate it. Nice and tidy.

Then half an hour before the end of the film, Fogelman pulls off a real corker of a twist. I can usually see them coming, but not so with this one. Why does this one surprise the way it should? First of all, we assume the twist with the teacher is the film’s big twist. Second, Fogelman has done a great job preparing us by making us assume the characters involved in the twist are there for one function only in the plot. Third, he lays out everything else so neatly, we hardly expect something like this.

I also like the way Jessica, the babysitter is written and cast. She is not a raving beauty, but a gawky 17-year-old who does stupid things. I saw the movie with a fairly large crowd, and the two guys next to me were older teenagers who had no interest in Jessica until her final action in the film. It will endear her to teenage boys everywhere. And would probably get her arrested in real life.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling. 130 minutes)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Finally: I have to admit I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, nor have I seen any of the films made from them. Mythical British schoolboys and their magic wands don’t turn me on. So what I am doing writing about this film in a column about screenwriting? Just this: I am incredibly glad to see the series end and end on a good note, according to everybody. I do not begrudge anybody who made a bazillion dollars from it. And why am I glad to see it all end?

From the first film of the series back in 1893, the Warner Brothers Marketing Department has been relentlessly congratulating itself for doing such a great job of selling the films to the public. I imagine they all broke their arms patting themselves on their backs. But in fact, the WB Marketing Department did not have a damn thing to do with the success of the films. Not one damned thing.

People went to see the first film because of one person and one person only: J.K. Rowling. She, the writer of the novels, created those character, those stories, and the overall arc of the series. Without the love that people felt for her novels and her characters, they would not have shown up for the first film. It’s the writer, stupid.

Audiences kept coming back because of Rowling, who has at least gotten some of the credit she deserves, and one other person. That would be David Heyman, who discovered the books before they were bestsellers and took the project to Warners. Then he produced all the films in the series. You think that’s easy? Think about all the moving parts involved in the series. Because Heyman kept the level of quality up, people kept coming back. Steve Kloves, who wrote all but one of the screenplays, helped with the quality as well, of course.

So I am celebrating the end of the series because it now means that the Warner Brothers Marketing Department will now, we hope, FINALLY SHUT THE FUCK UP about how they made the films hits all by themselves.

Point Blank (2010. Written by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans. 84 minutes)

Point Blank

Luc-alike: In US#20, I wrote about Taken (2009), a fast, action-packed thriller co-written by Luc Besson. When Besson had a huge hit with his 1990 thriller La Femme Nikita, The New Yorker’s one-line blurb for it was “The end of French Cinema as we know it.” It was not entirely, but it did introduce the French version of the high-octane thriller. Point Blank, not to be confused with the 1967 film of the same name co-written by the great Alexander Jacobs, is very much in the Besson vein. We start with Sartet, a wounded safe-cracker being chased by a couple of guys trying to kill him. Sartet ends up in a hospital where Samuel, a nurse’s aide, saves his life. This puts Samuel on the bad guys’ radar. After the first chase scene, we have been introduced in a nice slow scene to Samuel and his very pregnant wife, Nadia. So Sartet’s cohorts kidnap Nadia and tell Samuel to get Sartet out of the hospital or they will kill his wife. You may remember from the last column, US#77, I wrote about the 1947 film noir Desperate and mentioned that the leading character got his wife out of town before the bad guys could do her any harm. Here the writers don’t give Samuel a chance, which certainly ups the suspense.

Then there is a lot of running around. And I mean a lot. We know Samuel is a nice guy, but here he is mostly, well, desperate. Sartet is a rather cool guy, but that’s about it for him. There are a whole variety of criminals, corrupt cops, not-so-corrupt cops, and they are all very sullen. Yeah, I know they are French, but they are all one note, although the one cop who may not be is killed off earlier in the film than you might think. So there are plot twists and several good scenes (I particularly love how Sartet and Samuel break into the police station to get an incriminating video on a USB), but it is all on one emotional level. Taken at least had a little variety to it.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005. Written by Simon Kinberg. 120 minutes)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Not worth waiting for: About five or six years ago I was visiting my daughter in Denver. I had not seen this film when it came out, and she had it from Netflix. We had a couple of hours before we had to leave for the airport, so we figured we could get it in. We started it and it looked promising. John and Jane Smith are a married couple going through a bad patch (they are both bored), so they are seeing a shrink. We get a flashback on how they met, and it is clear both of them were packing guns at the time. They apparently got married without telling each other what they do. One day Jane gets an assignment in her work as an assassin, and she sees that John is there too…and about then my daughter’s DVD player went on the fritz. It just would not work. So we had to give it up. I kept meaning to get around to seeing the film, but it was not high on my list. Finally I got it from Netflix.

Maybe my daughter’s DVD player knew something we didn’t, since the film begins to go downhill rather rapidly about the point we stopped watching. John and Jane figure out they are hired assassins, working for different organizations. For some reason this makes them furious with each other. So they go from having a boring life to trying to kill each other. About midway through the film they have a shootout in their house, which pretty much destroys the house. It is way too big for its placement in the middle of the film. And then, having destroyed the house, they are so turned on they have sex with each other.

OK, I can understand makeup sex if you have been arguing, but after destroying your own home? I suppose Kinberg is intending it to be some kind of commentary on marriage, but the shootout is so big, so noisy, and so long (they are pretty crummy hit persons if they are not better shots than that) that makeup sex seems stupid under the circumstances. They eventually figure out that their organizations (about which we learn virtually nothing—this is really a two-character piece) have finally (what took them so long?) learned they are married to each other and want both of them dead. Why? Who knows? I would have thought a married team might be useful. So the movie ends up another big shootout, this one between the Smiths and a lot of faceless guys. In a stunning lack of imagination on Kinberg’s part, this shootout is in a home furnishings department of a big store. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. And when the shootout is over, the Smiths have killed all the other soldiers. Fade out. Huh? Aren’t their two organizations going to try to continue to kill them? Maybe this was intended to be a setup for a sequel, but thank God there has not been one.

The Great Escape (1963. Screenplay by W.R. Burnett and James Clavell and among other uncredited writers, William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Nelson Gidding, based on the book by Paul Brickhill. 172 minutes)

The Great Escape

Even bankers think it is a nice little scene: I happened to see this again recently, since it is one of my favorite World War II movies and I look at it every couple of years. From the first time I saw the film in 1963, I have always like the little scene where Griffith, the tailor, explains to Big X how he is making civilian clothes for the escape. In the scene as written and played, Griffith behaves like a typical tailor as he lays out the possible materials he is using, what is he going to do with them, etc. It could be an on-the-nose scene, but Griffith’s attitude gives it some flair. The scene was almost cut out of the film.

I have mentioned Glenn Lovell’s excellent biography of director John Sturges, Escape Artist, before. I read through the chapter on The Great Escape before I looked at the film. According to Lovell, the writing was rather chaotic, mostly because of Steve McQueen, but also because there was so much material in the book. The rough cut ran five hours, which they cut down to a little over three. That cut worked well, but United Artists wanted it cut to under three hours. Sturges cut it, including the tailor scene. But when they needed extra money, they had to show the film to the Board of the Pacific National Bank to get the money. The bankers all asked how the prisoners got the clothes. The scene went back in.

I always pushed my screenwriting students to only include scenes in their scripts that they needed. The tailor scene may have seemed like one they didn’t need, but they did. See what I mean about screenwriting being a work of nuances?

MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot (2011. Book written by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, Michael Troyan. 311 pages)

MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot

The title gets its right: This is a big book, in many ways. It is wider than it is tall, and it is packed with an incredible amount of information about the old MGM studio in Culver City, complete with a list of what films and television shows were shot on which backlot sets. The studio is now owned by Sony, but the soundstages are still there. The backlots, of which there were several, were all torn down in the ‘70s and replaced by real estate developments. An acquaintance of mine lives in a house on what used to be Lot Two. I think we figured it out that he is close to the old Grand Central Station set, where in 1959 alone, Marilyn Monroe got spritzed by steam from a train in Some Like It Hot and Cary Grant got on board the 20th Century Limited in North by Northwest. Hallowed ground indeed.

The writers have uncovered not only the MGM records that still exist, but photos of nearly all of the sets on the backlots. You will recognize many of them if you have seen any movies, and not just MGM movies, made before 1975. And you will be surprised to learn that movies you thought were done on location were done on the backlot. Only two shots in An American in Paris (1951) were actually shot in Paris. The rest were done on Lot Two or on the sound stages.

So what does this wonderful book have to do with screenwriting? More than you might think. Because writers at the studio knew what was on the lot, they could write for it. Betty Comden and Adolph Green came up with the idea for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) while wandering around the lot. The book’s authors have several quotes from television writers who were inspired to write scenes based on the standing sets. They quote from a newspaper interview in 1959 with Rod Serling in which he talks about walking on “St. Louis Street,” built for the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis. Serling said, “I was suddenly hit by the similarity of it to my hometown. Feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, it struck me that all of us have a deep longing to go back—not to our home as it is today, but as we remember it. It was from that simple incident that I wrote the story ’Walking Distance’” for his series The Twilight Zone. The resources of a major studio could make television shows look much more expensive than they really are.

I had a first-hand look at how a writer used a standing set at MGM. In the spring of 1968, I was in a screenwriting course at UCLA. Williams Bowers was a guest speaker in the class, and we had read his wonderfully funny screenplay for Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), which had just finished shooting. In the copy of the script we read, the final shootout was missing. There was a page that said the details of the shootout would be written when they decided which western set they would use. They settled on the Western Street on Lot 3. As luck would have it, that summer I was a bus driver/tour guide at the slapdash studio tour. It was not run by the studio, but contracted out to a sleazeball who must have had incriminating photos of some MGM executive. He had three old buses, but had only registered two of them with the state, and he split one set of license plates between two busses. So I spent the summer going past the Western Street imagining the final shootout, based on what I knew of the characters and situations in the script. Needless to say, I was disappointed the first time I saw the shootout in the movie. It was not nearly as inventive as what I had come up with. On the other hand, mine would have run four hours…

The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography (2011. Book written by Aubrey Solomon. 384 pages)

The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and FilmographyIt’s the writers, stupid: Solomon’s book is not the nostalgia-ridden piece the MGM book is, but a serious history of Fox before the merger in 1935 with the upstart 20th Century Pictures. It is also the only place I know of where you will see photographs of Theda Bara topless and laughing. Not in the same photo however. Now that I have your attention, let me mention the section that is interesting in terms of screenwriting. The founder of the studio, William Fox, was kicked out of the studio in the early thirties. Whatever his character flaws, and he had a pile of them, he was a showman. The people brought into run the studio were not, and Solomon makes it clear that a large part of the problem from 1930 to 1935 is that there was nobody running the studio who understood scripts. He has quote after quote from reviews on how bad the scripts of the time were for most of the Fox films. It was no wonder that in 1935 the studio merged with 20th Century. Twentieth Century had Darryl F. Zanuck, who had the best story mind in Hollywood, and helped the studio recover and grow with the assistance of screenwriters like Lamar Trotti, Philip Dunne, and of course Nunnally Johnson.

Covert Affairs (2011. “Welcome to the Occupation” written by Zak Schwartz. 60 minutes)

Covert Affairs

Haven’t we recently seen this? Take two: A group of terrorists burst into a meeting of energy executives. The terrorists fire their automatic weapons into the air and tell the executives they are being taken hostage. Right, it is the opening of the first hour of the second episode of Carlos (US#62), when Carlos and his men take over the 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna. What we have here is a version of that domesticated for American television.

The terrorists in this case present themselves as eco terrorists, claiming the company GG&E is polluting Mexico, the country the meeting is in. They are not as uncontrolled as the guys in Carlos. Delgado, the leader, has even brought along an asthma inhaler, filled with the right prescription for one of the executives. That is not a touch from Carlos. Delgado is smoother then Carlos. With Carlos we never quite know what is going to happen. One of the women at the meeting is Megan, a C.I.A. field officer who has been working undercover at the company. She manages to get off a message to Langley before the terrorists take over. So while in Carlos our focus is on Carlos and his men, here we have other characters, including eventually Annie, the star of the show.

Annie, her boss Joan, and Ben, an operative Annie had a fling with, are set up as a eco television network unit and given permission to go in to interview the terrorists. It is made clear by Joan that their job is to provide information about the situation to a C.I.A. strike team, and they are not to take any other action. Yeah, right, who’s the star of the show again? And while Annie has warned Ben not to try any of the “cowboy crap,” we know that he will, simply because she’s told him not to. Annie eventually figures out that Delgado is not really into ecology, but just in it for the money, so she upsets him so much that he puts the three of them in with the hostages. She figures Delgado has no intention of freeing the hostages after the money transfer is made, and she’s right. Fortunately Ben has planted his camera bag there that, like all the stuff Q provides for James Bond, happens to be exactly what they need. He blows out a window, and the four guards come into the room. And Joan and Megan beat the crap out of them. Wait a minute, Annie’s the star, what does she get to do? Well, rappel down the side of the building with Ben to capture the escaping Delgado and the executive who was the inside man. This is the difference between a serious look at a terrorist and a light-hearted American summer television series: nobody rappels down buildings in Carlos.

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

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

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

2.5

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

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

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

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

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

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

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

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

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

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

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

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

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

According to A24’s official description of the film:

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

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

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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

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

2

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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