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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

Coming Up in This Column: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, Hell on Wheels, The Closer, but first…

Fan Mail: Happy New Year, and welcome to pigs flying and Hell freezing over: David Ehrenstein actually had complimentary things to say about stuff in this column TWO columns in a row.

And thanks to “Keith” for clearing up where the “Marlene” in Martha Marcy May Marlene came from. I can now sleep better at night.

J. Edgar (2011. Written by Dustin Lance Black. 137 minutes.)

On the one hand…: Writing about Dustin Lance Black’s script for Milk (2008; see US#14) I gave Black a hard time for the lack of characterization for most people in the film. It was an example of the “characters” in a documentary, in this case the 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk, being more interesting than his fictionalized versions. I am glad to see the awards, including the Oscar, that he won for that script did not prevent him from trying to improve his work. The characterizations in this script are terrific, from his version of J. Edgar Hoover down to the smaller parts. This gives us a wide range of great character scenes. We see Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) in a couple of doozies. Throughout the film we get great scenes between Hoover and his second-in-command Clyde Tolson. I particularly liked two Tolson scenes. In the first Tolson kisses J. Edgar and the latter reacts violently. It could easily have become camp, but Black, DiCaprio, Armie Hammer (as Tolson), and director Clint Eastwood keep it from getting out of hand. The second is late in the picture when an aging Tolson “corrects” Hoover’s recollections and we see what really happened in multiple previous scenes. Those scenes were flashbacks as J. Edgar is dictating his memoirs.

One reason the first of those two Tolson scenes works so well is that Black deals with Hoover’s possible homosexual feelings in wonderfully subtle ways. It would have been way too easy to make him a simple closet case, but Black goes into why Hoover had trouble admitting to any homosexual feelings. Black gets that across by giving us a sense of the attitudes of the time and how they affected individuals. I pinged on the script of Milk for often being politically “on the nose,” but that is definitely not the case here, or at least not culturally “on the nose.” The film spends most of its time in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘60s, so we do get a sense of how things changed over that period of time. In the ‘20s and ‘30s Hoover is almost an heroic figure as he establishes the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We see him fight for fingerprinting and other scientific crime-fighting techniques that old-timers put down, but we also see him be very picky about the personal details of his agents. Television writers I talked to about working on the ‘60s series The F.B.I. told me that Hoover was still that way. At one point a writer wanted to give Inspector Erskine a cold, but Hoover insisted F.B.I. agents did not get colds. Although there were still very few black agents in the Bureau in the late ‘60s, Hoover was agreeable to having a black agent on the show, probably to make the Bureau more modern than it was at the time.

Since Hoover ran the Bureau for fifty years, there is a lot that is left out, enough to make another film. We get nothing from the ‘40s (capturing Nazi spies) or the ‘50s (searching for Communists). I missed those periods, but Black is probably smart not in include them in an already long film. By dropping them, he may give us a better sense of the changes in attitudes between the early and later years. If you are jumping from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, the visual changes alone will help shift our minds a bit before anybody says or does anything.

On the other hand, as much as I like a lot of this film, it is in one way a complete mess. Black is constantly cutting back and forth from time periods and it is hard to adjust to, even given the visual clues. He will give you a great scene, say one between Hoover and his mom, then cut to some different time period. He will get us involved in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, then not pay it off until we have time-jumped several times. We are constantly losing the emotional threads, which takes us out of the picture. I admire Clint Eastwood a lot as a director, but handling this kind of time-jumping has never been his strong suit. You can see what I mean in Bird (1988) and Hereafter (2010).

Hugo (2011. Screenplay by John Logan, inspired by the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. 126 minutes.)

Hugo

Lumpy: We sweep into a Paris train station in the 1930s and meet Hugo, a boy of about ten who lurks in the upper reaches of the station. His uncle used to keep the clocks running, but when he disappeared, Hugo continued the job, unbeknownst to anybody in the station. So he spies on the other people in the station, which gives us good visuals: the people who work there and Hugo’s reactions to them. OK, fine, but the film takes forever to establish all that. Hugo loses a notebook he cherishes, and Georges, the old man running a newstand, refuses to give it back. Hugo will not tell him what’s in the book. And doesn’t tell him. And doesn’t tell him. It is 45 minutes into the film before we find out about the automaton that Hugo is repairing, based on his dead father’s notes in the notebook. Georges tells Hugo he burned the notebook, but Georges’s ward, Isabelle, gives it back to Hugo and they become buddies. It is an hour into the film before we find out that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, the great pioneering French filmmaker. Through Tabbard, a French film scholar, we get a flashback of a visit Tabbard made to Méliès’s studio as a boy. It is beautiful recreation of the studio, but Tabbard is a minor character, so we wonder, why are we getting his flashback? Especially since later Hugo and Isabelle persuade Georges to tell them about his work, and we see essentially the same material. It would have been much more dramatic if we saw it through Hugo and Isabelle’s eyes as Georges tells us all about it.

It has also taken us half an hour to get from finding out who Georges is to getting his version. Like so much in the film, it could go quicker, a lot quicker. Much as I love, film historian that I am, the recreations of Méliès’s studio and work, there is almost too much of them, since it takes us away from Hugo. The movie shifts from being Hugo’s movie to Georges’s movie. I know the filmmakers love old films, and as much as I love luxuriating in the material about Méliès, it throws the film a bit out of whack. And as a film historian, I also noticed some historical glitches. Méliès’s career did not end because World War I changed audience attitudes, as the film states, but because Méliès kept making the same kinds of films over and over and over again. His 1912 film A Voyage to the North Pole is hardly different from his classic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. He simply did not grow with his audiences. Now there’s a lesson for filmmakers.

Two other minor details. Some critics have complained that the character of the Station Inspector seems like a slapstick intrusion, but to me he fit nicely into the film, and I think the director did a very nice job getting Sacha Baron Cohen to give a nuanced performance. The other detail: Hugo is in 3D, and because the director (Martin Scorsese) and his cinematographer (Robert Richardson) know film as well as any two guys around, the use of 3D to give us a sense of the space of the station is brilliant. Psst, don’t tell Marty I said that. He’ll think I am going soft in my old age, although based on some evidence below, I may be.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941. Written by Preston Sturges. 90 minutes.)

Sullivan's Travels

The Sturges Project, Take Four: After the success of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July (both 1940), Sturges was afraid he was due for a flop with The Lady Eve (1941), but it turned out to be a big hit as well. Zanuck had loaned Henry Fonda for Paramount for Eve in return for Sturges coming to Fox to make a film. Sturges passed another of his trunk items, Song of Joy, to Zanuck, who thought it was second rate and guessed that it had come out of the trunk. The Zanuck-Sturges collaboration would have to wait. According to Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, Song of Joy was something of a meta-cinema satire on Hollywood, with Sturges constantly pulling the rug out from under us as to which movie we are watching. That appears to be the only element that he brought over to Sullivan’s Travels. According to Sturges’s biographer James Curtis (in Between Flops), Sturges intended to make fun of directors whom he felt were getting too much into sending messages. Curtis does not indicate which directors Sturges had in mind, but there were plenty around. Capra is name-checked in the film, and Sullivan’s first name John may be a reference to John Ford. Sullivan’s middle name is Lloyd, which may be a reference to Sturges’s Paramount stable mate, Frank Lloyd. Sturges started writing Sullivan’s Travels in February 1941 and he started shooting in early May. Henderson points out that there are fewer changes from draft to draft in Travels than there are in earlier Sturges screenplays. Partly that was because it was not based on previous scripts, and partly it was because Sturges was getting more confident. He may also have been getting sloppier.

Henderson mentions there are a number of logical holes in the script. We start with a clip from a melodrama that supposed to be about the conflict of labor and capital, but in the office scene that follows it is never made clear whether this is a film somebody else made, or whether it is the one Sullivan wants to make. It appears to be the former, and it also appears that Sullivan wants to make a film of a book, but he hardly mentions it in the office scene. Henderson also seems a bit huffy about the mixture of seriousness and slapstick in the film. As I was reading his essay I was bothered by his comments, since Travels is one of my favorite Sturges films. Then I read the screenplay. It simply did not live up to the film.

Oh my God! What happened? Partly it may have been that Henderson’s essay turned me hypercritical, and I began to find other inconsistencies, e.g., why in the chain gang sequences is the Trusty carrying around a newspaper that must be at least a couple of weeks old? The classic opening scene in the studio office seemed as good as I remembered it, but then the script becomes, as Henderson noted, uneven. You could defend the script against that on the grounds that it is a picaresque tale, but in the script I found a lack of connections. I had an even bigger problem when Sullivan meets The Girl. I always got on my screenwriting students for not giving their characters, especially the majors ones, names, and here is the great Preston Sturges doing just that. There did not seem to be much going on between Sullivan and The Girl in terms of what we will watch, and I was never clear in the script what she was after. She does not seem sexually interested in Sullivan, and she is very casual about his being a big director who might give her aspiring actress a break.

It may also have been that I am simply getting old and not as perceptive about screenplays as I used to be. I have always prided myself on being able to spot what is playable in a script and what isn’t. I have been wrong before, of course, as in looking at a middle draft of the screenplay of Jaws (1975) and thinking the shark jumping up on the boat and eating Quint would be totally ridiculous on film. Or, it occurred to me that this may be one of those very rare cases (see the notes in US#65 on Casanova Brown [1944] for an example) where the film is better than the script.

As you can imagine, I then sat down to watch the film with a combination of dread and hopeful anticipation. The film gets off to a rousing start with the clip from the drama. It does not look like anything else we have seen in Sturges. It’s visually darker, for one thing. Sturges’s cameraman on The Great McGinty was William Mellor, who had a distinguished career shooting such films as Giant (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), but had been very condescending to Sturges. The cameraman on Christmas in July and The Lady Eve was Victor Millner, who had shot films for De Mille (The Crusades [1935] and The Plainsman [1936]), but also shot 1932’s Trouble in Paradise for Lubtisch. Milner obviously learned how to fill the screen from De Mille. In the De Mille films he fills the screen with props and set decoration; in the Sturges films he fills them with Sturges’s stock company of character actors. Milner was unavailable for Travels and was replaced by John Seitz, whom we talked about a little bit in the comments on The Badlanders in US#58. He could handle the mixture of light and dark Sturges wanted in the film, and he makes this scene dark but still with the energetic action Sturges stages. It may not look like a Sturges scene, but it feels like one. That’s not the last time we will see that in this picture.

Seitz was also not above goading Sturges. As they got ready to shoot the studio office scene, Sturges was considering the various angles he might use and Seitz said, “I dare you to do it all in one take.” Sturges replied, “Well, I have never refused a dare in my life.” Sturges had written the role of Sullivan specifically for Joel McCrea, who insisted that nobody wrote scripts for him; they wrote scripts for Gary Cooper and any that Cooper turned down went to McCrea. McCrea had only had limited stage experience and most movie actors were not required to do long takes. But he was game, after Sturges assured him that if it didn’t work they could cut it up into smaller segments. So they shot it in a four-minute take, which is what you see in the picture. Like the Bildocker-Parker scene in Christmas (see US#85) the result is a scene that could only be in a movie written and directed by Sturges. McCrea’s Sullivan is a slightly pompous guy whom McCrea gives a likeable quality to. He is arguing to be allowed to make a serious picture. Sturges has given him not one but two studio executives to fight. Why two? One would make the scene more focused. But two makes it more lively as they double team Sullivan, so the dialogue goes back and forth in a zingier way. And Sturges has made LeBrand (probably named after his studio patron William Le Baron) and Hadrian not unsympathetic. They are not above comparing their hardscrabble backgrounds with Sullivan’s privileged life. And here’s the real reason you have two of them: after Sullivan leaves, LeBrand and Hadrian call each other for lying through their teeth about their poor younger days. McCrea may have not had much stage experience, but he recognized great dialogue when he read it. He said of Sturges’s scripts, “He wrote dialogue I could just look at once and do.” In this scene the writing is wonderfully poetic, with recurring phrases, like LeBrand’s insistence on having “a little sex” in Sullivan’s movie. Next time you watch the scene, count the number of times the phrase comes up, and who says it and how. Well, I was relieved that scene worked on film at least. The first two scenes also reminded me of the varied visual styles of the three opening scenes of Citizen Kane, which was just going into release in May 1941 when Sturges started shooting. Kane probably did not influence the script, but it may have made Sturges and Seitz realize you how many varieties of visual looks you could have within the same film.

Next we see Sullivan preparing to go out as a hobo with only ten cents in his pocket. His Butler, played by Robert Greig, who appeared in three Sturges films, objects to treating poverty as simply something to be studied. It is one of those smart off-the-wall speeches that Struges wrote better than anybody, and Sturges gives it its due by shooting Greig in closeup. Sullivan is then on the road and we get the slapstick scene with the “land yacht,” the trailer the studio has following him. It seems a little too frantic, but the script and the film have established that we are going to see everything in this film. Struges does not stage it as well as some other directors might. Then, in the script, Sullivan is picked up by Mr. Carson, who asks him about his travels. Carson turns out to be the local sheriff and threatens to throw him in jail for vagrancy. The scene was cut from the picture, perhaps for length, but it may have been too much foreshadowing of the hobo scenes later on. It may also have been cut because it was too similar to the scene with the truck driver who gives Tom Joad a ride at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Both Carson and the trucker notice that Tom and Sullivan’s hands are not working man hands.

The film goes from Sullivan escaping the land yacht directly to the scenes with Miz Zeffie and her sister Usula. In the script the sequence seems like just a picaresque diversion, but the scene in which the three of them are watching a movie is developed with a little more detail in the film than in the script. It becomes the forerunner of the famous movie scene at the end of the film. Sullivan escapes the sister in another slapstick scene and ends up…back in Hollywood, which becomes a nice running gag in the film as well as a unifying element in the film. The movie scene and the returning to Hollywood work on screen as connective material.

He goes into a diner and meets The Girl. Sturges had passed over a lot of other female stars to go with Veronica Lake. He had seen her in the rushes of I Wanted Wings (1941) and liked how she read her lines in a way that dominated the scene. She stole that picture when it was released. And she was perfect for the part of The Girl. And here, my children, is why Preston Sturges is PRESTON STURGES and Brian Henderson and Tom Stempel aren’t. Lake was known in her later starring parts, such as in This Gun For Hire (1942), for her sexual insolence. What Sturges saw was that he could have her use that insolence in a non-sexual way. Yes, it’s in the lines, but Sturges’s understanding of how she could deliver those lines makes it play on film. As a writer and director, you have to understand the dynamics between the lines and the performer. The lines are not bad, but you have to have been Sturges to know how they needed to be read. The script is good, but subtle in a way we do not expect in Sturges. And that kind of subtlety is tricky for a reader, even one as experienced as I am, to get. The Girl is constantly challenging Sullivan, and he and we never know what she is going to say to him. Sturges and McCrea didn’t know either. Lake had already begun to develop a terrible reputation, and she showed why on this production. She was late and hardly ever knew her lines. By the time she got them after several takes, McCrea, who was better on the early takes, was worn out. Lake is the reason the film went over schedule and over budget. She is also one of the many reasons the picture works. When McCrea was offered the lead in her 1942 film I Married a Witch, he turned it down, saying, according to Robert Osborne, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”

So Sullivan and The Girl go on adventures, always ending up back in Hollywood. When they hop aboard a freight, the picture begins to darken, visually and emotionally. At one point Sturges and Seitz have a long montage of Sullivan and The Girl walking through the slums of a big city. After all the non-stop dialogue, it is strikingly visual. The print quality of Travels on the boxed set is not top drawer, and I suspect, given their reputation, the stand-alone DVD of Travels from the Criterion Collection is probably better, but I can assure you that neither one can hold a candle to a great 35mm print. Once at LACC we rented a 35mm print from Universal and ended up getting a brand new one, fresh out of the lab, without a mark on it. My projectionist and I sat there slack-jawed at the brilliance of Seitz’s cinematography. His ability to combine of light and dark provide another method of holding the film together.

Henderson points out that Sturges, in his direction, does not give us a close-up of the hobo who steals Sullivan’s shoes so that we will recognize him later. But I think Sturges is, once again, ahead of Henderson and me. Sturges understands that we do not have to see that it is the same guy. We can assume that it was, or, given that this is a picaresque tale, we may think the shoes have changed hands several times before they show up on the bum who is killed.

Sullivan ends up on a chain gang, and who is The “Mr,” the man in charge? Our old friend Al Bridge, here not in a comic part as we have seen him, but as a real hard-ass. And he is just as good in this as he was in those parts. And because we “know” from previous Sturges films that he can be funny, Sturges has him laughing the loudest as the chain gang watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in the black church. Jimmy Conlin, the shortest actor in the Sturges stock company (he appears in all eight of the films we will be discussing), gets one of his biggest roles of The Trusty, who has a wonderful scene, shot all in shadows, as he tells Sullivan how to survive, a scene that would not be out of place in any drama of the period.

Watching the Mickey Mouse cartoon is, along with the first scene in the studio office, the best known in Travels. Sturges wrote in the screenplay that on the screen “…we see a silent comedy, possibly Chaplin in The Gold Rush, possibly a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler.” He settled on the Mickey Mouse cartoon. I think Sturges’s direction, and or editing, is a little off in this scene, since he has the audience laughing a lot quicker than we do, but the message is so great we don’t mind too much. When Sturges started writing the script, he had no idea what Sullivan would discover on his travels. Sturges took away everything from Sullivan and discovered that the one thing he still had was his ability to laugh.

So naturally he ends up back in Hollywood and no longer wants to make Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This now irritates the studio people because his adventures have produced great publicity for it. In his final speech, Sullivan says, “…there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh…did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much…but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan…”

When Sullivan’s Travels was completed, the new executives at Paramount liked it, but realized with its tonal shifts it would be a difficult film to sell. So the poster consisted of a drawing of Veronica Lake with her by-now-famous peek-a-boo hairdo, which never really appears in the film. Joel McCrea is nowhere to be found, and the ad line is “Veronica Lake is on the take.” That would have been perfect if the film was The Lady Eve, but it’s not. Audiences who went expecting Eve redux were disappointed and the business never picked up. Pop quiz: how would you sell Sullivan’s Travels to an audience in 1941?

Hell on Wheels (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Hell on Wheels

You’d think…: By now you know I love westerns. And you know I love train movies. For all my reservations about John Ford’s 1924 classic The Iron Horse, I’ve seen it several times. You know from US#30 how I feel about De Mille’s 1939 Union Pacific, but I am probably not yet finished watching it, either. So this new series should have been right up my alley. It is set in the Post Civil War era and like the Ford and De Mille films deals with the Union Pacific building its westward link of the Transcontinental Railroad. I will even buy that the plains of Alberta, Canada, where it is shot, can more or less pass for the American plans of Iowa and Nebraska. But the writing is sorely lacking.

The “Pilot,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, the show’s creators, begins with a man going into church in Washington D.C. He goes into a confessional, but he does not confess. So the man on the other side takes out a gun and shoots him. No, the Catholic Church did not develop a stricter no-confession policy in the 1860s. The shooter is Cullen Bohanan, an ex-Confederate soldier who is hunting down the Union soldiers who killed his wife. He squints under his wide-brimmed hat and seldom smiles, so we are maybe in Outlaw Josey Wales territory. But Cullen is simply not that interesting a character (not a patch on Josey) and Anson Mount, who plays him, does not give us any look into his soul. Cullen joins the railroad to look for the other killers, like The Iron Horse’s Davy Brandon, who is searching for the man who killed his father. Since he had slaves before the war, he is put in charge of the black laborers, including Elam, who does not have much of a characterization either. Durant, the boss of the railroad is a standard corrupt businessman, but not particularly distinctive. The only interesting character in the pilot is Johnson, the yard boss. He is given a very rich performance, better than the script deserves, by Ted Levine, more recently known as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. Johnson knows the whereabouts of the men Cullen is looking for, but just before he can tell Cullen where the men are, Elam kills him. I almost gave up on the show at that instant. Killing off your most interesting character, guys? Jeez.

I went back for two more episodes. The second was “Immoral Mathematics,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, which spends its first 33 minutes with Cullen imprisoned in a boxcar. Oh, like that’s really visual. He makes his escape and ultimately convinces Durant to let him take over Johnson’s job. Cullen’s nemesis in this episode is the Swede, a large man, dressed in black, who is Durant’s enforcer. He is the most interesting character in this episode, so I figured he would not last out the episode. He did. The third was “A New Birth of Freedom,” written by John Shibau. Cullen has found Johnson’s papers, which leads him to thinking he knows where one of his wife’s killers is. So he rides out to find him. Wait a minute. He has just been given the new job of yard boss, and already he’s leaving the yard for several days? And Durant does not fire his ass? Cullen finds Lily, the widow of the railroad surveyor, who was killed by a group of Indians John Ford would have rejected as politically incorrect. Lily has been wandering around in the wilderness, wounded, but smart enough to know that if she ever gets back to the railroad, the tube she holds onto with his late husband’s maps will be a nice bargaining chip. They make it back to the camp just as there is a funeral for her husband and his associates. Wow, a funeral at a railroad camp out on the Great Plains. You and I don’t have to think too hard to imagine what Ford or Stevens or Hawks or Mann or Boetticher or Peckinpah or even H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone (see US#28) could have done with that. Here we get a couple of speeches in a tent. I’m leavin’ Cheyenne, pardners, and lighting out for the Territory.

The Closer (2011. “You Have the Right to Remain Jolly” episode written by James Duff & Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes.)

The Closer

Ho, ho, ho: The Closer has been mostly a dramatic show (Detective Brenda Leigh Johnson and her team solve crimes), and the comic moments come mostly from the great set of supporting characters in Brenda’s team. This episode does deal a bit with the Federal case against her, but it mostly focuses on a much lighter murder case. Buzz, the team’s videographer, and his visiting sister Casey, are at a Santa theme park they used to go to as kids. Santa, in a new twist, is to arrive flying through the sky on a zipline. Somebody has tampered with the equipment, and while he does hit the chimney, it is only to splat against it. There are immediately suspects: the dead Santa Randy was married, but fooling around with one or more of the Elves. His wife and the Elves get into a fight as Brenda and her team arrive. The male members of the team are very taken by Casey, and we get recurring bits of them trying to cozy up to her during the case.

The owner of the park is Santa Jack. He smokes, drinks, and during one drunken talk, alas before he has been Mirandized, almost confesses to fixing the equipment. Is this a perfect part for Fred Willard or not? That’s who they got, and he’s terrific. Buzz is very disappointed to have his Christmas ideals about Santa broken, although Casey, the smarter of the two, is not surprised. It turns out Santa Jack’s niece was trying to kill Jack so she could take over the park and sell it to developers. She goes to jail, and Jack sells the park anyway.

In a one-hour procedural, there is not time for as many Christmas jokes as there are in this year’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but some are wonderful. Willard works his Santa beard as well as Joe Pesci works his hairpiece in JFK (1991). And stay through to the closing tag in which Casey, a TV weatherperson in Seattle, goes through her usual “We’re keeping track of the weather for Santa” bit, and then reacts differently when the camera goes off.

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

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

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

2

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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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Film

Review: Sonic the Hedgehog Doesn’t Rock, Even After a New Paintjob

Throughout, any and all subtext is buried under the weight of Jim Carrey’s mugging.

1.5

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Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo: Paramount Pictures

It’s only fitting that director Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the belated big-screen debut for the eponymous Sega mascot, feels like a blast from the 1990s. Eschewing the emphasis on world building that pervades so many contemporary blockbusters, the film remains intensely focused on the personal travails of its supersonic protagonist (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and opts for telling a single, complete story over setting up a potential franchise universe. Indeed, despite Sonic being an alien from a distant planet, we only briefly glimpse other realms besides Earth throughout the film, and we only get enough of the blue hedgehog’s backstory to know that he fled his homeworld (modeled on the original video game’s starter level) after being hunted by other residents afraid of his superpowers.

Using rings that can allow him to pass through dimensions, Sonic ends up on Earth, settling in the woods around Green Hills, Montana. He remains hidden for his own safety but suffers from intense loneliness. This much is obvious from the way he darts around the outskirts of town, watching people from afar or spying on them through windows and pretending to have conversations with them. But Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly makes its hero reiterate his feelings in endless monologues and voiceover narration. If the best contemporary children’s films trust young viewers to follow at least some of the emotional beats of a story on their own, Sonic the Hedgehog is frustratingly old-school in its condescension, as the filmmakers constantly hold the audience’s hand in order to make sure that we understand why the hero looks so crestfallen as he, for example, plays group games all by himself.

Eventually, Sonic’s high-speed, energy-producing running causes a power surge, and after the Pentagon enlists a private drone contractor, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate the cause, the hedgehog finds himself in the government’s crosshairs. As originally conceived in the video game, Robotnik had little depth or motivation beyond providing a megalomaniacal impedance to the hero, but there’s something gently unnerving about how little updating had to be done to Robotnik’s simplistic backstory to credibly present him as a mercenary in a modern military-industrial complex wielding destructive drone technology without oversight.

Of course, that subtext is rapidly buried under the weight of Carrey’s mugging. As the actor is wont to do, he lunges at each line like a starving animal, pulling rubber faces and jutting his limbs in angular motions as he says every other word with an exaggerated pronunciation. In depicting a mad scientist, Carrey over-exaggerates the madness at the expense of the rare moments in which Robotnik conveys a more compelling kind of super-genius sociopathy, a tech-libertarian’s disregard for anything outside his own advancement.

Through a series of mishaps, Sonic accidentally opens a portal to San Francisco with his rings and drops the remaining transportation devices through it, necessitating a retrieval mission to California. To do so, he enlists Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local Green Hills cop, to escort him. Having Sonic travel with Tom is an obvious pretense to give the former his first true friend, but the pairing comes at the expense of all narrative logic. Sonic can sprint from Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back within seconds, yet he opts to tag along in a pickup truck doing 60mph for a mission where time is of the essence.

To Marsden’s credit, there’s a natural camaraderie between him and the computer-animated Sonic, which is impressive given that the critter was likely represented on set by a tennis ball on a stick. The jokes are almost all uniformly awful, following a formula of some zany thing happening and a character merely describing aloud what just happened in an incredulous voice. But Marsden impressively imbues Tom with a sense of pity as the man contemplates Sonic’s life on the run—one that finds the hedgehog living in the shadows and heading to new, sometimes miserable worlds to outrun forces that might exploit and harm him.

For a film that gained notoriety well before its release for how wildly Sonic’s original animation diverged from his well-established look, Sonic the Hedgehog does show a clear understanding of the source material and its essential nature. Sonic, fundamentally, is a goofy character with a specific power who just wants friends, and as exasperating as the film can be in its overbearingly clumsy humor, it at least never tries to make the character more complicated than he really is. But the lack of any greater depth to the core of the material limits the possibilities of making any of this meaningful to anyone.

Video games long ago began to reveal their cinematic aspirations, but the Sonic the Hedgehog series to this day continues to channel the old-school cool of platformers that prize gameplay—and testing the player’s hand-eye coordination—over matters of story. There’s plenty of potential for movies and games to inform one another, but perhaps the only aspect of video game culture that Sonic the Hedgehog brings to cinema is the trend of allowing preemptive fan outrage to necessitate overhauls from already overworked animators.

Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Neal McDonough Director: Jeff Fowler Screenwriter: Pat Casey, Josh Miller Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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