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Understanding Screenwriting #3: Transsiberian, The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #3: Transsiberian, The House Bunny, Tropic Thunder, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Transsiberian; The House Bunny; Tropic Thunder; Silent to Sound; Transformers; In Plain Sight; Mad Men, but first:

Mailbag: Well, I certainly seem to have ticked off the graphic novel crowd, haven’t I? As “futurefree” and “JJ” noted, I was careful to doubly qualify my comments, and I did that because I was aware there have been some fairly good films made from graphic novels. One that some readers mentioned was From Hell, and one that I am surprised nobody mentioned was A History of Violence, which was terrific until it went a little funny in the head in the last third.

My point, that several readers such as “futurefree” and “Ed Howard” picked up on, is that the form does not necessarily lend itself to complex characters. It is not just a question of panels, but that the images are static, so you do not get the nuances you do in actors’ performances in films.

I have been meaning to admit since US#1 my dirty little secret, which is that I am not a fanboy. As a kid in the ‘40s and early ‘50s I read comic books, but as I hit adolescence I gave them up, with of course the obvious exception of Mad Magazine; some things are sacred. I never got back into comics or later graphic novels, and the older I get, the less interest in mythical kingdoms I have. I can certainly understand people, particularly in the last seven years, who much prefer to live in mythical kingdoms rather than the real world. But I just find the jumps in logic one has to make a little much. At the risk of driving off all my readers, I have to admit that I have seen only the first Lord of the Rings movie and not the other two. I have not seen any of the Harry Potter films, and only the first Matrix, which struck me as one of the stupidest movies of all time. I avoided Batman Begins (I am a little too old for yet another version of the origin story) and The Dark Knight (even though a friend whose judgement I trust said I had to see it because it was “as if Kubrick had directed The French Connection”). I do try to see one comic book/graphic novel movie a year and this year it was Iron Man. I kept wanting to see a) the outtakes of Downey Jr. and his stunt man trying to move in that outfit, and b) that cast (Downey Jr., Bridges, and Paltrow) in a real movie.

Now then, have we got any readers left? The other issue in the readers’ comments on US#2 was the use of exposition. “JJ” wrote, and I think he is right, that a lot of exposition is so obvious because studio executives are afraid audiences will not understand subtlety. Partly that is because films are so expensive to make that studios are afraid of losing a single viewer. Often when you see a film, you wonder why they made that script. The answer is usually that it is not the script they started out to make. In the notorious development process, the edges get rounded off and the most interesting material gets dropped. It is also a question of the executives themselves not being able to read and understand a script.

Two general rules about exposition:

1. How much do you need? The correct answer is less than you think. Audiences will pick up fairly quickly what is going on. At some point you have probably walked into a film after it started. Think about how easily you picked up on what was going on.
2. When does the audience need to know something? Put it as late as you can in the screenplay.

There is also a tendency among writers and others to assume that exposition is only what somebody says. Not true. Look at how much we think we learn about Jeff in Rear Window from that wonderful pan around his apartment. (And then listen to the phone dialogue in the next scene between Jeff and his boss that ties all those visuals together.) One thing I have always loved about Chinatown is that virtually everything anybody says in the first half hour is a lie. The first Mrs. Mulwray is not Mrs. Mulwray, Hollis is not having an affair with the young girl, and the real Mrs. Mulwray seems unable to tell the truth until Jake slaps it out of her at the end of the film.

Before we get into this episode’s films and television shows, a brief scheduling note. When I agreed to do this column for HND, I told Keith that I could probably only manage to do it once a month. If you have followed it so far, you know I have done one a week. The day after Labor Day I start teaching at Los Angeles City College, which will slow down both my moviegoing and my time to write. So it will be a few weeks before US#4 appears. On the other hand, the Olympics are over and I may be able to get my wife out to see the growing list of films she wants to see, so who knows?

~

Transsiberian(2008. Screenplay by Brad Anderson & Will Conroy. 111 minutes): In his comments on US#2 Joel asked for a view of this film, but this is not a response. I had already done the first draft of this when the notes came in.

This is a first-rate addition to one of my favorite genres, the thriller on a train. In a couple of ways it is even better than the grandfather of them all, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner’s script for the 1938 version of The Lady Vanishes. In the earlier film the lady vanishes and we know it is foul play. In the current film, when a major character vanishes, we assume, because we have been watching The Lady Vanishes and its many imitators, that it is foul play. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But Anderson and Conroy are using our genre expectations to keep us on edge. Late in the picture when one of the characters says she is going to the dining car to get some sugar for coffee, you know that no good will come of it. And it doesn’t, but in a way you probably do not expect. One thing that always bothered me about The Lady Vanishes is that just before the big finish, the train stops. I know there is a big shootout, but if you have a movie about a train, it ought to move. Look at how they play with that here.

Another way the current script is better is that Anderson and Conroy get into the characterization in more depth than Gilliat and Launder did. I know the earlier writers were writing for a rather shallow director, but still. We get the Russian police inspector in the opening scene investigating a murder, so we know there will be thrills. But having set that up, the writers can spend time establishing the characters. Shakespeare uses the father’s ghost at the beginning of Hamlet in the same way. The characters on the train are so evenly balanced it is well into the picture before we figure out who the main character is. They have written a great part for Rumpole’s granddaughter, Emily Mortimer (her father, the author John Mortimer, is the creator of Horace Rumpole, Q.C.), and she gives her best screen performance. The characters who are supposed to be suspicious are, but often we are suspicious of them for the wrong reasons. And they are written so the twists in their characters make sense with what we have seen or heard.

This is particularly true of the ending. At first it seems like a conventional sentimental happy ending. A couple is flying home, all cozy and safe. But then we get one more scene with another character. What she does tells us that the last—of several—things we were told about her are not exactly true. So the film ends on a darker, and I thought, more satisfying note.

~

The House Bunny (2008. Written by Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith. 98 minutes): Lutz and Smith are developing their own mini-genre: women who at first seem dumb turn out not to be so dumb and win the day. Their establishing script of the genre was Legally Blonde and this one follows that template. I could even see it turning into a Broadway musical like the earlier film.

Speaking of verbal exposition, listen to how quickly they establish Shelly before we even see her. We hear her version of a variety of fairy tales, told in wonderfully fractured language that sets up her character in terms of rhythm and phrasing. The writers’ comic rhythms carry through the film in many scenes. Listen to some of the first scenes between Shelly, the Playboy bunny who becomes a sorority housemother, and Natalie, the leader of the sorority girls.

A defining scene in a female empowerment film is the makeover scene. Here we get two. The first, and most obvious, is that Shelly gives the unattractive sorority girls cosmetic makeovers, but Lutz and Smith throw in the makeover of the ramshackle sorority house as well to throw us off balance. This first makeover scene happens relatively early in the film. The second one, about an hour into the film, blew my mind. The whole thrust of most makeover scenes here, and in reality television, is that the women will use makeup, buy new clothes, and attract men. One should not be surprised that Lutz and Smith go beyond that. Shelly goes out on a date with a nice guy and tries all the tricks she has taught the girls. And they don’t work. How transgressive can you get? If the tricks don’t work, the entire cosmetic makeover, self-help, “how to get a man” mythology falls apart. So Shelly decides she needs to be smarter. And we get a mental makeover scene, with Shelly actually in classes. And in a funny bit in the library with a bunch of books. With a lot of books. And it works. She gets the guy; this is a Hollywood comedy, after all.

The transgressive nature of the film is not over. The sorority girls realize that after their makeover, they have become just as snobby as the girls in the other sororities. And they decide to go back to their original selves. Well, not all the way. They can’t quite decide whether they should be 50-50 or 60-40.

One other point. The Rating code will let you use the “f” word once, in a non-sexual way, in a PG-13 film. The House Bunny gets my vote for this year’s Best One-Time Use of “Fucking” in a PG-13 Film.

~

Tropic Thunder(2008. Story by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux. Screenplay by Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen. 106 minutes by Variety’s and my count, 117 minutes by imdB): When I saw the trailers for this film, it looked like fun. When I looked at the scenes the actors brought to talk shows, it seemed flat. Seeing the movie, I had both feelings. The concept of the film is a smart one: a group of actors making a Vietnam War film are let loose in the jungle by a frazzled director who thinks he can shoot it documentary-style with hidden cameras. The actors run into a drug running operation, which they think is part of the “film.” There is a lot that could be done with the idea, and there is a lot the writers do. There is a fair mix of comedy and action, with maybe more of the latter than is needed. The characterizations of the various actors are dead-on right, as are the characterizations of the studio boss and one of the actor’s agents. On the other hand, some of the “inside baseball” stuff is so “inside” that the film stopped dead in its tracks, even for the Santa Monica audience I saw the film with, which probably had enough people connected to the industry to get at least some of the jokes. Although I must also say there were a lot more patrons under the age of 18 than there seemed to be parents or guardians in attendance. So much for the “R” rating. But even kids in Santa Monica know a lot about the industry, and if the film was too inside for them, it way well be for those east of the 310 area code.

The main problem comes in the writing of the individual scenes, or rather the lack of it. As often happens in comedies, particularly those directed by actors (Ben Stiller in this case), the actors have been encouraged to improvise. This is not always a good thing, and Tropic Thunder is Exhibit A for the prosecution. Improvisations are often very hysterically funny for the cast and crew and especially the director, but it takes a ruthless director to make sure those improvisations work in the context of the film, which here they very often do not. If you “had to be there” to get the humor, it’s not going to work on film. Actors, there is a reason Billy Wilder would not let his casts riff on his scripts.

Examples of the problem are the now-famous scenes (there is a lot more to it than just a cameo part) with Tom Cruise (not as unrecognizable as the publicity would have it) as a profane studio executive. Again, the idea is good, but what appears to be Cruise’s improvisations come out flat. The character is mostly foul language, and one is reminded of the famous story about Mark Twain. Twain swore a lot, and his wife tried to break him of the habit once by swearing back to him. Twain shook his head sadly and said, “Livvy, you got the words, but you ain’t got the tune.”
Which brings us to a look back at film history:

~

Silent to Sound: I had occasion recently to look at some films made in the late twenties-early thirties (hey, I’m a film historian; I do stuff like that) during the transition from silent films to talkies. The UCLA Film Archive had a double feature of two films they have restored. One is the silent version of Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (1929) and the other is the sound version from the same year. Lloyd started it as a silent film, then decided to do it as a sound film. The silent version was released to those theaters not equipped for sound. Even though the sound version was Lloyd’s most financially successful film, both it and the silent version are mediocre.

In his famous essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” James Agee said of Lloyd that “out of his thesaurus of smiles he could at a moment’s notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity and still remain tremendously likable.” Maybe in the mid-twenties, but by the time of Welcome Danger the prissiness and asininity had taken over. It is a problem in the silent version, and an even bigger problem in the sound version, where he adds a verbal prissiness as well. The storyline of both films is a mess: something to do with him being the son of a famous police chief and therefore called in to stop drug traffic in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The dialogue in the sound version, credited to Paul Gerard Smith, is very flat and “on the nose.” It is written in the style of silent film titles, that is, carved down to only the most basic information, expressed in the simplest language possible. Unlike good screen dialogue, it gives the actors nothing to play. Like Cruise’s arias in Tropic Thunder there is very seldom any discernible rhythm to it, although there is a brief exchange between Lloyd and the great Edgar Kennedy (who was added to the cast when sound was added) that has a bit of comic rhythm to it. Smith, and other writers of the period, did not realize how important each line of dialogue should be and how limited it needed to be. In the sound version, there are many scenes where the script just has the actors babbling on, although some of this may be dreaded improvisations as well. It will a few more years before Robert Riskin, Preston Sturges, and Nunnally Johnson get the balance right on screen dialogue.

The filmmakers of the sound version at least make an effort to use sound creatively, as in a chase scene in a drug den where the lights keep going out. This is a slightly longer version of the scene in the silent film, and they use the dialogue in the darkness effectively.

Not only is Lloyd hampered by his verbal prissiness, but Noah Young, who plays a dumb policeman in both versions, seems stupider in the sound version because his voice is used to over-emphasize his stupidity. Several of the puns of the silent titles simply do not work in sound. Young’s policeman admires a decision Lloyd makes and calls him a “King Sullivan” as opposed to King Solomon. It works when you read it, but not when you hear it. There is another one later, when Lloyd’s character, who has developed a great interest in fingerprinting, is called “the Finger Prince” by another one of the cops. Again, it works in titles, but not in sound. I had a similar problem with the character of Alpa Chino in Tropic Thunder. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it took me hearing it a couple of times to get the reference.

By the time Lloyd did Movie Crazy in 1932, he should have improved more then he did, but the dialogue, while better, is still too “on the nose,” and there is too much of it that does not make a particular point. The writers and Lloyd have not worked out the balance between the words and his reactions, which still tend to be busier than they need to be. Something similar happens to Clara Bow in her best talkie, Call Her Savage, also in 1932. A great star in silent films, she did a few talkies, although the microphone scared her to death. In Call Her Savage, the screenwriter Edwin J. Burke, adapting a novel by Tiffany Thayer, has written a great part to help Bow make the transition from flapper to grownup. Bow handles it well, but Burke, Bow, and the director still do not have the balance right. There are dialogue scenes, but then long reaction shots with Bow in which she goes through the kind of wonderful reactions that made her a star in silent films. Bow has a perfectly good speaking voice and gives a great performance, within the melodramatic limitations of the story, but she shortly thereafter gave up acting. A great loss.

The problem of the balance between the visual and the verbal continues to bedevil filmmakers, particularly those working with a lot of slapstick. I happened to see the 2007 film Mr. Bean’s Holiday the day after I saw Movie Crazy and it struck me that Rowan Atkinson was running into the same problem Lloyd had. If you are going to write in a lot of visual humor, then you have to write the dialogue, if you have any for those scenes, very sparingly and very carefully. If you are going to interrupt a good piece of slapstick with words, they had better be essential, not the kind of nattering that Lloyd and Atkinson do. After all, the best interruption of a silent film with a line of dialogue was simply one word in Silent Movie (1976). I’m not going to tell you what it is. If you have seen the movie, you know, and if you have not, then I won’t spoil it for you.

~

Transformers (2007. Story by John Rogers and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. Based on the Hasbro Toys. 144 minutes): I deliberately waited to see this one on cable for the same reason that I waited to see The Doors on videotape in 1991. When you watch a film at home, you can turn down the overbearing soundtrack, which you cannot do in a theater.

If you are writing a movie based on toys, then you have to create characters for your script. One of the limitations of this script is that there is very little characterization for the Transformers. Presumably kids who have been playing with them for years will know who’s who, but the rest of us do not. There is a scene about an hour into the picture where the characters of the Transformers are finally introduced, but they are not given much characterization. And we get so little of their characterization later in the film that in the final showdowns, I was still lost as to who was who.

The writers also give us nothing but cliches for all but one of the human actors to play. For an example of what you can do with characterization in this kind of movie, look at the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Here Sam is a typical teenager, and his parents are typical stupid parents, which is a criminal waste, particularly of Julie White as his mom. The one semi-exception is Mikaela, the teenage beauty who tags along with Sam. At first we think she is just a stuck-up rich girl, but it turns out she is trailer-park trash, who naturally knows how to fix a car. A lot more of this could be made of this in the writing, especially since the actor playing her, Megan Fox, has either decided not to or has not been directed to have a little white trash fun with the part. Where is Jaime Pressly when you need her?

~

In Plain Sight (2008. Various writers): In US#1, I mentioned that the new series In Plain Sight spent way more time than it needed on the family life of Mary, the federal marshal who watches over people in the witness protection program. The series then went off the rails completely by focusing in the last two episodes on the problems of Mary’s sister, her drug-dealing boyfriend, and Mary’s mom. The final episode was more a family drama than a crime drama, and since the family was never as interesting as the witness stories, the air went out of the series. It may be retrievable next season.

~

Mad Men (2008. Episode #5 “The New Girl.” Written by Robin Veith): One way you tell us about character is what decision they make, especially when they are under pressure. In this episode, Don Draper is in an auto accident with Bobbie Bartlett, the wife of a comedian he is dealing with. He does not have the $150 he needs to pay the bail. Who does Don Draper call? He can’t call his wife. Any of the guys at SC would be obvious choices, but they would tell all the other guys at work. Joan, the head secretary? Word would get around even quicker. So he calls Peggy, the junior copywriter. Why her? Veith uses this choice to tell us a bit more about what Peggy was up to between season one and season two, and how Don was involved in that. And we see how Don and Peggy are similar, which leads to Bobbie suggesting to Peggy while Peggy is hiding her out at her apartment, that Peggy ought to think of herself as Don’s equal. Later Peggy stays in Don’s office after a meeting and politely requests repayment of the loan for the bail. When he gives it to her, she says, “Thanks, Don.” Look at how much Veith gets out of having her say “Don” rather than “Mr. Draper,” and how well we have been prepared for that.

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

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

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

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

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

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

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

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

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

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

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

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

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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