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Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More

Coming Up In This Column: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, What’s Your Number?, A Single Man, The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Prime Suspect, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Whitney, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes, David, I am definitely trying to take Hero’s Journey Soup off the menu. And you will get no argument from me about Jean-Claude Carrière’s status as a screenwriter. As far as I can tell, his nonfiction book The Secret Life of Film has not, alas, been translated into English.

50/50 (2011. Written by Will Reiser. 100 minutes.)

Tone, nuance, restraint: When Casey Robinson researched cancer for his script for Dark Victory (1939), he became determined to make it as medically accurate as he could. Between Warner Brothers and Bette Davis that didn’t last very long. The film ended up being probably the first in which the leading character gets Movie Stars’ Disease: they look great until late in the picture when they cough once and die. See Love Story (1970) and Terms of Endearment (1983) for later variations. And all the thousands of television movies that have come along since. What makes 50/50 so fresh is that it avoids all, and I mean all, the cliches of the genre.

Part of that comes from the fact that Reiser, a writer and producer, got a particularly bad form of cancer when he was in his mid-twenties. So he is writing about it from the inside (see the comments below on The Playboy Club for an example of a show that is researched rather than felt), but with a very clear eye about the experience. He owns this world in the way Hecht and MacArthur owned newspapers when they wrote The Front Page. His surrogate, Adam, is a NPR producer working on a story on volcanoes when he gets the diagnosis. Reiser does not beat the volcano symbolism to death, and the volcanoes have a great, quiet payoff later in the film. The diagnosis comes from a doctor who seems to be unable to look him in the eye. Who of us have not had a doctor who is not very good at delivering the bad news? The cancer is a tumor on the spine, which is tricky to operate on, so Adam begins with chemotherapy. At this point the film could go the traditional way.

But Adam’s friend Kyle is a different sort of best friend. Kyle is based on Reiser’s friend Seth Rogen, who plays him in the film. Like a Seth Rogen character. Kyle is raunchy, with all kinds of semi-inappropriate ideas for Adam, like using his cancer to attract women. Kyle is not above using his helping his friend to score with women. Kyle’s function in Adam’s life and in the film is to bring a raucous counterpoint to the illness, which keeps the film from getting too maudlin. When my wife had breast cancer in 1987 (don’t worry; she is 24 years cancer-free now), I was put In Charge of Hugs and Humor. And the humor was very, very dark. Generally films avoid that, and this one doesn’t, which helps both Adam and us get through this. The tone of the film is serious, but not solemn, and you never know what outrageous thing Kyle is going to say or do. For a long time in the film we assume Kyle is behaving this way because, well, he’s Kyle, but look at the small detail of a book Kyle has that tells us he is consciously doing this.

Kyle and Adam are great roles, and Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt act the shit out of them. This is Gordon-Levitt’s best performance; he runs with all the little nuances that Reiser gives him. Look at his reactions in the scenes with his counselor Katherine the different times she touches his arm. One thing I particularly like about Reiser’s script is that unlike a lot of male writers, he does not underserve his women characters. Katherine is not a middle-aged maternal figure, but a 24-year-old student just working on her Ph.D. Adam is just her third patient (and look how Reiser tells us that), and she really doesn’t know how to do all this yet. She’s also not yet completely clued in on the professional ethics involved in the question of how much she can get emotionally involved with Adam. One element I have grown to hate over the years is the storyline where the professional falls in love with his/her client/student/patient. (How I Met Your Mother has a nice running storyline now about Robin’s involvement with a therapist she was seeing that deals with the issues in a nice, if more sitcomy way.) In Reiser’s case, making Katherine a beginner makes her scenes livelier than just the standard shrink/patient scenes. It also helps that they have the great Anna Kendrick to play her.

But she’s not the only well-written woman in the film. There is Adam’s mother, who seems when she learns about his cancer that she has stepped in from a more melodramatic cancer movie. Not true. That is just her character, and we see more sides of her as the film progresses. It also helps that they have the great Anjelica Huston to play her. Adam’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film, Rachael, tells Adam up front that she is going to stick with him, which we know means that, no, she won’t. But she’s not as awful as Kyle describes her in one of his foul-mouthed tirades. It also helps that they have the great Bryce Dallas Howard to play her.

It of course helps keep the movie from being a tearjerker that Adam does not die. He eventually undergoes surgery, which gets all the cancer, and he resumes his life. The emotional restraint of the writing and acting pays off beautifully. At the risk of sounding like I am turning into a quote whore by writing a blurb, this is one of the best original screenplays of the year.

The Mill and the Cross (2011. Screenplay by Lech Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson. 92 minutes.)

The Mill and the Cross

Sunday in the Park with Pieter: One of my favorite Stephen Sondheim musicals is Sunday in the Park with George. In the first act we follow artist Georges Seurat as he completes his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jette. We see the people who become the figures in the painting and get their stories. The first act curtain is the painting coming together in its final form. Majewski, who also directed, and Gibson are doing something similar with Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary. But without, alas, Sondeim’s hummable tunes.

Majewski has been combining art and film for some time. He wrote the original story for the 1996 film Basquiat, and he wrote the novel and screenplay for as well as directed the 2004 Garden of Earthly Delights, which includes references to Hieronymus Bosch, among others. His 2000 film Angelus tells multiple stories, each one beginning with a room designed like a painting, from which the stories come to life. So he knows his way around this sort of thing.

The writers begin with a scene that lets the audience know what they are up to. Bruegel and a village dignitary, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, are walking through the landscape of the painting. The film is using CGI as effectively as I mentioned Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) did in US#82, but here it is to provide the background of the painting as a semi-real backdrop for the action of the film. In this opening scene we see several of the village characters who will show up in the rest of the film. We also get Bruegel explaining what the painting will be about. We are in Flanders at the time of the Spanish occupation, and Bruegel is using the subject of the Crucifixion to comment on the brutalities of the Spanish. The painting is political, but we still get some of the earthiness we expect in Bruegel’s peasants.

We do not get their stories in the way Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book for Sunday, give us stories. After the titles, the film begins by showing us the daily activities of the peasants: getting up, starting the mill at the top of the mountain, taking care of the kids, etc. But there is no dialogue among the peasants. OK, I love silent films and telling the stories visually makes sense in this context. Especially since the dialogue we do get is awful.

The few major dialogue sequences are with Bruegel and Jonghelinck, played by Rutger Hauer and Michael York, respectively. Their scenes are in English, and are not well written. I assumed in watching the film that the English dialogue came from Gibson, but Majewski has worked in English before both as a writer (Basquiat [1996]) and director (Flight of the Spruce Goose [1986]). Whoever wrote the dialogue here did a very bad job of it. Jonghelinck has a long monologue near the beginning in which he explains, in the baldest way possible, the political situation in the village. Michael York is not as bad an actor as you believe from listening to him in this scene.

Fortunately there is not a lot of the English dialogue, and as we follow the peasants, the film begins to make connections between them and their roles in the painting. We can see them, and we don’t have to hear about them. The filmmakers are tying together the threads of the story, going in and out of the details of the painting, so we can see how the painting is built up. The final shot of the film starts on the painting itself in a museum and pulls back to capture the whole paintings and the others paintings nearby on the walls, suggesting there are many other stories to tell about them. I’d be in favor of that, assuming they get somebody who can write English dialogue better.

What’s Your Number? (2011. Screenplay by Gabrielle Allan & Jennifer Crittenden, based on the novel 20 Times a Lady by Karyn Bosnak. 106 minutes.)

What's Your Number?

Guess again Tad: Way back in the April 11th issue of The New Yorker, Tad Friend had a long, thoughtful piece on the issue of whether women can be funny and raunchy in movies. His focus was on Anna Faris and this movie. Here’s why trying to predict the future will kill you, especially in the movie business. I assumed, like Friend, that Anna Faris would be the star to break through the “woman can’t be raunchy” wall. She was sensational doing just that in 2008’s The House Bunny (see US#3), and I had high hopes for her and for this film after reading the article. Unfortunately…

If you go back and read my comments on The House Bunny, you will see that I pointed out how smart the script was. Shelley, Faris’s character, only seems dumb, but she turns out to be the smartest person in the room. She relates to the other characters well, and we are rooting for her all the way. Ally Darling, Faris’s character here, is stupid at the beginning of the film and only gets stupider as the film goes along. She gets fired from her job in the opening minutes. She doesn’t even look for a new job whereas Shelley went from getting kicked out of the Playboy Mansion to becoming a sorority housemother in nothing flat. Instead Ally becomes obsessed with an article she reads in a magazine that suggests that women who have twenty or more lovers will not find husbands. As written, Ally believes this. OK, I know we are in the old Johnny Carson land of “You buy the premise, you buy the bit,” but her belief in this nonsense does not do her or Faris any favors. You could write Ally so that she sort of believes it and sort of doesn’t, but is bothered enough to do what she does in the movie: track down her ex-boyfriends in hopes that one of them is the man she was meant to marry. The writers and Faris’s Ally is just frantic. Mark Mylod, the director, does not help by pushing Faris’s frantic qualities, especially in the opening scenes when we should just be getting to know her. But then Mylod’s direction is frantic in other ways. The opening shots have him whirling his camera all over the place. The film takes place in Boston, but you would hardly guess it from the opening shots. Mylod has directed mostly television before, so he may not yet feel the difference between television and film. The Friend article begins with Faris and Mylod watching the film. He notices she isn’t saying much and asks, “Is there anything you’re cringing at?” and she replies, “My face.” Friend reports Mylod broke into laughter. But Faris was right: she is as badly photographed in this film as I have seen a star photographed in years.

The two screenwriters have written for television and this is their first theatrical film. Allan wrote for Scrubs and Crittenden wrote for both The Simpsons and Seinfeld, so they at least should have been able to shape scenes and write dialogue better than they do here. The scenes are unfocused and until the end there is not a single memorable line of dialogue (it’s in a phone call from one of Ally’s exes). If all the other dialogue is straight from the book, Allan and Crittenden should have known better and corrected it. I assume the fact that the exes Ally tracks down are not very interesting is the fault of the book, but more could be done with them. The one partial exception to that is Tom Piper, a black politician whom Ally goes to Washington to see. We get a couple of moments of her reacting to the upper class levels of D.C., and the punchline is not bad: Tom’s gay and he wants to marry her to cover it up.

Several reviewers have pointed out that the opening scene (Ally getting out of bed to put on her makeup before the guy she has slept with wakes up) is a direct steal from this year’s Bridesmaids. I would have thought that since Bridesmaids came out in May, they might have reshot that scene, but in the film it becomes a running gag, so they probably couldn’t without a lot of major reshooting. Would this film seem better if it had come out before Bridesmaids? Maybe, since not only the opening gag, but the wedding scenes would not have seemed second hand. Bridesmaids was a big hit, and for all its flaws (see US#76), it is a sharper, funnier and even raunchier movie than this one. As indicated by this: Ally’s sister is played by Ari Graynor, who had the great toilet scene in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008, see US#10). Here Graynor simply smiles a lot and shows her freckles. I like her freckles well enough, but if you want raunch, this woman can deliver it. As can Faris if you give her the material.

A Single Man (2009. Written for the screen by Tom Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood. 99 minutes.)

A Single Man

Too precious by half: I didn’t get to this one in theaters, but picked it up recently on DVD. George is an English professor in 1962 whose lover Jim died eight months ago. He’s been in an understandable funk ever since, and the day the film shows us is the day he decides to kill himself. At least Ford and Scearce don’t outright tell us that, but let us figure it out as the film progresses. One problem is that George on this day is a very one-note character. Colin Firth does everything he can to bring a little variety to the part, but the writing does not support it. The other characters are shallow as well. We get Jim in flashbacks, but he is just an object of desire. Charley, a woman friend of George’s, is one of those grotesque cliches that show up in too many gay male authors’ works: the straight woman determined to sleep with the gay hero. I suppose the equivalent in straight male writers is the guy who thinks getting a lesbian to sleep with him will turn her straight. Julianne Moore gives what color she can to Charley. The worst characterization is given to Kenny, a student of George’s who seems to have the hots for George as well. Which leads to a lot more mooning-around scenes than you need. Kenny is also a very one-note character, and Nicholas Hoult, the actor who plays him, is not experienced enough to do more with the part, unlike Firth and Moore. Late in the film Kenny shows up at George’s favorite bar and they go back to George’s house. At one point Kenny says that he is worried about George. There is nothing elsewhere in the script or Hoult’s performance that would make us believe that. It would have been easy enough to write that Kenny is truly concerned while also attracted to George, which would have given their scenes a little texture. It would also give the scene where George discovers Kenny is sleeping with the gun George intended to use to try to kill himself a lot more impact.

Tom Ford is primarily a clothing designer, so as you can imagine, the film is art directed to within an inch of its life. George’s house is neat and gorgeous, which works against the story. When George tries to shoot himself, his fumbling attempts to get in the right position simply look silly in his perfect house. Ford has made the film look like a television commercial, which makes it seem shallower than it needed to be.

The Playboy Club (2011. “Pilot” written by Chad Hogue & Becky Mode. “The Scarlet Bunny,” teleplay by Chad Hogue, story by Chad Hogue & Karyn Usher. 60 minutes.)

The Playboy Club

Relax Gloria, it’s already been cancelled: Gloria Steinem first gained fame by going undercover as a Bunny in the New York Playboy Club and writing about it in a 1963 article called “A Bunny’s Tale.” She wrote about the long hours, hard work, and ridiculous costumes the Bunnies were required to wear. It made her reputation, so you can understand that when the new series about the glamour of Bunny life in the early ‘60s was announced, she condemned it sight unseen. After all, she has a reputation and a movement to protect.

If she had seen it, she would have been even more upset for one obvious reason and one less obvious one. The series was created with the help and support of Hugh Hefner. He does a voice-over narration, going on and on about how liberating it was for women to work at the Club, how freeing it was for them, and how it was in its own way the forerunner of women’s liberation, although he never uses that term. That is historical revisionism of the worst sort, a false nostalgia for a world that only exists in Hefner’s head. His magazine and his clubs did help America free up sexually, which I am sure Hefner assumes that women’s liberation was all about, but it still presented the women as sexual stereotypes.

The less obvious reason Steinem would hate the show is that it presents the material from the Bunnies’ point of view rather than hers. The local NBC channel in Los Angeles had an interview with a former Bunny in which she talks about the experience not in unpleasant terms. OK, local network news often does promo news stories on network shows, but getting an actual Bunny? To speak positively about the experience? I was surprised, though, that the news did it, but not that she spoke positively. Several years ago Kathryn Leigh Scott, who before she was an actress in everything from the original Dark Shadows to Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence, was a Bunny in the New York club. At the same time Steinem was there. And was profiled in the piece. She and the other women in the club felt betrayed by Steinem, who had not told them what she was up to. But it was more than that. Scott felt that the article was condescending to the other Bunnies, since Steinem had made no effort to get to know them. So in the ‘90s Scott set out to track down not only the other Bunnies she worked with, but as many others as she could find.

Guess what? Not only did they have some good memories of their experiences, but they went on to be not only actresses (Susan Sullivan, Lauren Hutton) and singers (Deborah Harry), but also doctors, lawyers, and scientific researchers. Scott’s book of interviews with them came out in 1998 under the title The Bunny Years, and it is a fascinating read. If Gloria Steinem didn’t have a dog in the fight, she would love it, since it shows that women can go beyond the stereotypes men like Hefner have of them.

Now wait a minute. I previously said that Hefner took credit for liberating women and then I am saying the women went out on their own and did well. Doesn’t the latter prove Hefner was right? No, because there is no indication that in the early ‘60s Hefner (or nearly anybody else other than the Bunnies themselves) conceived the possibility that would happen. So The Playboy Club gets caught between a rock and a hard place: it has to be nice to Hefner and his memories and it has to be nice to the Scott view of the Bunnies. In the first two episodes, it never quite manages that. The bits that seem to have come from Scott’s book (she appeared in a photo with the show’s Bunnies in the September 26-October 2 issue of TV Guide) sound more researched than felt.

Aren’t you impressed that I have written this much on this show and not yet mentioned Mad Men? A lot of the hype over this show and Pan Am (see below) is that since they are both set in the early ‘60s they are ripping off Mad Men. Yes, they are, and they are doing it badly. As you may remember, one element I love about Mad Men is that it captures the tone of the era so beautifully. The sexism of the men in Men is casual and believable. The sexism of the men in The Playboy Club is obvious, again researched than felt. Even though Club is focused on the women, and they are not particularly well drawn, the lead is Nick, a Chicago lawyer with mob connections. He is written and cast to remind us of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. Yes, Nick could lead to mob stories, as the killing of a mobster in the pilot episode does, but what does that have to do with the Playboy Club?

So much for the idea of sex selling: NBC cancelled the show after three episodes. Don’t worry, Gloria, you reputation is safe.

Pan Am (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Jack Orman, developed by Nancy Hult Ganis. 60 minutes.)

Pan Am

Humming the luggage: Like The Playboy Club, we are in the highly glamorized version of the early ‘60s, back when flight attendants were called stewardesses. The show’s developer, Nancy Hult Ganis, was a stewardess, but from 1968 to 1970. Hmm, why move the show back… ah,well, you’ve guessed, Mad Men. Ganis had the idea for the series several years ago, but it took her this long to get it on. Part of the problem is that it took a while to convince the company that owns the Pan Am brands (the airline went out of business in 1991) that the show could be a marketing bonanza for them. So we get the stews’ carry-on bags shot loving detail. See how many little girls come trick-or-treating to your house this Halloween in Pan Am stewardess costumes. This is the sort of commercial for Pan Am that Don Draper would have rejected as too simple-minded by half.

The creator and writer of the pilot, Jack Orman, was a writer-producer on ER and other shows, so he knows his way around a big, multi-cast show, but he runs into a problem many pilot episodes do: he is trying to get in too much in one hour. The episode deals with the first flight on a new jetliner from New York to London. We are introduced to Maggie, a grounded burser, who is called upon to fill in for a stewardess who has gone missing. Another stew has to deal with her lover, who is on board the plane with his wife. We assume the wife does not know about her husband and the stew, but she does and gives the stew a hard time at the end of the flight. There are two sister stewardesses, one of whom is a runaway bride. There is a stewardess who is, or at least will be, involved with the C.I.A.. There is a weird matte shot of London when they get there that suggests Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral are a lot closer than they are in real life. I did not see a kitchen sink, although there may have been one in Maggie’s first scene. Yes, we get a kid looking up adoringly at crew members, not once, but twice. The showrunners may sort out the overplotting, but it will take a little more work to scrape off the sentimental look at the ‘60s. Mad Men is about as unsentimental as you can get.

Prime Suspect (2011. “Episode One” developed and written by Alexandra Cunningham. “Carnivorous Sheep” written by Alexandra Cunningham. Based on the British television series developed by Lynda LaPlante. 60 minutes.)

Prime Suspect

No, it’s not Prime Suspect: Prime Suspect is the great British television series created and mostly written by Lynda LaPlante, beginning in 1991. It stars Helen Mirren as a tough Scotland Yard Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. She puts up with the casual sexism of the men she works with, she drinks more than she should, and she has been known to have an affair or two. And did I mention she’s played by Helen Mirren?

I love Maria Bello. She’s been wonderful in nearly everything I have seen her in. But she’s not Helen Mirren. And Cunningham has not developed a character for her to play. Yes, we get the generic stuff: tough, hard charging, but we have had a lot of women detectives who have had those qualities and more: Brenda Leigh Johnson in The Closer, Grace Hanadarko in Saving Grace, Olivia Benson in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And those women have dealt with the occasional sexism aimed at them. Like the sexism in Mad Men, it is part of the culture they work in. In this show, it is obvious and relentless, and for the supporting characters, such as Detective Duffy, that seems to be their only defining characteristic. Also, Bello’s Jane Timoney does not seem to be as in charge as Jane Tennison was. In “Episode One” she seems in charge, but not in “Carnivorous Sheep.” This may just be a difference between NYPD and Scotland Yard, but it throws the dynamics of the show off.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (2011. “Scorched Earth” written by David Matthews. 60 minutes.)

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

Where’s that old L&O inventiveness?: One of the great joys of the Law & Order franchise is not that they did “stories torn from the headlines,” but they always gave them ingenious plot turns. I remember one episode that began what was obviously a ripoff of the Anna Nicole Smith death, but had twisted it away from that before the first ca-ching of the credits. As might have occurred to you as you followed the news accounts of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, it is a perfect case for L&O:SVU: sex, power, diplomatic immunity, a flawed victim. It had it all. Well, it may have had too much. Matthews’s script follows the real case almost to the letter. I kept waiting for one or more of those great L&O twists. The problem is that the case already had all the variations you would expect from L&O. The only change is that the diplomat was actually tried at the end and found guilty, not of rape, but of unlawful imprisonment. Well, that’s no fun. Especially since Matthews set up a potential twist early on in his script. The diplomat in the show’s version was Italian, not French, and he says at one point that he thinks he may be set up by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to prevent him from running against Berlusconi in the next election. So I kept expecting that would pay off in an interesting way, but it does not pay off at all.

Whitney (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Whitney Cummings. 30 minutes.)

Whitney

She’s no Kat Dennings: This is the second show that Cummings had a hand in creating this fall. The other, and better one, is 2 Broke Girls (see US#82). In that one, we have a story and characters. The “Whitney”-like character in that one is Max: tough, smart-mouthed, take no prisoners. But she has to deal with Caroline, the rich girl, who comes to work in the diner and who stays in her apartment, with her horse. So Max has stuff to do, and as written and played by Kat Dennings, she is not just a smart-mouth, but her comments have to do with the other characters and the situations she finds herself in. The character relates to the other characters, including the horse. In the “And Strokes of Goodwill” episode (written by Jhoni Marchinko) Max takes Chesnut, the horse, out for a walk to do his business, and delivers a nice monologue to him.

In Whitney, Cummings plays the title character. She is living with her boyfriend of three years, Alex. They make jokes. They are afraid of marriage. They go to a wedding and make jokes with their friends. Whitney dresses up as a nurse to seduce Alex and he ends up in the hospital. They make jokes. Most of the jokes are variations on material from Cummings’ stand-up act, and so the show falls into the trap of a lot of sitcoms based on a comedian’s act: all jokes, no story, no characters. Half an hour of this just gets tiresome. Stick with 2 Broke Girls.

The Good Wife (2011. “A New Day,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Meredith Averill. “The Death Zone,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Leonard Dick. “Get a Room,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Julia Wolfe. 60 minutes.)

The Good Wife

Patience: As you may gather from this column, the previous column, and the next one, I have been watching a lot of the new television season. That includes a lot of pilots (yes, there are some I have not written about). As was the case with both The Playboy Club and Pan Am (see above), many pilots are just stuffed to the gills with plot, character, and everything else. That’s why it was so nice to come across “A New Day,” the season opener for The Good Wife. You may remember from US#77, the last episode of the previous season ended with a great sequence in which Will and Alicia manage, slowly, given the complications, to get into the Presidential Suite at a hotel for what we assume is going to be great sex. “A New Day” is just that: what happens the next day.

How do we know it’s the next day? Alicia comes to work smiling. Will is nowhere to be seen. Work begins as she is assigned a case of a young Muslim accused of a hate crime. The prosecution in a pre-trial hearing gets him to admit he was driving a car at the time of the demonstration. So he has an alibi—the car was used later in a murder and how he is arrested for that.

And what about Will? He arrives in the office a little bit later, but he is not smiling. Hmm. Did something go wrong? When the secretary says Alicia was looking for him and does he want to see her, he says no. Ouch. At 18 minutes in, Will goes into Alicia’s office and we see them talk seriously, but we do not hear the conversation. God, what happened at the hotel? Diane notices that Will is being a “little hard” on Alicia and asks if anything is wrong. He says he is worried that she is a third year associate acting as if she is their equal. At 36 minutes, we cut from that scene to Will and Alicia. Together. Somewhere. Having sex standing up, mostly clothed. They both laugh when Will tells her about Diane’s question, then he asks her is he is being “too hard” on her. And she comes. Is this the first female orgasm on American network television?

Now you understand why CBS has changed its advertising campaigns for the show. The ads have featured Juliana Margulies with her head thrown back looking like she is in the middle of fun with Will. Now that they are actually having sex, CBS figured they could play that up, but I think their ads just cheapens and diminishes the show. As always, there is a lot more going on in The Good Wife than just sex. Not that there is anything wrong with sex. Although an irony-challenged woman wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times saying she could not understand why the show is called The Good Wife, since Alicia is having sex outside or marriage, etc, etc.

In “The Death Zone,” the State’s Attorney, i.e. Peter, is asking for law firms to bid on the gig of being outside counsel for his state office. Lockhart-Gardner applies, but Peter wants them to submit to an independent audit, a requirement he has not made of the other firms applying for the job. Is Peter trying to get back at Alicia? Or the firm? There are hints of all of those in various episodes and will undoubtedly play out in future episodes.

“Get a Room” gets us involved in a case where Eli, whose specialty is crisis management and is now part of Lockhart-Gardner, has to deal quickly with a food poisoning case. He jumps in to action in the way that only Alan Cumming can do. My guess is that this is the episode Cumming will submit for his Emmy bid next year, and with good reason. The Kings have given him a great showcase.

This episode also introduces us to a new character, Celeste. She is the opposing counsel on a case where Will and Alicia are representing a woman harmed by a medical device. The case in mediation and the groups of lawyers are more or less sequestered in a hotel until the mediator can get them to agree. It becomes obvious that Will has dealt with Celeste before. Will and Celeste play cards at the hotel and she suggests that whoever loses the card game should concede the mediation. Will’s not buying that. It’s only after that we learn that she and Will were “together for two years.” Together how? Not clear. Later she mentions to Will that her firm is going under and she is looking for a new professional home, suggesting she could maybe come to Lockhart-Gardner. And we end the episode (our guys win the mediation) without learning what will come out in the next couple of episodes: Celeste is Will’s ex-wife. Hijinks will definitely ensue.

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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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.

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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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Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation

Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human misery—shots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage aren’t exactly new, but Östlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, an Americanized remake of Östlund’s film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.

Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeure’s plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behind—though not before grabbing his phone.

This scene, which Östlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. It’s reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.

Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they don’t give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.

It’s hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the film’s premise, they’re mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrell’s clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s rubber-faced emoting.

Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billie’s emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, it’s Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that sticks with you after the film is over.

If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a man’s world. It’s apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Östlund’s film is that of the husband’s pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billie’s face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer

Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Today, Searchlight Pictures debuted the trailer for The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s first feature since 2018’s Isle of Dogs and first live-action film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. According to its official description, The French Dispatch “brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.” The city is Ennui-sur-Blasé and the magazine is run by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an American journalist based in France. The trailer, just a hair over two minutes, quickly establishes the workaday (and detail-rich) world of a magazine, a travelogue struggling with just how much politics to bring to its pages during a time of strife.

A French Dispatch is written and directed by Anderson, whose described the film as a “love letter to journalists,” and stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. See the trailer below:

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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