The theme of “the double” has exerted a complex and ambiguous fascination throughout the cultural history of the last century. Arguably, every form of contemporary art has been touched by this powerful theme and its many implications. Indeed, the double is more than a theme: it is a basic figuration, an archetype whose flexible structure can express multiple meanings and associations. In a sense, the double is, appropriately, a multi-faceted mental form.
The relationship between the double and the cinema is especially intriguing: we could say that the double, born mainly in literature and poetry, has found in cinema its natural medium of expression. The reasons for that are more structural than aesthetic: in fact, in film the double is often not only a theme or a form, but also a fundamental subtext directly connected to the particular nature of the cinematic experience.
The specificity of cinema is an expression of its inherent characteristics, its unique way of representing reality, its technologies, its implicit structure. The unique features that comprise filmic representation are powerful tools in the hands of a skillful director: for instance, the complexities of editing, the varied uses of sound and music, the control of cinematography, or the application of special effects. Perhaps the most peculiar and important of these filmic specificities is point of view, or more specifically, the manipulation of the camera, of its position and movement. Cinema is the only fictional and photographic medium over which the artist (in this case, the director) has total control of point of view, unlike painting, comics, and photography, that deal only with still images.
Another essential characteristic of cinema is its explicit formal boundaries. A film is a very delimited work of art: two-dimensional, it has specific boundaries in space (i.e., the screen) and time (i.e., a continuous experience generally of 1-3 hours), and is ideally experienced in a specific architectural space (i.e., the theatre). Furthermore, a film is a relatively fixed and reproducible object: we can see it as many times as we want, and, in one sense (but not every sense), it is always the same.
That’s why a movie is such a powerful tool for representing reality: it is, indeed, a finely delineated microcosm with a powerful tendency toward objectivity, yet is simultaneously open to various levels of subjectivity and vision. A movie is a mandala, a hologram of reality, of the artist’s vision and conception of reality. Like a miniature universe, it has a structure, a geometry, a continuous interaction of forms on an indefinite number of planes, texts and subtexts; and, above all, an insistent meta-commentary derived from its various points of view. As in Wagner’s Wort-Ton-Drama, in which the music realizes a meta-structure that comments and gives meaning to the theatrical action, so in movies the sum of the camera’s points of view and its movements provide interweaving levels of information, emotion, beauty and meaning. Not every director is able to exploit these levels to their full capacity; but those who can are certainly, if not the greatest, the most medium-specific artists: in their hands, cinema achieves its full stature.
In a sense, creating a universe means to create a double. The creator-creation axis is one of the most fundamental dualities, the most archetypal division of consciousness. Such an axis is similar, if not identical, to another important duality: the subject-object division between a consciousness that perceives and something else, the object that is perceived. And, becoming more specific, and getting nearer to the stuff of cinema, it is the same axis as the seer-seen, observer-observed, voyeur-objective world dualities.
In cinema, the director is the creator and subject, while the movie is the creation and object. Yet immediately, we can see that something very interesting occurs in this fundamental duality. Another, more ambiguous division occurs: the subject splits in two, the director-creator and the spectator-perceiver; the first one owns, in a way, the vision of the second.
This structure is complex, indeed. The ambiguity of vision in cinema—its being shared between and asymmetrically controlled by two “minds”—is a basic double in cinematic experience. The spectators are in a way “possessed” by the director’s mind; their vision is guided, their emotions manipulated, their perceptions molded and structured. At the same time, spectators actively become new creators, masters of the world that is lent to them: their consciousness, perceptions and interpretations are given new form, a new synthesis; and they become, in the ultimate sense, directors of their own experience of a movie. Thus, cinema and double are inextricably intertwined.
Brian De Palma’s movies are a beautiful catalogue of the possible methods by which the double can find its full realization in a filmic structure. Remember, for instance, the wonderful sequence in The Untouchables when Malone is murdered. The director’s vision is viewed, for the most part, through both the spectators’ and the killer’s eyes. We see through the killer, and we see through De Palma. Our consciousness is immediately and tragically split: our cognition is bound to the camera’s vision, (“owned” by the bad guy), while our heart and feelings are projected onto Malone, the “object” (and target) of this vision (indeed a loved and cherished object, the sum total of what a De Palma “good guy” can be). With our spirit and aesthetic sensibility fully awake and focused, we perceive the beauty of the scene, the meta-meaning that is beyond its images, as if through a premonition achieved in only a few instants, which is always the case in truly great scenes. And, beautifully, this vision that penetrates Malone’s house, that spies and hides, shifting behind a wall, dancing through space and time in search of its object with calm complacency, becomes immediately the best incarnation of a metaphysical voyeur, of our desperate observing consciousness. We are outside the scene, spectators, helpless, but at the same time inside, as accomplices, maybe as killers. And perhaps, in a sense, we are also, ultimately, victims. Only in the end of the sequence, when geometries converge and meanings collapse, our consciousness is reconnected to its primary object, to Malone’s body and mind: but only in death, the only possible singleness, and in the final sign of his blood, which will give meaning to his death and guide his friend Ness to the next clue, the next level of truth.
Consciousness and awareness
A significant ambiguity that results from splitting a consciousness in two (or, similarly, blending two consciousnesses into one) is the mirror game of comprehension, of conscious acknowledgement: how much one knows about the other, how much the other is aware of what one knows. In the ultimate sense, life itself, like cinema, seems to be a complicated game of relative awareness. The sensation of “being observed while observing” is a fundamental component of our state of consciousness. It influences our judgements and our emotions, and as we try to see ourselves through the eyes of all, and to be aware of their awareness, the cloning of vision stems from the cloning of identities, and the theme of the double naturally gives space to that of voyeurism.
The fundamental movie about voyeurism as a symbol of the human condition is Rear Window, as the fundamental movies about the double are Psycho and Vertigo (Hitchcock had indeed a very special sensibility regarding film archetypes). Especially in the first half of his career, De Palma has enjoyed re-interpreting these Hitchcock movies, deepening and enriching their themes and contents, interweaving them in new fictional structures. From the beginning, therefore, the double and voyeurism were main obsessions in De Palma’s cinema, and so strong is their connection in the powerful and complex vision of his individual films that, often, it is difficult to say if what we are seeing is double or voyeurism, or both.
In Body Double, for example, the importance of awareness is expressed with extreme power in the film’s condensation of De Palma’s themes. Here the protagonist’s voyeurism is the effect of complex manipulation: his “friend” puts him in the right place at the right time with the right suggestions, so that he can “peep” on a woman. The set up’s metaphorical similarity to a film’s spectator and director is almost perfect. We can identify with the protagonist, and be unconsciously reassured in our role as voyeurs of the film, mirrored in his role as a voyeur of a body. The friend-actor-manipulator lurks in the background, but at this point in the story, we still have little comprehension of his real purpose.
Then something crucial happens: Jake Scully sees something outside the frame of the scene he has been set up to watch: a danger, a menace, perhaps a mystery, in the form of an Indian working on a satellite dish and “peeping” on the same woman. His role becomes more active; he pursues, he comes in contact with Gloria Rivelle, the object of his voyeurism. When Jake stumbles, on the beach, to explain his identity to her, this moment is one of the most moving and perfect in De Palma’s work. The voyeur cannot explain himself. His role is, in some way, fraudulent, incomplete. Similarly, man cannot explain his role in reality. In a sense, we are incomplete, fraudulent. We can “peep” on the movie of reality, sometimes even try to possess it, to interact with it. But always, something is fundamentally lacking. We cannot really become its heroes, let alone its protagonists.
At the same time, in the scene on the beach, the hero-villain double is expressed with unusual beauty. Jake, the would-be hero, and the menacing “Indian” are each other’s mirror. When Jake at last speaks to Gloria to disclose that someone is following her, she readily agrees, suggesting that she understands that he has been following her. Which is, literally, true.
And then something else happens. Gloria is killed, while Jake, the “hero,” is watching, still unable to save her. And so another strange facet of the double is expressed: the voyeur, the would-be hero, becomes a witness. Which is, in a way, an intermediate state: one who can only perceive and not act, but whose perception can in some way define reality, create the truth. Or at least what appears to be truth.
The truth here seems simple. The killer is an Indian, a mysterious pursuer we have already seen before—and decidedly not Gloria’s husband, Alexander Rivelle, who should be the natural suspect. But, as the story unfolds, we realize that nothing is as it seems: the killer is indeed her husband, who is also “the Indian,” who is also “Sam,” Jake’s so-called friend who has orchestrated the entire scenario. Sam is the creator, artist, manipulator and bad guy all at once: a mise en abyme of doubles, a summa of role-playing.
Amidst the ingenuity of the plot, a single question arises that we may not think to ask after a single viewing: why is Jake’s role as witness so important to convincing the police that Alexander Rivelle is not the killer? After all, he is the killer, but was only disguised as an Indian when he murdered Gloria. Jake, after all, has observed a perfect truth: a husband who, in disguise, has killed his wife. The more important point is that, in the apparent reconstruction of the murder scene by the witness and the police, the killer could not be aware that he was being observed. Jake was observing him through a telescope, from a distance. How could the Indian know? And therefore, why would the killer wear a disguise, and bother to enact such a complex show? The conclusion is therefore “obvious” that Gloria’s killer is not her husband.
But once we understand the larger scenario, and realize that the Indian and Sam are both Alexander Rivelle, who knows that he is being observed, we recognize a perfectly reasonable motive for the disguise, for the show, with no alibi available for Gloria’s husband.
Therefore, the subtext of the plot suggests that the interpretation of reality and comprehension of its structure depend on shifting modes of observation. In a word, vision and awareness of vision are the two strongest determinants of truth.
The double is, ultimately, a selection of information. It is, in this sense, a choice. And, as a choice, it has a moral value.
In an existence made of infinitely plural universes (a reasonable theory of quantum physics, not merely a fabrication of science fiction), every thing and every body can be everything and everybody. But if all chances are equal, then there is no choice, no value, no purpose. In the poetic world of Borges, for instance, the infinite is only an accumulation of chances; eternity is only the death of any individual value and hope. Thus, a repetitive view of the infinite leads to a completely void vision of humanity. It is the void space of Mission to Mars, the purposeless chance in which human stories seem to fail or die.
Identity, instead, is the choice of a specified form, of specified information. It is a choice among possible meanings. If one adopts a specified identity, a specified role, the dice have been thrown. And such a choice, such a selection of information, such a deletion of all other possible occurrences, fractures reality. Choice gives birth to similar, but different, chances. It certainly gives birth to opposite chances: one can be good or bad, can love or hate, be faithful or betray, protect or destroy.
The disincarnate consciousness seeking a role (i.e., the voyeur) is constantly trying to comprehend a “reality.” But an uneasy rule applies: you can look, you can “peep,” but if you touch, everything changes (as quantum mechanics students certainly know). If you look, the many are in you. If you touch, you are in the many. You are someone, but you can also be (or become) someone else. You are no more alone. You have to confront yourself and your multiple reflections. You have to confront your opposite. You must fight. You can lose. You can be a victim. You, or some part of you, can die. In a word, you have become a body.
Such is the ambiguity, and the fascination, of the double. It invokes specification, and at the same time it casts the shadow of a doubt. You can no more be anyone and anything. You can be someone, or someone else, or someone else again. But in each case, there is meaning. And the meanings, although elusive, are always different.
Though the confrontations with the variations (or reflections) of one’s identity create a sense of uncertainty, meeting one’s opposite may be the cause of a moral crisis. In Snake Eyes, for example, Rick Santoro is morally superficial and ambiguous until he has to face his double-opposite, the good-guy-turned-bad-guy, Kevin Dunne. Likewise, in Casualties of War, Erickson is forced to become an “incomplete” hero when he confronts the “bad” Meserve and his accomplices.
Heroes are more or less ambiguous; fascinated by their own sense of duality, they split reality within themselves—good and evil, cognition and feeling, truth and power—and are never able to make an ultimate choice. Villains, in contrast, are fascinating. They seem to have achieved an attractive singularity; they act as though they really are simply a “body”, a permanent reality, an objective “truth,” as though they have found a seeming harmony with their physical role, and with the violence inherent in it. They have sex, and make a weapon of it (as Meserve clearly states in Casualties of War), while, for the voyeur-hero, sex is destined to be only a symbol, an impossible goal, the figuration of the failure to physically possess matter. Bad guys, instead, do possess things and people (or at least believe they do). In the words of Tony Montana, they have “balls.” But their ambition to own “the world and everything in it,” is a pitiful ideal, so similar to the voyeur’s ambition of knowing the world through vision alone. The negation of the double generates monsters, careless fighters doomed to destroy themselves and the things they (may) own. So in the end Montana is attacked, with tragic irony, by a baroque multiplication, almost a cloning, of a special, virtual double, a single-minded, powerful “metaphysical” killer: at the “excessive” ending of Scarface, Montana stands impossibly alive against crowds of repetitive enemies, while their leader, the origin and synthesis of all of them, easily destroys him with a single shot in the back. Thus, this “killer without an identity” becomes a perfect incarnation of the impersonal evil, which, in De Palma’s movies, seems to be the real substance behind the various villains, and is ultimately and completely triumphant over the physical, perishable bad guy.
Conversely, being in the many can also be an instrument of constructive choice, and sometimes of salvation. In Femme Fatale, for instance, the doubling of a consciousness and of a life becomes, perhaps, a useful tool to change destiny—to throw the dice a second time without coming up snake eyes. The way to freedom may not always require a moral recognition; instead, it may spring from the intuition of a pattern, from a reconstruction of reality with different space and time relationships, from a blinding ray of light. In any case, the result is all that matters. Freedom, salvation, these are the ultimate goals.
The double is always a mirror of the unsolved mystery of consciousness: if we are single, we are alone and helpless; if we are multiple, we are lost. The doubling and multiplying of vision in cinema is an extreme expression of a state of consciousness common to all: perhaps we are observing, perhaps we are being observed; perhaps we are not as simple as we like to think, not as lonely as we fear, not as free as we imagine. Perhaps good and evil are not so clear-cut, and yet they are not really blended either. As in the yin-yang symbol, black and white are separate and united at the same time, but in different ways.
This powerful figuration, this archetype so close to the very essence of cinema, is a form difficult to control. Not every director is able to manage its intimidating power, its deceiving complexity. When dealing with doubles, a director needs a very specific touch, a great mastery of his art; otherwise, he is bound to fail. He cannot be too explicit. He cannot be predictable. He cannot be moralistic, philosophical, or generic. The double is pure form, and requires absolute mastery of form to express its values.
De Palma has made the double (and voyeurism) a very private obsession. He is the best at dealing with the theme. His doubles live in the structure of his artistic vision; they are never too explicit, never vulgar, never contrived, never the same. Other great directors have incorporated the theme of the double in their work, with various results. Among the best examples are David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and David Lynch’s sublime Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.
Dead Ringers is more about the body than the double. Through the twin protagonists of Cronenberg’s movie, the body and the double are inexorably connected: they are identical; both are gynaecologists; in their physical being and occupation, the mystery of the body’s origin and duplication is passively and actively prominent: being twins, they share, in a sense, a same body while being physically separated; and by choosing to work and act on the generation of the physical body, they are trying to gain power over the same forces which were originally responsible for their condition. But the balance of this fragile gestalt is compromised by the love for one (single) woman; and the whole two-brothers-in-one system, once so efficient for sharing and compensating for all of life’s experiences, has to face a sudden crisis, and is ultimately destined to failure, madness and death. In a perfect scene, one of the twins, already aware of the fracture of the inner link between himself and his brother, hires a couple of twin prostitutes to recreate, by the power of names, his lost integrity: during their sexual intercourse, he instructs one of the girls to call him by his own name, and instructs the other to call him by his brother’s name. Thus, the fracture of a pristine symmetry—that is of the pre-existing, harmonious relationship between the twins—evokes the generation of new dualities on multiple sublevels. That’s how the structure of duality (or of the mind) evolves in new, (random?) branches, like a fractal image, or rather like a web.
In Lynch’s extraordinary movies, so similar and so different, a very radical double is displayed: two different persons with two different lives and stories tragically overlap, intruding one into the other. The way this is accomplished, at the plot level, is a true formal miracle, an aesthetic intuition that easily transcends any conventional treatment of space, time, causality and narration, following exclusively the inner, deep thread that only pure art can reveal. Thus, we see the body of one character simply substituted for that of another one (for example, the wonderful scene in the prison cell in Lost Highway), or rather, in Mulholland Drive, the cloning of one’s life story from another, through a very complicated web of totally irrational but extremely powerful connections. The films’ meaning, denied to the intellect, becomes a strong, chilling subtext that finds its devastating way directly to our hearts and souls. In Lynch’s movies, however, the double is only one of many doors to the ultimate mysteries of existence; and a surreal sense of subjective, unsolved tragedy takes the place of the objective failure of identity in De Palma’s classical, geometrical work.
Toto le Héros, from Belgian director Jaco van Dormael, is an extremely complex and rich work of art, touching on many deep subjects with inspiration and grace. A unique plot structure based in the double beautifully supports its themes.
Essentially the “birth-to-death” life story of Thomas, it is more accurately his “death to death” story (à la Sunset Boulevard and Carlito’s Way), as his death scene frames and colors the story as a grotesque and ironic film noir. The actual starting point of the plot is the process of birth: the protagonist, indeed, lives his whole life with the firm conviction (maybe justified, maybe not) that, as a newborn, he was exchanged with another baby during a nursery fire. Thomas believes he is living a life not his own, and secretly hates the other child, Alfred, who has supposedly stolen his destiny, and who happens to live nearby in a wealthier family. The consequence of this mental fracture is that Thomas lives with the feeling that he is not really living, that his story is only a pale double of what could and should have been, a void without value or justification. Over the course of the plot, however, the lives of Thomas and Alfred interweave in beautiful and unpredictable ways, and the ambiguity and irrelevance of Thomas’s basic assumption becomes evident: the two parts of the double reveal their total incompleteness, their personal failures, their mirroring diversities. Dormael masterfully creates a precious vision of love, loss, solitude, friendship and compassion. In the end, we are left with the astonishing evidence that Thomas’ life has been all but void: he has touched, lived and lost almost any deep value of life, without being able to acknowledge that value.
Again, the double is a powerful symbol of the basic dissociation in human life, but given a different perspective. In De Palma’s movies the voyeur lives in a disincarnate state, and tries, without success, to “grasp” and possess the objects of life, to gain an identity and a role. In Toto le Héros Thomas lives a full and deep life, while being deprived of any sense of possession, of any chance at identification. In both cases, the result is the same: dissociation, failure, suffering.
Le coeur fait bum
Suffering, in the end, is key to the double. Lost in a jungle of multiple meanings or the desert of their absence, consciousness fights and observes, splits and multiplies; meanwhile, the heart suffers. It suffers in the innocent victims of Casualties of War, of Blow Out, of The Untouchables. It suffers in the voyeurs, in Jack Scully of Body Double or Jack “the écouteur” of Blow Out, in their lack of resolution and dignity. It suffers in the bad guys, in Tony Montana and Meserve, in their stolid absoluteness, in their cold, meaningless cruelty. It suffers in the body of Thomas, and in all of us who are looking at him, who are his voyeurs and doubles. And in the end, it suffers even in his ashes, when, during one of the cinema’s most beautiful endings, Charles Trenet’s wonderful song reminds us that, while all other things in the world may find their sound and their expression, “le coeur fait bum.” The heart is bound to pulse, suffer, feel, blow out: it constantly burns, and its ashes are thrown everywhere, all over reality.
In movies such as Body Double, Casualties of War, and Toto le Héros, we witness a complete universe that is a perfect double of our own, so tragically similar, so fascinatingly different. Our search for meaning, feeling and truth in this precious mirror-world is, in the end, not different from the touching quest of its characters.
Giuseppe Puccio lives in Palermo, Italy, with a wife, two sons and a cat. He is a pediatrician and works as a neonatologist at the Palermo University, but cinema is one of his most important interests. He has harbored an insane passion for Brian De Palma’s cinema in dignified solitude, until, tired of simply speaking endlessly to reluctant friends, he started a website (Brian De Palma’s Split World) to express a few personal thoughts about his favorite director, realizing soon, to his great surprise, that there were a few people in the world who seemed interested. Other fundamental directors in his life are Lynch, Buñuel and Truffaut.
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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