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Emotion Through Bodily Motion: Acting and the Frame in John Cassavetes’s Faces

To see a great cinematic tool once pioneered by D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish lay waste in a large percentage of contemporary movies is tragic.

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Faces
Photo: Continental Distributing

To see a great cinematic tool once pioneered by D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish lay waste in a large percentage of contemporary movies is tragic. The close-up, which occupied a position of closure, desire, and eroticism, is now just the byproduct of lazy film-making and another excuse to ogle our favorite celebrity faces. The problem lies not in the amount of use—close-ups and medium shots usually comprise the majority of a film’s running time—but in the ineffectual way these shots are employed. Most movies today exist in a “curtailed space,” whereby the close-ups/medium shots of objects and bodies bear little to no relationship to the framing of objects and bodies in the following shot. Because these pictures tend to rely on expository lines and scenery-chewing as opposed to judicious scaling and editing, dramatic effect and filmic movement are virtually nonexistent. Actors raise their hands toward high heaven, their cries meant to queue in drama, but the frame they occupy is static and the film remains a lifeless standstill. How maddening, in a medium that exists as a series of images, is it to find that dialogue has replaced what visuals should say?

John Cassavetes’s Faces is a violent reaction against traditional (popular) methods of filmmaking.

Indeed, the close-up is Cassavetes’s shot of choice in his two-hour exploratory critique of the American idle rich. The form and strategies that shape Cassavetes’s style thrust the viewer into the middle of the film’s energy. Eschewing long shots almost entirely (among the most memorable: a half-naked hippie Don Juan scrambling over rooftop shingles), the filmic movement Cassavetes creates when he does cut to one from a tight composition results in a brutal, one-two blow to the senses. Also against tradition is the film’s narrative form, which does not rest on the classical tripartite structure of story-telling, but is shot and told through a cinema verité-esque expression, where characters are allowed to express themselves physically through scenes carried out longer than any conventional director would allow. Rebellion the third: lighting is not simply used to separate foreground from background, but light is repeatedly over/underexposed, where the placement of shadows often reveal something about the condition of the people we are watching.

In the vein of entries in Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots Project, what follows is an analytical breakdown of major scenes in the rhythmic and liberating Faces.

Richard “Dickie” Forst (John Marley) descends the stairs to work in a low angle, medium tracking shot, making distinct taps with his classy shoes, his dark suit in contrast with the white, jail-bar railings that separate him from the audience. If his name isn’t enough of an indicator, then his “don’t bother me with that stuff” and put-a-cigarette-in-my-mouth-will-ya bent reveal him to be a commanding phallus with an attitude. Dick is a prick, and coincidentally, a financer preparing for the screening of his latest investment, the “Dolce Vita of the commercial field.” In the film’s first series of close-ups, his colleagues describe the film to him: “An impressionistic document that shocks.” “Honest but good.” “A shot in the dark but attractive.” Dickie’s wide-eyed, fully attentive face—triggered seconds earlier by the word “money”—relegates to a blank stare at the ground. The shot says it all: he’s heard this rap before, and the opening numbers weren’t nice.

As the title Faces scrolls without stop from the bottom of the screen to the top, Cassavetes has established everything we have to know about the film we’re about to see: that it will be a reflexive look at cinema, will not shy away from the truths his close-ups threaten to reveal, and—as Forst is seen again, seconds later—that some self-discovery and re-assessment will be made by our wealthy, middle-class American lead. The lack of opening credits denies the association of the characters with real-life actors, because the film concerns the human condition. The wandering heads in the film are supposed to be proxies of our own faces.

When the car containing Dickie, hooker Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), and college buddy Fred (Fred Draper) rolls onto Jeannie’s driveway, Fred jumps out, shouting and dancing idiotically on the lawn. The night is hazy and our trio is drunk. Jeannie and Dickie help Fred inside through a dimly lit corridor, soon revealed to be the passageway towards a euphoric release of bottled anxieties. The overexposed lighting in this scene adds to the elevated high our characters are experiencing. That the light originates from multiple lamps placed on tables in the room’s four corners aids the realism in the scene, effectively brought about by two principal strategies. Al Ruban’s cinematography, not unlike the characters themselves, is characteristically loose, drifting in and out of focus as the camera floats through space. The effect is voyeuristic, though unlike the neatly framed compositions of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart’s peeping Jefferies remains an outsider looking in, Cassavetes provides a front row seat to the routines performed by our now grown-up college buddies. When Jeannie rises first to show the chickened-out males how its done, the low angle shot offers a nice close-up of their rear ends (Dickie’s hot off a well-delivered spank) as the two gentlemen cross paths and sit on the opposite sides of the camera. Sure, the viewer is an intruder, but Cassavetes shields nothing, understanding that this scene has been lived many times before by people. The childish behavior and naked laughter are raw feelings spilt without reservation—a timely visit to the past by our ex-frat boys.

The evoking of the past is further emphasized by 28-no-23-year old Jeannie’s facial expressions, which serve similar functions throughout the movie. Cassavetes habitutally cuts to close-ups of Jeannie after instances of characteristically bizarre male behavior—the ramblings of Fred and Dickie in this scene; the boxing confrontation between Dickie and another client later that evening. As Effie Rassos notes, “In Faces, the close-up image of Jeannie’s face continually recalls [the] relationship [between still photography and cinema]. As the camera lingers on her face, what is most striking is the way this stillness gives us an overwhelming presence of time as past rather than immediate. Here, there is a sense that time is both arrested and mobile.” The immediacy of the events being unveiled on-screen highlights their banality. “What a minute, what a minute! What the hell are talking about?” Dickie exclaims early on in the evening, to receive a nonchalant, simultaneous “Who cares?” from his two companions. Like other great films that tackle the problem of having to present life’s mundanity in a cinematically engaging fashion, Cassavetes achieves this through a precise mise-en-scene, highlighting the experience of everyday tedium by the space he allows between the camera and his leads, and how they move through space. This strategy effectively places us in the territory to talk about the function and art of acting in a Cassavetes movie.

The note-perfect performances Cassavetes draws from his actors is the second major component of the scene’s realism, and one of the core elements of his style. Admittedly, the present-day perception of acting centers heavily on the recreation of a character in an actor’s mind, complete with exaggerated facial expressions and italicized delivery of dialogue delivery. As Ray Carney outlines in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, the director’s notion of good acting ran contrary to such approaches like The Method. Cassavetes’s actors need not think about a character’s past, thoughts, or motivations because their characters do not exist inside the actor’s head. Cassavetes’s actors are conduits of physical energy manifested in the frame—bodies moving in space, able to channel surges of emotion simply by the way they control their limbs or shake their hips. As exceptionally scripted as it is, dialogue in Cassavetes’s films is never explicative, and is never the primary conduit of emotion. The pathos his films exude is always channeled through his framing and visuals, which enable the viewers to follow the characters.

Cassavetes’s philosophy on acting is inextricably linked with his outlook on everyday life, evidenced in a scene from Faces where Fred and Dickie theatricalize their routine in front of Jeannie, who occupies a seat on the sofa right next to the viewer. The routine performed by the two males not only reinforces the notion that we’re watching a film within a film, but also the theatricality of the characters within the reality of the film’s world. Cassavetes’s goal to reinstate realism into acting is lead by the belief that “the artificiality of expression of emotion was more than a dramatic problem. It was a problem in life.” His argument, having been a young actor and a young man, was that most lived experiences were as artificially staged as most dramatic experiences—the real problem “for modern man” was to “[break] free from conventions and learning how to really feel again.” The routine scene is a sublime fusion of these ideas—performance in film and artifice in life separated by a thin line.

Fred and Dickie are presented center screen in a medium shot between two lamps that act as the scene’s light source. As Fred prepares the act, he flails both arms enthusiastically about at Jeannie, and in effect, at the viewer. Cutting to a closeup of Jeannie’s anticipation, then one of Dickie’s in-all-seriousness acting expression in medium shot, Cassavetes effects the filmic movement that centralizes its energy around the viewer. The men begin a series of robust movements using their bodies: backs, legs, shoulders, arms, and fingers are used without reserve, topped off with a thud created by Fred’s body as he hits the floor off-screen. Cassavetes cuts again to a reaction close-up of Jeannie, who approves of the act and retires to her room to change. This offers Fred an opportunity to reminisce about the past, which Dickie largely attempts to ignore. During Fred’s spiel, the shot shifts into a first person close-up of Fred as he exclaims into the camera, “My God Dickie, you’re getting old and gray and I’m getting fat and gray!”

This assertion, in its literal sense, is Cassavetes bluntly noting that all present will eventually become past. More importantly, is his way of saying that men like Dickie exist in reality, and he suspects some viewers may resemble him. How many women have hung around assholes like him? How many people have been employed under his high-handed reign? Just as the viewer seemingly forgets Jeannie’s profession, Fred concludes the night’s hysteria with a bitter “By the way Jeannie, whadda you charge?” instantly reducing their crazed but liberating evening into a functional affair. The ensuing shot is an extreme close-up that peers over the back of Fred’s head, a pitch black patch that covers roughly half the frame, as Jeannie approaches in full body through the visible half to embrace him. The same shot is mirrored twice within the next thirty seconds, through the perspectives of Jeannie then Dickie, occupying that same space by the door where Fred once stood. However at ease they may appear to be with each other, these drunkards are wholly disconnected from one another, and Cassavetes recognizes this detachment exists in more than just a few people. Dickie follows soon after Fred’s departure, not knowing how to salvage Fred’s comment, aside from muttering a dull “you’re a lovely girl.”

If demons could mingle with angels, then the saintly way light falls on Maria’s face and the lively way she carries a telephone conversation might not seem so dubious. Richard’s wife (Lynn Carlin) fires away with one of her girlfriends in a conversation full of laughs as Richard is seen returning home from behind the reflective window pane. The contrast between Richard’s rugged, worn face and fading hair and the smooth texture of Maria’s young face says he’s less of a lover than a paternal figure; as the film progresses, one can see that she delights in the company of other women as opposed to men. Dickie’s inner jerk is revealed again as he snatches the phone, terminating Maria’s ongoing conversation. But Maria oddly doesn’t seem to mind. Her subservient character is almost too good to be true—too ideal in a movie that has already established itself and its characters to be realistically flawed and empty. Fred’s bitter interjection (“How many times a week does Maria ask you for some money!”) is reaffirmed by the midsection between the phone call and dinner conversation, which serves primarily to establish the Forsts’ financial stability. A quick pan across a room reveals a wall covered with paintings, a chandelier resting above the glass dining table, and a rather large, elegant bath mirror. Richard Forst’s other half is no angel, but a vessel through which Cassavetes delivers his agenda regarding rich, middle class women. Maria Forst’s tactics are no less rotten than her Husband’s squirrelly way of conducting intimate relationships as if they were business negotiations. Her Barbie doll smile and phony laughter pave the way for Cassavetes’s disapproval at women who consent to men’s states of affairs, trading their love for luxury and fancy furniture.

As Cassavetes follows the couple to the dining room, he wittingly references the late Bergman, another auteur of the human face (his Winter Light is a masterpiece of drama and acting, strikingly similar to Facesin its strategic use of composition, though stylistically the two couldn’t be more different). The dinner sequence is composed completely of alternating close-ups, which reveal the significance behind both the tight composition and the way the light hits their faces. As seen earlier, Maria is lighted frontally to eliminate shadows, which accentuates her sleek, youthful complexion. Her bouquet of shiny dark hair rests like a crown above her head; Dickie is lighted to create more facial shadows, which emphasizes his aged face and gray hairs. When they are framed simultaneously, Maria is retreating into the kitchen with only the backside of Dickie’s left cheek available to the audience, a large open space filling the remainder of the frame. Other indicators of the couples’ distance: laughter dominates their conversation more than words, where Maria again assumes the role of the entertainer—her anecdote about Fred and Louise is what keeps Dickie hysterical. Their pathetic sex talk—about another couple, no less—is a pitiful alternative to love-making. “I am not a sex machine,” Maria cries, as Richard retreats towards a dark hallway of ascending stairs, a motif established by the very first shot. A bird’s-eye pan follows Dickie as he ascends into the unknown, and drifts to a lonesome game room on the second floor, where Cassavetes unveils the first and only chronologically ambiguous scene. Notice how, in this bedroom scene, the camera gawks in extreme close-up at Dickie’s howling amusement at his own flimsy grade school puns, as opposed to Maria’s reaction. In effect, Dickie’s jokes are a self-serving, self-pleasing alternative to sex with his wife. They both roll over to their side of the bed as the camera zooms in to Maria’s thoroughly dissatisfied face, an echo of the dismantling marriage between the Drapers Maria described earlier that evening: “They eat, they say nothing. They get into bed and they say nothing. He just rolls over and goes to sleep.” As Cassavetes cuts back to Richard in the poolroom, the limpness of their marriage has become as clear to Richard as it is to the viewer. Thereafter he descends the stairs, and, in a gesture entertained by Maria earlier that evening, terminates his marriage in a humorous (actually humorless) fashion.

At about the same time you sense there’s something amiss about the perfectly framed long shot that invites Maria’s seemingly solo return home from the rock club, Maria opens the front door for four guests, the lot of them assembling thereafter in the living room. The sense of space Cassavetes allows in the full-body framing—four women standing stiffly about a living room entrance, and a man towards the other end of the screen—heightens the awkwardness of the scene.

Chet (Seymour Cassel) helps himself to the record player. A beat of silence. The music kicks in. This beat receives full attention in Effie Rassos’s analysis of time and affect in Faces: “All sound and movement seem to have dissolved away. And yet they have not. Here the image tentatively sits between stillness and motion, silence and sound. There is a feeling of uncertainty, of anticipation…of a need for some kind of release.” The first to give in to this release is Florence. Her body, occupying the right, is released by the music, drifting slowly towards the center frame, meeting our man Chet’s. The two move in unison through this open space for roughly half a minute before Maria’s sharp smack across his cheek brings about a medium shot. As the girls relocate on the couch, another series of close-ups are promoted. The editing strategy employed suggests the camera is not independent of the characters, but both directly affects and is affected by the actions of the people it is framing. This scene epitomizes how an actor’s body is able to control the frame, while the frame is able to simultaneously control the body. When Maria breaks from the static mold of the far shot, the camera adjusts with her to the medium shot, which creates a chunk of empty space to the left of the screen. As bodies drift in to fill that space, the camera too starts zooming in on a target, thus beginning another series of close-ups.

The nature of the close-up, to occupy the position of ultimate closure, creates a challenge for directors, since you cannot move away from the center once you are there; you can only cut. What I find most interesting here is the editing strategy that allows the viewer to assess the relationship of each woman with Chet, although they are nearly never in the same shot. Maria begins with an icebreaker in an attempt to terminate the uncomfortable silence. The way she and Chet exchange smirks and winks at each other then glance away introduces the undercurrent an unspoken attraction between them that is more than the small talk being thrown around. Another gap of silence as the camera rests on a medium shot of Billy Mae, who tries to stir up a conversation. The camera soon abandons its gaze of Mae, as well as the lukewarm Louise, choosing instead to rest on Chet’s face during their busy chitter chatter. It’s as if the camera single-handedly decided that Chet’s flirtatious face-making at Maria is much more captivating, both in the moment and in the grand scheme of events leading to Maria’s “release.” It’s crucial that Chet’s comical faces are met with reaction shots from Maria, trying terribly hard to mask her laughter, because this distinguishes Chet from Richard. While Richard’s lame jokes were self-serving, Chet’s funnies are meant for Maria. There’s something attractive about his character, evidenced by the numerous close-ups of her sneaking glances at him, even though he may not be as sophisticated and verbal as the Forsts when it comes to sex talk (“Ya have a few belts, and ya go up to some chick’s pad and you make it, baby”). Maria’s laughter in the following close-up is undeniably precious and genuine. While Chet’s visit may not lack ulterior motives, his decision to come to the table full of older women—“trying to join in and not knowing how, looking like [they] were going to break into tears any minute”—ranks him at least a few steps ahead from the financially successful yet frigid Dickie.

After all the women but the mercurial Florence has left, an essential shot reveals the expressive dancing between Florence and Chet that takes place in Maria’s mind. It begins with the shadowy black of Maria’s hair in the foreground on the right side of the frame, as Chet and Florence engage in a dance in a long shot in the distant left. As their bodies shift, so does the camera, to the right, passing behind and literally through Maria’s mind, so her head now occupies the left side of the frame and the dancing duo’s in the right. As the shot is cut to present Florence and Chet in the foreground, it nevertheless zooms slowly into Maria’s soulful gaze at the two dancers. She exhales smoke from her nostrils and closes her eyes in thought. A myriad of possibilities: thoughts of love unfelt, reflections on a life cheapened by luxury at the expense of joy. Again, pathos is personified without a hint of expository dialogue. As soon as she shuts the door following Flo’s exit, blues music makes an entrance in as Maria meanders about the house. The camera follows unapologetically as she wanders about a labyrinth of dark halls, until she is ambushed by Chet in the darkness, his ghostly appearance ready to set her free.

Dickie returns home, singing, spinning, dancing in a hand-held tracking shot, ready to make peace with his wife. The stairs are ascended via the bird’s eye perspective, where the realization of another unacknowledged truth awaits. In Faces, stairs continuously serve as the bridge that mediates the depth of the characters’ inner ailments and anxieties. Characters are always in heightened emotional states while scaling or descending from the walkway between the upper and lower spaces: Dickie’s sullen despondence prior to his ascension into the pool room; Chet and Maria’s flirtatious cat-n-mouse chase prior to an adulterous copulation; Dickie’s elated return home to find his disheveled spouse. In all instances, Cassavetes engages the stairwell in an overhead look, allowing the viewer to view the complications that develop between two emotional extremes. Chet’s swift disappearance in what would be the film’s only extreme long shot confirms his role as the angel to aid Maria’s rebirth, disappearing as quickly as he appeared. A close-up on Richard’s back is maintained as he processes speechlessly what had just occurred. He rises to gaze at Maria, shown via close up of her runny mascara, half-naked, wet body through her rough awakening, slowly shaking her head. She is no longer a trophy wife with a plastic smile; her once tidy crown of hair has now collapsed atop her head.

He mocks her as “the noble adultress,” before descending the stairs, formulating theories in his mind about the kitchen to fuel his anger. His dark suit contrasts against the overtly white background, much like the opening shot of the film, but without the stairway bars, suggesting at least some degree of change and emotional expression free from constraint. “You want me to be violent?” he shouts. He’s in his serious business mode, but whose effete masculinity is soon razed by a slap across the face from an also reborn Maria. “I hate my life. I just don’t love you.” An honest, unbridled remark is finally uttered from a face that, for the first time, is marked with the same shadows that cover Richard’s face—perhaps the first time the couple has been fully honest with one another. For years they’ve play-acted and bickered, but as of this moment, desire nothing more than to exchange smokes on the midsection of the stairway, a vertical axis of rising and falling conflict and inner unrest. The last shot of the two ascending and descending the stairway, leaving their loaded situation surprisingly open to various possible prospects, suggests the narrow but assessable channel that leads toward emotional catharsis.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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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.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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 aht 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

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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.

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

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

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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.

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

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

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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.

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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Photo: Netflix

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

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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.

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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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.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

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


Cars 2

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


Cars

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


The good Dinosaur

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


Monsters University

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


Cars 3

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

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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.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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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

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.

Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.

A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.

Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.

There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Film

Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror

We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.

Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.

Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.

Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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