Coming Up in This Column: Snow White and the Huntsman; Brave; Turn Me on, Dammit!; Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding; Safety Not Guaranteed; Bernie,; An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck; Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron; The Conspirator; Bunheads, but first…
Fan Mail: Generally by the time Keith posts one column I have the next one written. I then wait a couple of days to read the comments, add my comments in this “Fan Mail” section and send it. On #95 I sent it off without yet having seen the very interesting comments by “DevilMonkey.” He had been sent a link to that column by a friend who thought that since DM didn’t like superhero movies, “it’s practically made to order for you.” DM thought that column was merely “okay,” but since he remembered reading my book Understanding Screenwriting, he decided to read some of the past columns and ended up reading all of them. That’s above and beyond the call of duty, and if I gave out medals DM would get one.
He particularly liked the Sturges Project and would like to see me do one on Billy Wilder. The advantage to doing Sturges that way is that he had that four-year period of great creativity, while Wilder was wonderful off and on for thirty years. But there are some Wilder films I really want to do. I got a DVD a couple of years ago of Ace in the Hole (1951) that I still have not watched and that I want to do in the column. What other Wilder films to pick? The list goes on and on.
DM raised the very interesting point that I have not done a lot of films from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He asks, “Is it a silent commentary on your sentiments about films from that era, a matter of personal taste, or just a question of priority and time?” I first wrote that the answer is all of the above, which is usually the best answer to a question like that. But I do like films of the ‘60s and ‘70s very much. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, and covered in depth in my Understanding Screenwriting book) and Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963) are two of my favorite movies. And of course Coppola’s two, The Godfather (1972) and The Conversation (1974). I think part of the reason I had not dealt with the films of those two decades is that I dealt with them a lot both as a historian and writer (look at the Annotated Study list in my 1982 Screenwriting book) and as a teacher. At one of Coppola’s many bankruptcy auctions we picked up a gorgeous 35mm print of The Conversation, which I showed nearly every semester for thirty years. I covered several films from the period in my screenwriting class, showing them in sequences over the course of the semester and discussing them in screenwriting terms. So I sort of felt I had dealt with those. But I still have my notes. And scripts for some of them. Did you know that the “dream scene” of Harry and the wife (Cindy Williams) in The Conversation was a “real” scene in the screenplay? Or that Harry originally had a wicked sense of humor? So now that DM has provoked me, you may look forward to more films from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Oh, like any good writer, DM saved the punchline until last: it turns out he had not read the book Understanding Screenwriting at all, but something with a similar title. I assume he is making up for that lack in his life even as we speak.
And now, on to the comments on #96: Matt Maul had a different reading of the last scene of the season finale of Mad Men. Matt thought that Don was walking away from the commercial shoot unhappy rather than satisfied. I am not sure there is the visual evidence for that in the shot, but it’s perfectly possible to read it that way. Which is the sort of ambiguity that we love about the show. David Ehrenstein noted that they did give the black secretary a nice scene with Peggy. It was a nice scene, but I still wish there had been more of them. Ah, well, that’s what next season is for. Maybe she’ll become romantically involved with Don. Or with Joan.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, screen story by Evan Daugherty. 127 minutes.)
This is the script Tarsem Singh should have directed: You may remember that one reason I whacked Mirror, Mirror in US#94 is that I did not think Tarsem Singh was the right director for it. He did not handle the comedy well, and the producers hadn’t provided enough production values to make it live up to his visual sense. There is hardly any comedy in this script, and the producers give the director Rupert Sanders the kind of production values Singh would work wonders with. Sanders works enough wonders that when I first saw the trailer, I assumed it was Singh’s film.
I mentioned in my comments on Mirror, Mirror that the Snow White tale is “one hell of a scary story,” and this script is true to that. Mirror, Mirror was trying to be true to its idea of Disney, but this one is determined to make it different. We start with a raging battle sequence (Sanders obviously loves Kurosawa), and then discover exactly how sick a puppy Queen Ravenna is. Unlike the queen in Mirror, Mirror, she is more a terror than a diva. She’s played by Charlize Theron, who brings the same kind of intense evil that she brought to her Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Sanders does let her get a little too Norma Desmond in a couple of scenes, but this is his first feature and he’ll learn better. The seven dwarves are very minor characters here and basically forest trash, neither cutesy nor Robin Hood-like thieves.
I got on Mirror, Mirror’s case because it turned Snow White into a warrior princess in a clumsy montage sequence. She ends up a warrior princess here, but we get no montage. She starts out smart. We first see the adult Snow in prison, where she has been languishing for years. She’s inventive and figures out how to escape from the castle, so we know right away she’s no wuss. At the end, she dons a suit of armor to lead the attack on the castle, but the armor is a mistake on the filmmakers’ part. As several critics have pointed out, it makes her look like Joan of Arc, which takes us out of Snow’s story. Like I say, Sanders will learn. He also lets Kristin Stewart play Snow with a little too much of her trademarked sulk. It’s well over an hour before she shows us she has a captivating smile, but then we don’t see it that often. Like Sanders, she’ll learn.
Brave (2012. Screenplay by Mark Andrews & Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi, story by Brenda Chapman. 100 minutes.)
Why discuss the ones that are only not-quite-so good?: When I was trying to get my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays published, one publisher who does a line of books it would have fit very nicely into objected to my writing about less-than-good and bad screenplays. Why not just write about the good ones? As I told him, and subsequently added to the Introduction, “After all, that’s why medical schools study disease and why business schools study the Edsel and New Coke. Part of the purpose of including the less-than-perfect scripts is to train you to look for problems, so that you can do that in your own scripts.” In this case, the film is by the GAPS (the Geniuses At Pixar), whose batting average is incredibly high, mostly because they know how to develop scripts properly. See my comments on any of the Pixar films of the last four years. So what went wrong here?
The story begins with Brenda Chapman, who worked on the stories for Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994) and Chicken Run (2000), so we are not talking about an amateur here. She wanted to do a film about a mother-daughter relationship similar to her own with her daughter. OK, Princess Merida is a tomboy in Scotland in the Middle Ages and she defies her mother’s wishes that she femme up to try to make a good marriage. Merida would much rather be an archer, the occupation of choice this cinematic season. Merida breaks up an archery contest among the dweebish sons of the neighboring kingdoms for her hand by beating them in the contest and declaring that therefore she can choose her own husband. Queen Elinor is none too happy and they argue. The dialogue between mother and daughter is very generic mother-and-daughter stuff. I have no idea if it was that way in Chapman and Mecchi’s screenplay, which in spite of the order in the credits came first, or if it has been flattened out in the rewrites. Merida goes off into the woods, where she lets a witch smooth talk her into putting a spell on Elinor. Merida just wants her to change, but the witch turns her into a bear. Which given that dad, King Fergus, had a fight with a bear years before and lost part of his leg to it, may make for awkward moments around the castle. Things work out in the end.
Chapman, who became the first woman to direct an animated feature with Prince of Egypt (1998), started directing Brave. But she was replaced by Mark Andrews, whose major credit seems to be the screenplay for this year’s John Carter. I have seen no reasons given, since everybody at Pixar appears to have signed confidentiality clauses. We may have to wait twenty years until they all write their memoirs. If the mother-daughter stuff is Chapman’s, the subplots about the legends of the kingdom are probably Andrews and Purcell’s, and they don’t help. As the film develops, it becomes more and more unfocused. When we want more of Merida and Elinor, we get instead the mythology of the kingdom. I also suspect that a lot of the comic slapstick comes from the guys rather than Chapman. I love Billy Connolly, who voices Fergus, but a little of him goes a long way. The characterization of the secondary characters is not up to Pixar at its best. Usually the group efforts at Pixar work out, here they don’t.
It being a Pixar film, there are some nice things. The animators give Merida great red hair, and Elinor as a bear has some nice reactions. There are also some good lines of dialogue, as in Elinor’s instruction to Merida that “A princess does not chortle.” And the film is also subversive in that Merida does not end up with a man. So she can chortle all she wants.
Turn Me On, Dammit! (2011. Screenplay by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, based on the novel by Olaug Nilseen. 76 minutes.)
A different take on mothers and daughters: This is a live-action Norwegian film, not an animated American one. So unlike Disney and Pixar, we very early on get Alma, a 15-year-old girl, masturbating while listening to a phone sex line. The scene is fairly explicit, as is the rest of the film. Because that’s what it’s about: Alma is a very horny teenage girl. She keeps having sexual fantasies about almost everybody she meets. Then at a party, Artur, whom she likes and fantasizes about in very romantic ways, comes up to her outside a party and nudges her with his penis. Alma makes the mistake of telling her two best friends, the sisters Saralou and Ingrid, about it. Ingrid, the blonde, tells everybody what Alma said, Artur denies it, and Alma is a social outcast among her peers. Eventually she runs away from her small town to Oslo, where she stays with Saralou and Ingrid’s sister. She gets some perspective on her situation and goes back and confronts Arthur, who has missed her. She tells him he had his chance with her and blew it. I would have been happy if the film ended there, but he apologizes publicly and she takes him back. Well, she is fifteen after all.
So what about Alma’s mother? She’s a single mom in her forties and just as fed up with Alma as Elinor is with Merida. Mom is really pissed when the phone sex line bills come in, but look at her reaction when she answers the phone and it is Steig, the phone sex guy, with Alma’s free call for the month. The mother-daughter relationship is much more textured here than it is in Brave.
Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (2011. Written by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert. 96 minutes.)
And yet another mother-daughter movie: I like movies that start off fast, but this is ridiculous. Mark tells his wife Diane he wants a divorce. We have no idea why. We see them at a dinner party, but without any indication of marital troubles. So Diane packs up her kids Zoe, who is in college, and Jake, who is in his teens, and takes them off to spend a couple of weeks with her mother, Grace. Oh, goodie, a visit to Grandma’s. Well, yes, but Diane has not seen Grace in twenty years. We learn later that Diane, an uptight lawyer, called the cops on her Mom for selling weed at Grace’s wedding. So why, of all places, does Diane go there? We have no idea. Diane, as written, is so opaque a character that even the great Catherine Keener cannot bring her to life.
Grace lives in Woodstock, New York, and is an unreconstructed hippie. And that’s all we get about her character. The film seems to admire Grace, so much so that it skims over Grace’s peccadilloes, which are many and varied. She is played by the great Jane Fonda, and there is not a lot she can do with the part. Jake is an obnoxious twerp who videos everything. We eventually see the film he puts together at a young filmmakers screening, and it is awful. I’ve seen bad student films, but this takes the cake. Needless to say, the audience in the movie loves it. Zoe is the only character given more than one dimension and the great Elizabeth Olsen runs with it.
This is the kind of script where every one of the three visitors almost immediately meets a perfect mate for themselves. There are some problems, but with one exception they are easily solvable. The exception is the guy Grace fixes Diane up with in a “what was she thinking?” moment.
The movie is relentlessly nostalgic about the ‘60s and about Woodstock in particular, but it has the feeling of a nostalgia created by people who were not there, but wish they had been. Created rather experienced.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012. Written by Derek Connolly. 86 minutes.)
Good up to a point: This is one of those films that got great acclaim at Sundance, and as we have talked about before, sometimes films play better at film festivals than they do in real life. This may be one of those, although it has opened reasonably well in a limited number of theaters. And it is delightful up to its final scene, although the final scene was apparently what got people cheering at Sundance.
The script was inspired by a joke ad the editor of Backwoods Home Magazine inserted, asking for someone to time travel with him. The ad not only went viral, but showed up on The Tonight Show in one of Jay Leno’s “Headlines” bits. So Connolly and director Colin Treverrow came up with a script. Jeff, a reporter for Seattle Magazine, spots the ad and pitches the idea of a story on it. Great, crusading investigative reporter at work. Not really. He wants to go where the ad was placed to make contact with a woman he had a fling with in high school. He leaves most of the heavy lifting to Darius, his intern. She is a twenty-something woman with no major goals in life—oh,crap, Lena Dunham’s been here as well. Well, no, and this is one of the freshest elements in the script. Darius is smart, does not mumble a bit, and is willing to work her tail off. And best of all, she does not whine. What Jeff has in mind is that while he tracks down his old flame, Darius can charm Kenneth, the guy from the ad. And you have to love Darius when she accuses Jeff of “dangling my vagina like bait.” Kenneth is strange, but we don’t know if he is just paranoid or if people are out to get him. He’s built a time machine, but neither we nor Darius have any idea if it will work. I had my suspicions, since I didn’t see any flux capacitor on it. It is well into the picture when we learn he wants to go back to save the woman he was in love with, who was killed in an accident. That means that Darius and Kenneth are probably not going to be an item. As in Salmon Fishing in Yemen (see US#94), Connolly has given them a strong reason not to fall in love. At least until we find out the truth about the other woman.
The film retains its charming quirkiness until the final scene, which becomes a very conventional Hollywood ending. The film has beautifully avoided anything conventional up until that point. I should let you know that the audience I saw the film with, unlike the Sundance audience, did not stand up and cheer. But they did not boo, either.
Bernie (2011. Screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on a magazine article by Hollandsworth. 104 minutes.)
Actors and real people: The story is a true-life tale. Bernie Tiede was an assistant mortician in East Texas (and the film has a wonderful explanation, part-narrated, part-animated, about the different regions of Texas) who became friends with cranky old widow Marjorie Nugent. They had massages together, took trips, and he waited on her hand and foot…until he killed her. And put her body in the freezer in her house. He told people she had moved to a retirement home, but since nobody liked her, including her relatives, nobody checked his story out. He was eventually found out, arrested and convicted of murder.
Which the small town he lived in hated. Just hated. They loved Bernie because he was such a sweet, caring guy, not only to Marjorie but to everybody. He was a pillar of the community. And there are still people in the town who do not think Bernie killed her, even though he confessed.
Linklater and Hollandsworth are Texans and understand the story and the people. They have created great characters for the actors to play. Jack Black gives the performance of his life as Bernie, and Matthew McConaughey comes close as the prosecutor. Shirley MacLaine does not have a lot to do or say as Marjorie, but nearly sixty years of experience means she gets the most out of it. And the rest of the cast is very good as well.
As are the real townspeople. Linklater and Hollandsworth have intercut interviews with people who knew Bernie, Marjorie and the others. Some critics thought it took us out of the story, but I disagree. The comments are so funny, so interesting, and so revealing that I kept waiting for more of them. We have talked several times before about how characters in documentaries are often more interesting than those in fiction films. That’s the brilliant part of the script and Linklater’s direction: the tone in the writing (and acting and direction) of the fictional characters and the townspeople match beautifully. In Steel Magnolias (1989), screenwriter Robert Harling and director Herbert Ross never managed to make the pieces fit. You were always aware of the difference between the STARS and the people from the town. Not so here. Everybody working on this movie was on the same page, which does not happen as often as it should. I was talking recently with Kevin Tent, a former student of mine and one of the great contemporary film editors. He was about to start doing some editorial doctoring on a feature. I told him I hoped everybody was on the same page. He laughed and said, “They never are.” In Bernie they are.
In the end credits we see not only the actors, but the townspeople, so we can finally tell who is who. Stick around to the end, since there is a shot of the real Bernie in prison. And then the camera pans off him and onto Jack Black. You can see Black studying Bernie like a bug under a microscope. Whatever Black learned in his prison visit, he put to great use.
An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck
Producer Richard Zanuck, who died on July 13th, knew how movies are made. Well, of course, but you would be surprised how many producers, including some very successful ones, do not have a single, freaking clue how movies get made. Richard was the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, the legendary head of 20th Century-Fox. Dick grew up on the Fox lot, literally. He would hide out from his dad on the backlot. Dick spent his summer breaks from high school and college working in various departments at the studio. He produced his first film Compulsion in 1958, and four years later when Darryl returned to take over the studio after others had run it into the ground, he made Dick his head of production at the age of 28. And then fired him eight years later, partially to save his own job and partially because Dick had fired Darryl’s girlfriend.
At this point in his life, Dick could have turned into a bum and lived off his trust funds. But he didn’t. He worked as an executive at Warners, then went into partnership with David Brown, whose talent was spotting good material. Even though Dick went into the same business as his father, his talents were a little different. Darryl focused on getting the script right and crapping all over directors. Dick was less a script guy and more a supporter of directors. It was Dick Zanuck who took The Sugarland Express (1974) project into Lew Wasserman with a television director doing his first feature film. Wasserman did not like the project, predicting it would not be a hit, but he told Zanuck, “Dick, I’m not making this deal with you because I think I know more about producing than you do. Go make the picture. Why would I hire you if I didn’t trust your judgment?” Later Dick told the director, “Think of me as your bodyguard.” The picture was a flop but the director went on to make a number of films for the studio, including his next one, Jaws. (The quotes are from a Patrick Goldstein column in the Los Angeles Times.)
Jaws, which Zanuck and Brown also produced, was a troubled shoot, and the studio kept suggesting that they should send some executives out to the location to supervise. Zanuck showed he knew how to talk to studio people in terms they would understand. He told them, “If I see a single Lear Jet at the airport, I am closing down the production.” (Variations of this line show up in several of the Zanuck obituaties.) No planes arrived and they completed the picture.
In the item above on Bernie, I mentioned that it is essential in making a movie to have everybody on the same page. The producer’s job is to make sure that happens, and Richard Zanuck was a master at it.
Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron
Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron died recently within a week of each other. As you may guess, I had my reservations about Sarris, and if you have read this column you know I had reservations about Ephron (see US#31 for my take on Julie & Julia).
Sarris of course was the American promoter of the auteur theory, which made everybody think the director was the only one who mattered on a film. Sarris was not quite as doctrinaire as many of those who followed in his footsteps. He did a nice preface to Richard Corliss’s 1974 book Talking Pictures, which tried to do for screenwriters what Sarris’s 1968 The American Cinema did for directors. Talking Pictures is interesting to look at in comparison with The American Cinema. Sarris rated directors in wholesale lots, with only a page or two at the most on each one. Corliss did fewer writers, but went into them in a lot more depth than Sarris did directors. The thing is that you can do that with writers because of all the nuances of content they provide. The Los Angeles Times had a quote in its obituary of Sarris in which Sarris says, “The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much the what as the how.” But the what is more important than that quote gives it credit for. At the end of my Sturges Project, I noted that in the section on Sturges in The American Cinema, “like so much auteur writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarris spends more time writing about Sturges’s screenwriting (character, dialogue, structure, etc.) than about his directing. What does that tell you?” But at least Sarris began to get people thinking seriously about film.
Nora Ephron was the daughter of two screenwriters, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose credits include There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Carousel (1956). Their 1961 stage play Take Her, She’s Mine is about a daughter, based on Nora, going off to college. You could believe the character Mollie in the play (played in her dazzling Broadway debut by a very young Elizabeth Ashley) will grow up to be Nora Ephron. (Even though the 1963 film of the play is by my man Nunnally Johnson, it is not a patch on the play. Sandra Dee as Nora Ephron!? Enough said.) Nora first came to fame as a writer of essays, and then moved into novels and eventually screenplays. I must admit I generally liked her essays, at least the non-food ones, better than her scripts. Part of that was her obsession in the screenplays with food, and also her tendency to write neurotic women characters that we were supposed to love because they were neurotic rather than in spite of it. She could of course be very funny, both in the essays and the scripts. When a friend of mine, upon hearing of Ephron’s death, asked me what we would do without her, I replied that we would probably eat less well and definitely not laugh as much. Not a bad legacy.
And here’s another bit of her legacy. In spite of Sarris’ efforts to erase the work of writers, Ephron got a long obituary in the Los Angeles Times. And she is the first screenwriter I know whose obit made the front page of the Times.
The Conspirator (2010. Screenplay by James Solomon, story by James Solomon & Gregory Bernstein. 122 minutes.)
The daughter of the prisoner of Shark Island: One day in 1935 Darryl Zanuck called Nunnally Johnson into his office. Zanuck handed him a magazine clipping about Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd was the doctor who had set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after Booth assassinated Lincoln. Mudd was brought up on conspiracy charges, and as Johnson said later, “The trial had brought in a kind of Scottish verdict, ’Not proven, but just for the hell of it, we’ll give him six years for being around there.’” Mudd was sent to a prison in the Dry Tortugas, and after he helped deal with an epidemic of yellow fever, his case was reopened and he was released. Zanuck asked Johnson, “Does this sound like a picture to you?”
Johnson replied, “It might.”
Zanuck said, “Why don’t you look into it and see if we can get something?” (The quotes are from the oral history interview I did with Johnson in the late ‘60s.) Johnson did and came up with the script for the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island. It was a good film and a substantial hit.
Dr. Mudd has a walk-on, well, more of a sit-in, in The Conspirator, which deals with the trial of another of the defendants, Mary Surratt. Mudd is identified as one of the prisoners, but the focus of the newer film is on Surratt, who ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C. where some of the plotting of the assassination took place. Her son, John, was involved in the plotting, but she probably was not. Her case is first taken by Reverdy Johnson, a Southern politican who sided with the Union in the Late Unpleasantness, as it is known in the South. His second chair is a Union officer named Frederick Aiken, but Johnson leaves the case entirely to him, figuring that Johnson’s southern accent will prejudice the case. Thanks a lot, fella, since the emotions are running high over Lincoln’s death and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, is determined to hang as many of the conspirators as possible.
Johnson in his script gets through all of the setup very quickly and economically, which is true of the picture as a whole. It runs 95 minutes. It was one of the only pictures Johnson wrote for which he kept a copy of a review, and he kept it because the critic talked about director John Ford’s narrative quickness, mentioning several specific cuts. The reason Johnson kept the review is that all the cuts had been by Zanuck over Ford’s objections. The Conspirator gets off to a very confusing start. We suspect we are watching the lead-up to the assassination and other related activities, but it is very unclear as to who is doing what to whom. Johnson has a great sympathy for all the characters, even those trying Mudd’s case, whereas Solomon makes it quite clear the court is made up of bad guys. In several dialogue scenes Solomon is beating us over the head with the connections between the historical case and our contemporary handling of suspected terrorists. It makes the film a lot preachier than it needs to be.
Dr. Mudd is a much more sympathetic character than Mary Surratt, at least partly because he is innocent. With Surratt we never quite know. We are supposed to get deeply involved with Aiken’s attempts to get her as fair a trial as he can, but given how little we know about her, it is difficult. In dramatic terms, it doesn’t help that Dr. Mudd gets “redeemed” and she gets hanged.
Bunheads (2012. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino & Lamar Damon. Various writers. 30 minutes.)
What’s the franchise?: Amy Sherman-Palladino was the creator and showrunner for The Gilmore Girls, one of my favorite television shows of the last decade. So I was willing to give her a shot with this one. It began with a script by Damon about a high school drill team. By the time it made the air on the ABC Family channel, it was about a Vegas showgirl who winds up in a small town teaching at a ballet school. The pilot, with a story by Damon and Palladino, and a teleplay by Palladino, begins in Las Vegas where Michelle, a showgirl, is coming to the end of her career and for a variety of reasons marries a nice guy who has been sending her flowers. He takes her away from Vegas to the small town where he lives. With his mother. Whom he has not told about the marriage. She is not happy. So the series is going to be about the three of them learning to adjust. Nope. At the end of the pilot, Hubbell is killed in a car accident. Too bad, since he was played by Alan Ruck, who has a nice sweetness that played off well against his mother and his wife.
In the second episode, “For Fanny,” also written by Sherman-Palladino, the mother (Fanny) is focused on arranging the funeral service for Hubbell. Focused as in using it to avoid her feelings about her son dying. So the series is going to be about Fanny and Michelle learning to get along. Maybe, but at the end of this episode, Fanny and Michelle learn that Hubbell has changed his will and left everything to Michelle. Mom is not happy. In the third episode, “Inherit the Wind,” written by Sarah Dunn, Fanny yells at Michelle a lot. Fanny is played by Kelly Bishop who was wonderful as the mother-in-law on The Gilmore Girls, but only in relatively small doses. Here she is center stage and in full rant all the time.
Michelle is played by Sutton Foster, a Tony-winning star of musical comedies. She is terrific onstage, but she is a little overemphatic here. And to be blunt about it, the camera does not love her. At least not in the way it loves Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel and Melissa McCarthy. Her wisecracks could make her hold her own with Bishop, but she has not eased into the role, at least not yet. Folks, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
After I had given up on the show and written the above, I was talking with my granddaughter about the series. She continued watching after the first three episodes and thought it had begun to settle down. So I watched the fourth episode, “Better Luck Next Year,” written by Daniel Palladino, and half of the fifth, “Money for Nothing,” written by Amy Welsh. I love my granddaughter but those problems mentioned above are still there.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer
Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”
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.
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
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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