• Alia, in a transport of ecstasy, holding aloft her crysknife as the Fremen overrun the imperial forces, a nightmarish composition by Lynch out of Bosch, all darkness, and a fully-formed witch who should be no more than a little girl, lit by fires and explosions, wrapped in Bene Gesserit robe and headpiece, with an expression on her face of triumph in slaughter that no little girl ever wore
This emphasis on the static over the kinetic is not so remarkable in an artist who, after all, began his career in—and remains committed to—the compositional rigors of painting, collage, and sculpture. But to see how it relates to folding space, we must further illuminate this concept of traveling without moving.
The beginning is a very delicate time
“Time does not change us. It just unfolds us.”
Consider first the much-imagined time machine, a device that doesn’t move, but “transports” its operator to a different time. Time changes constantly, while we exist in it. To “travel” in time would not involve the physical motion of the subject, but rather the acceleration, deceleration, or reversal of the motion of time around the subject. The time-machine fantasy is that a human being can invent a device that could cause this effect. But once disbelief is willingly suspended, and the notion that a human could control the flow of time is accepted, everything else follows easily. And that fantasy is all too eagerly accepted, because the ability to move in time is something we all desire at one time or another; it is one of the basic fantasies, like the desire to be invisible, or to see through matter, or to fly, or to exercise any of a number of other non-human powers that have been vicariously granted us through the superhero, the monster, and other metaphors of science fiction.
The time machine and its operator remain static—in the same place because no movement in space is involved. Time changes around them, and the only risk is that the spatial location of the machine and its operator will, at some point in the flow of time, coincide with another solid object. Accelerated space travel runs the same risk. To travel between planets—let alone solar systems—would take years, decades, lifetimes, without some form of highly accelerated locomotion. But the faster the spacecraft moves, the less reaction time is permitted to the operator to avoid colliding with other objects.
Time folding / space folding
In the worlds of most space-travel fiction, this problem is overcome by the use of computers that can reduce the interval between perception and reaction to nanoseconds. But in the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune, computers have been abolished by the Butlerian Jihad, and the only heightened mental facility remaining is in the form of two mutations: the Spacing Guild Navigators and the Mentat—both creatures with superhuman powers. The Mentat (“human computers” as the Dune screenplay has it) are bred for higher knowledge, perception, reasoning, application of logic, prediction of outcomes. The Guild Navigators are bred for space travel, and their gift is an expanded consciousness, a oneness with space that makes them prescient, sensitive to the locations of objects in space-time, and thus able to navigate unerringly between them.
It’s important to note, however, that in Herbert’s Dune, the Navigators do not “fold space”—there is no such concept in the novel. Folding space—a notion adapted from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and the curved time-space continuum—consists in bringing two spatial points together by collapsing the space between them, thus eliminating the need to move from one to the other. By analogy, imagine that you have a piece of paper on which are two points, A and B. The objective is to get from A to B in the most direct way. One solution is to connect the two points with a straight line—the shortest distance between two points. Another solution is to fold the piece of paper so that point A meets point B.
Just as the time-travel fantasy posits that a man-made device can affect the flow of time around us, so the folding-space fantasy posits that an enhanced human mind can bend the malleable space around it so as to cause any two points in that space to meet and coincide. So early in Lynch’s career, in only his third feature film, we have a pseudo-scientific articulation of the artist’s unique way of seeing the world, and of remaking it. For folding space is a near-perfect metaphor for the way David Lynch makes movies.
The one who can be many places at once
In the throne room scene at the end of Dune, there is a point at which Paul freezes on the very verge of saying something. His lips have even begun to move, before Lynch cuts sharply away to the environmentally impossible rain that brings rebirth to Arrakis, and soars to a climax unanticipated by his audience (or by Frank Herbert). That interrupted moment is actually the beginning of a “deleted scene” (included as an extra in the “Extended Edition” DVD) in which Paul announces that he is sending the Emperor into exile, but is going to wed Princess Irulan, so that the Atreides and the Padisha lines will be intertwined (preventing future strife now that the Harkonnens have been wiped out). He privately tells the Fremen woman Chani that the princess will share his name but not his bed, and that his love will be forever Chani’s. Paul’s mother, herself a consort, tells Chani:
“The princess will have the name, yet she’ll live less than a concubine—never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine—history will call us wives.”
These are the last words of the novel, and for that reason alone it would have been nice to leave them in the film. Besides, the scene would so nicely wrap up both the political and the romantic themes of the film.
But Lynch was young then, an acknowledged Wunderkind, and it was terribly important to him to make it explicit that Paul Muad’dib is the Kwisatz-Haderach, the prophesied messiah of Arrakis—vastly more important than redeeming Chani, Lady Jessica, or Princess Irulan, or restoring order to the troubled politics of the Known Universe. World politics, let alone universe politics, never did become very important for David Lynch—though by Mulholland Drive he was mature enough to see the tribulations of a Wunderkind director in comic perspective. What has really mattered most to him, from Eraserhead and The Elephant Man straight through to the present, are human relationships, human dignity, not world-saving messianism. But Dune is different. The final rainstorm on Arrakis and Alia’s climactic pronouncement are Lynch’s own invention, relating to nothing in the novel’s actual finale. When Lynch intercuts a familiar shot of the oceans of Caladan with the rain falling on the Fremen of Arrakis, both Paul and Lynch fold space by bringing the moisture of Paul’s native planet Caladan to the desolation of his adopted planet Arrakis.
An entry in Wikipedia for “Kwisatz Haderach” tells us:
“In Hebrew folklore, Kwisatz Haderach is the ability to jump instantaneously from one place to another. The term originally came from Hebrew (…) and means verbatim “jump of the path,” a Hebrew archaic equivalent of the English expression “short cut.”
“In East European Jewish folktales, especially those associated with the Hassidic movement, the term was used to describe the ability to jump instantaneously from one place to another, attributed to various revered holy men. (…)
“The Kwisatz Haderach is a fictional name of a prophesied messiah figure in the Dune universe … The name means “Shortening of the Way,” and is the label applied by the Bene Gesserit to the unknown for which they sought a genetic solution—a unique male Bene Gesserit whose organic mental powers would bridge space and time. The Kwisatz Haderach is also known as ’the one who can be many places at once.’”
A sense of place
There is a sense in which all of David Lynch’s films are a kind of science fiction. But Dune is the only one of his films that is expressly in that genre, and he uses it as a kind of manifesto of his own approach to film making, as well as to set the stage for the space-folding that follows.
To put it another way, Dune’s “explanation” of travel without movement, of the folding of space, is a sly announcement of not only the vision but the technique that David Lynch brings to the screenwriter’s and film director’s art.
One cannot fold the space between two points, causing them to coincide, unless one begins by properly assuring and establishing those two points. It’s no coincidence that Lynch’s films are defined by their sense of place: Eraserhead’s post-industrial wasteland (inspired by Lynch’s memories of Philadelphia, and pointing toward his recurrent use of images of factories), the Industrial Revolution London of The Elephant Man (whose Victoriana folds nicely into the costumes and design of Dune), the Southeastern and Northwestern lumber towns of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, the corrosive, decaying Hollywood of Mulholland Dr. The Dream Dwarf who anomalously counterpoints the otherwise well-defined spatial environment of Twin Peaks is identified in the cast credits as “the man from another place”—not from another time or from a dream, as one would more likely have expected.
The abundant traveling images in Lynch’s films operate as metaphors for and constant reminders of the director’s fascination with space-shifting. The hallmark of many a Lynch film is a subjective shot of a street or highway, usually at night, its centerline being lapped up by the forward vector of the camera (and whatever point of view it represents). Roads, road signs, and traffic signals abound. Wild at Heart and The Straight Story are variations on the great American Road Movie. But beyond this more conventional kind of travel, Lynch’s protagonists have a thirst for spatial adventuring—whether in another place or another body or another life. Dr. Treves intertwines his life with that of the Elephant Man John Merrick by walking around and discovering a London very different from the one he has known, and finding there both horrors and wonders. Special Agent Cooper enters Twin Peaks as an outsider, but takes to the place’s illusory serenity with a naïve enthusiasm unheard of in the protagonists of detective fiction. Duke Leto’s family moves from Caladan, planet of thundering seas, to the bleak and mysterious Arrakis. Alvin Straight undertakes a daunting interstate journey on a lawn tractor, appreciating the newness of everything he encounters en route. Diane’s alter-ego Betty moves from Canada to a strange and wondrous Hollywood that she drinks in with Cooperian innocence.
The peculiar powers of Agent Cooper… and of David Lynch
It’s always struck me as odd that when a film depicts someone with superior physical powers—a gunslinger with an impossibly fast draw and accurate aim, or a martial artist with the ability to turn a leap into sustained flight—no one ever asks why and how he can have such ability; but when a character has superior mental acuity, there is always a need to explain it. Sherlock Homes always had to explain how he deduced (actually induced) factual conclusions based on observed phenomena. The whole purpose of Dr. Watson is to be exasperated by Holmes’s easy-seeming investigations and discoveries, to demand explanations from Holmes, and to be ultimately satisfied by them. Special Agent Dale Cooper has the same sort of powers of observation. Early in Twin Peaks he asks Sheriff Harry Truman about his love affair with Josie Packard. Harry, Watson-like, asks him how he knew. Cooper shrugs it off: “Body language.” This is Lynch’s joke on the Holmes-Watson tradition, as well as on the then-current vogue for interpreting character from posture; it’s really no explanation at all—certainly not the kind of explanation Holmes would have given and Watson would have accepted. As Cooper continues to display his uncanny mental agility, Truman compares himself to Watson, then settles comfortably into the role of taking on faith something he admits he cannot understand. When Harry decides to let Cooper in on the “Bookhouse Boys,” he organizes a meeting at the Double R Café. Norma Jennings serves the coffee, and Cooper immediately asks Ed Hurley, “So, Big Ed, how long have you been in love with Norma?” Big Ed is astonished, but looks to Harry, not Cooper, for an explanation—and all he gets is Harry’s accepting shrug. The message is that Cooper’s powers don’t have an explanation—they just are.
This is a key to the world and vision of David Lynch, in which dreams, visions, imagination, accidents, and coincidences have the same value as observation, interpretation, and reasoning, and are treated with the same degree of reliability. Many writers and artists since the Romantic era have urged the acknowledgment of the irrational as entitled to equal time with the rational; but David Lynch is one of the few artists—certainly one of the very few film makers—whose style and technique exemplify that conviction.
And this was announced at the very beginning of his career: Eraserhead remains without question one of the few truly dreamlike films ever made. Most movie “dream sequences” are too self-consciously surrealistic or too narratively linear, or too Freud-metaphorical to effectively mimic the jarring discontinuity of real dreams. Already in Eraserhead, Lynch recognized dreams as successions of images, prefiguring Dune’s emphasis on the static image rather than the narrative flow. Narrative is not to be trusted; in images, you can believe.
Applying science-fiction techniques to conventional topics (as opposed to most film makers, who apply surprisingly conventional techniques even when working in the science-fiction genre), David Lynch regards storylines and characters as parallel universes. Just as space may be folded to cause two distant points to coincide, so two (or more) narratives may merge, collide, change places. Not only an actor but even a character may find himself in a different body, and in a different story. In such films as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, narrative lines are treated as if they were characters—they have the freedom to come, go, change, grow, switch places, rewrite themselves as they go along, backtrack to the last fork in the road and take a different direction. In the psychogenic fuguing of Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, Lynch folds space so that a character, not a point, coincides with (or replaces) another. Fred Madison becomes Pete Dayton, and it’s no accident that both surnames are the names of Midwestern cities as well.
The Mystery Man in Lost Highway compares to Bad Bob in Twin Peaks, and each personifies the evil compulsion in the mind of a character. These familiars appear to others as visions, but actually exist only in the mind of the character whose darker half they represent. In Twin Peaks, both Laura and Mrs. Palmer “see” Bad Bob in hallucinations; only Leland Palmer recognizes Bad Bob’s identity with himself. The Mystery Man of Lost Highway is more complex. Just as the film’s principal male and female characters each inhabit two different people, so does the Mystery Man appear alternately demonic and angelic, assuming the roles of both the brooding nemesis and the saving angel that have become customary in most of Lynch’s films. Indeed, it could be said that this combining of devil with angel has characterized the endings of Lynch’s films all along: The woman in the radiator in Eraserhead is disturbingly strange and opaquely motivated, but seems to hold the secret to Henry’s salvation as well as his doom. Dune’s Alia announces the triumph of Paul and the salvation of his world, but she’s also one spooky little girl. The robins of Blue Velvet bring peace and beauty to the world, but they feast on the morass of worms and bugs just beneath its surface. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Laura Palmer herself is transformed into the saving angel of the finale, but only after enduring—and frequently personifying—an inferno of corruption.
A cousin to Bad Bob and Mystery Man is the man behind the Winky’s diner in Mulholland Dr. Though Winky’s is punningly close to Wendy’s, it’s also the name of the odd race of people who populate the West in L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels—which makes a chilling and funny kind of sense in light of the way, in Wild at Heart, Lynch folds his customary redeeming angel figure into the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz.
Folding and phoning
Other writers have used the term “fold” to describe Lynch’s methods. Alanna Thain describes a temporal loop of the transformation of memory and paramnesia involving the stretching of time that is repeated even as it is experienced in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Thain emphasizes the use of a variety of technologies within Lynch’s diegesis—such as answering machines and surveillance video—that create a temporality within the film continually looping “back on itself in a cycle of composition and decomposition.” For Thain, this folding of time transforms both the viewer of the film and the character in the film into spectator and participant, and vice versa.
In each of his films, Lynch establishes recurrent images that act as the fold-lines to the film’s narrative loops. In Wild at Heart, for example, Sailor and Lula follow their love-making with smoking, and Lynch always depicts the striking of the match in slow close-up, the flaring match merging with the nightmare memory of the fire that killed Lula’s father. The flames that leap from those matches are the fold-lines of the film, causing the fire of love, both its passion and its contentment, to merge with the fire of violence.
An earlier such image, one of the most vivid in all of Lynch’s work, folds both space and time: the phone call in the Twin Peaks pilot. Sarah Palmer has telephoned her husband Leland for news of their daughter Laura, who has not been seen since the previous evening, and while they are talking the sheriff brings Leland the news that Laura has been found dead. Sarah, on the other end of the line, doesn’t hear what the sheriff says; but she hears Leland’s reaction, and she knows. Two points in space become one, without motion, but with agonizing emotion: two parents, helpless in shock and grief, connected by a cord, along which Lynch’s camera tracks with a slowness that suspends time in the same way that a moment of great shock does.
The cord is important. Twin Peaks was made before people had cellular phones. Agent Cooper is constantly “on the line” to the unseen Diane, not by phone but by means of a Dictaphone that, for Cooper, folds both space and time. I wonder what David Lynch makes of the cellphone. Even in today’s world of text messaging, headsets, and constant connectedness, he remains enamored of the classic “land line” telephone. It’s not just that a telephone is a device that makes two different points of space coincide at a specific moment in time. Cell phones do that, too. But the phone calls (both answered and unanswered) that link the characters and events of Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, and Lost Highway are nearly all made from land-line phones, some from now-quaint telephone booths and rotary-dial phones. The telephone is not only a folder of space but an icon of history. Using older phones in, for example, Mulholland Drive, is similar to using Victorian uniforms in the distant future of Dune. The anachronism only serves to give more emphasis to the fold.
Bringing it on home to me
In Dennis Lim’s October 1, 2006 New York Times interview, David Lynch said that before Canal Plus bought into his new film, Inland Empire, he cautioned them: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” His account of the making of the film: “I would get an idea for a scene and shoot it, get another idea and shoot that. I didn’t know how they would relate.”
Based on other interviews with Mr. Lynch and those who have worked with him, both in print publications and on DVD extras, that appears to be the way he has always made his films, dating back even to the early shorts. While it’s hardly a general rule that anyone’s unrelated meanderings can add up to a film, David Lynch is that rare treasure: a truly instinctive artist who doesn’t know what he’s doing but powerfully feels what he’s doing, trusts his own judgment, and by doing so comes up time and again with haunting visions that make chilling sense even (perhaps especially) when their parts don’t “relate” in a conventional sense. And in the Lim interview, the author tells us:
“He brought up wormholes, invoked the theories of the quantum physicist (and fellow meditator) John Hagelin and recounted a moment of déjà vu that overcame him while making The Elephant Man. ’There was a feeling of a past thing and it’s holding, and the next instant I slipped forward’—he made a sound somewhere between a slurp and a whoosh—’and I see this future.’”
Laura Dern described the approach to multi-character acting that Lynch evoked from her for Inland Empire as “unbelievably freeing. You’re not sure where you’re going or where you’ve come from. You can only be in the moment.”
In Lynch on Lynch, edited by Chris Rodley, Lynch described his creative process:
“I don’t want to give the impression that I sit around thinking up horrible things. I get all kinds of different ideas and feelings. If I’m lucky, they start organizing themselves into a story—then maybe some ideas come along that are too eerie, too violent, or too funny, and they don’t fit that story. So you write them down and save them for two or three projects down the road. There’s nowhere you can’t go in a film—if you think of it, you can go there.”
In a lecture at Maharishi University of Management—excerpts from which may currently be viewed on YouTube—Lynch said that the only way we know the abstract is through intuition, and that is “a thing that can only really be said in cinema.” It was natural for Stanley Kubrick, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to portray an evolution in which advancements in life forms are made suddenly, in jumps, not ever so gradually over millions of years, because it reflects the way films are made: not the gradual flow we associate with motion in the “real world,” but an illusion of motion created by abruptly replacing one frame with another. And like all of the best film makers, Kubrick made films that evince an acute awareness of the film medium itself. David Lynch is also such a film maker, and it was equally natural for him to embrace the notion of folding space not only as a narrative tool but as a metaphor for the film maker’s art. Think of the “line” between two pieces of film not as a splice but as a fold. The assembly of film is a constant matter of manipulating space and time so that objects, moments, incidents, images, and people coincide, touch, merge.
And who is it who travels from one part of the universe to any other without moving? Who but you and I, the movie viewers? If folding space is an apt metaphor for the art of film, it may be argued that every film maker folds space, and perhaps that’s true. But David Lynch, our quirky but reliable old navigator, is conscious of it; and that consciousness is what his films are ultimately about.
Robert C. Cumbow has been writing about film for nearly 40 years. His work has appeared in Film Comment, Film Quarterly, the Seattle Film Society journals Movietone News and The Informer, and in numerous newspapers. He is the author of Once upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone and Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, both available from Scarecrow Press. He is especially proud of his liner notes for the Rhino Records/Turner Classic Movies edition of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bob is a trademark/copyright lawyer, heads the intellectual property practice at Graham & Dunn, Seattle, and teaches Trademark Law and Advertising Law at Seattle University School of Law.
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.2.5
Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.
Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”
Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.
The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.
Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story
Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.3
At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.
As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.
As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.
Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.
Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.
The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.3
Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.
Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.
The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.
The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.
Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.
These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.
Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.
There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.
These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.
Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019
Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair
Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.1
Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.
Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.
Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.
The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.
Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.
Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen
18. Monsters University (2013)
It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson
Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels
The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.3
It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.
Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.
Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).
Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.
Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).
Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.
Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.
So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019
Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life
The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.1.5
Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.
Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.
So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.
Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.
From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.
The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
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