This is not meant to be an overview of Paul Newman’s career, or even a list of favorite performances. A life as long as Newman’s is inevitably filled with many dips, valleys, peaks, and missteps. I have really enjoyed reading the tribute pieces about him, which have served to deepen my understanding of what it was that made Newman so special. His is a story of endurance, certainly, but also one of tenacity. His early work in the 50s can have an over-studied feel to it (albeit engaging, and boy, was he beautiful)—it’s like he’s being a “good Method student” trying to get an A in class. Marlon Brando so dominated the atmosphere at that time that Newman (whose resemblance to Brando in his youth was always irritating to him) struggled to find a way to separate, to stand out. But it was in the 60s and 70s when Newman took off, in unexpected singular ways—sinking into his persona, inhabiting it like a well-worn sweater … and by then nobody would think to hold him up next to Brando because his work was so, well, his own. This was not an easy journey for Newman, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that because of his many successes. But he made his mark. Indelible ink.
There’s so much to say about him, so many great roles: Hud, Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Nobody’s Fool, The Color of Money. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge is a detailed, exquisite examination of a cold bottled-up man, one of his best performances in my opinion. There’s also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fort Apache, the Bronx, Blaze (I love him in that), Slap Shot (Hallelujah!), Sometimes a Great Notion. And I can’t forget his beautiful, sensitive work as a director. He directed his wife Joanne Woodward in two of her most searing performances: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds—an almost unbearably intense performance—and The Glass Menagerie.
Playing failed southern Belle Amanda Wingfield in Menagerie, Woodward has said that Newman gave her one piece of direction: “Don’t cry.” If she ever shed a tear, he’d ask for another take. Having seen many a tear-drenched, maudlin Amanda Wingfield in my day, I can say that Newman was a genius for understanding that it is the surface of Amanda—her flouncing, pretentious surface—that will make the audience ache for her, not any tears that she might shed, which would, necessarily, come off as self-pitying. Tennessee Williams was always ferociously specific in his stage directions and notes for actors—to play the survival of these characters, not their victimization. He said that he had never written a “victim.” (Words to live by for performers approaching those great parts.)
I’m a bit overwhelmed right now, but I want to home in on three specific roles (or moments) of Newman’s because, first of all, they span his career (beginning, middle, end), and, second of all, they illuminate the Newman-ness of Paul Newman, that indefinable thing that makes a good actor specific, memorable, and alive under imaginary circumstances.
SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962)
Paul Newman originated the role of Chance Wayne, the washed-up stud in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, on Broadway, and reprised his role in the 1962 film with Geraldine Page (who also played her role on Broadway). I sometimes think that the later Paul Newman, the more grizzled tough guy of the 70s and 80s, would have been even better in this part. Newman still has the glow of youth about him, and the truly corrupt nature of this character (a tragic corruption) is soft-pedaled in the film, which weakens it. Regardless, Newman is wonderful here: riveting, sexy (that dive off the diving board!). You ache to touch him.
There’s a moment when Geraldine Page, as the pot-smoking crazy washed-up movie actress, pulls back his shirt to stare at his chest, and the expression on her face is like she’s looking at a scrumptious piece of key lime pie. It’s a startling moment of objectification, and Newman, lying on his back on the bed, is so “over” her in that moment, so ashamed of who he has become, so taken up with his dreams of failed glory and the love he has ruined that he barely notices her voracious eye. Perfect Tennessee Williams moment of missed connection. The male offered up to the fading female as eye candy, as comfort in her mania and loneliness … but at what price to the male? What echoes are in his head? What does he want? Newman, in an unselfconscious unself-important way (he never seemed all that interested in how beautiful he was, although he knew how to use it to great effect), manages to suggest all of that torment in his characterization. We forgive him. Steve Vineberg writes in his book Method Actors (which has a whole section on Newman):
“There’s an old-fashioned Hollywood moralism at work in both the touchingly well played The Hustler and the vastly entertaining Hud that keeps threatening to dampen the proceedings. This is the stage in Newman’s career when he’s expected to pay for his good looks and easy charm—for making everyone fall in love with him when he flashes those bedroom eyes … The ending [of The Hustler], a mixed triumph for Eddie, makes it possible for us to live with the fact that the movie has used the very qualities we love Newman for to score points against him.”
In Sweet Bird of Youth, Newman’s beauty is an undeniable fact of nature, like a rainstorm or a sunset. You can’t dispute it, you just have to deal with the reality of it. And in the context of that play, his beauty is seen as somehow dangerous, disingenuous, hinting at a shallowness of character. Perhaps if Chance hadn’t been so damn good-looking he might have, you know, developed into a better man.
Newman does not have the crazy, cocky charm in Sweet Bird of Youth that characterized his later roles, but there is one moment which, for me, movingly illustrates Newman’s interest in the craft of acting, in imbuing it with a natural dignity:
He’s in the bar in the hotel, and, naturally, all caught up in the moment-to-moment reality of his situation. He’s back in town where he’s enemy number one, he’s playing stud to a failed movie actress, he’s hoping against hope that he will have a reunion with Heavenly—the local girl whom he ruined by giving a venereal disease. So he’s got a lot going on. Not to mention the fact that Newman is also creating the drunkenness (Chance always has a flask in his pocket) and the “high” that accompanies the pills he pops. Chance is polluted. Perhaps he needs to pollute himself after polluting the once-pure body of his girlfriend. Newman’s work here does have what I would call a “workmanlike” quality to it. He came out of the Actors Studio where “sensory” work was paramount: creating heat, drunkenness, headache, a head cold, horniness … whatever it was. So you can see Newman doing all of that, obligating himself to the demands of the script.
And there’s a moment where suddenly, in the midst of all the activity going on in the bar, he hears a scrap of music from the next room, or maybe it’s from the bandstand by the lake … and it stops him in his tracks. You know how sometimes you hear a bit of music and it is not as though you are transported back in time, you really feel you are back in time: when your mother sang you that song as a toddler; when you heard that song on the radio the moment before you got the news your father had died; when you had your first kiss to that song … whatever it is … and that is what Newman plays here. It’s startlingly good. It’s what sensory work should look like.
The best part about it is that it is not done in closeup, which would have meant that the director would have had to cut (then Newman would have had a chance to privately create the moment for himself). No, it’s all done in one take. He’s babbling, drinking, laughing … and then, in the same take, he stops, head cocked, and you watch him flow back in time. There’s sadness there, a wistful quality that is quintessential Tennessee Williams … and it is Newman’s freedom with his own process, his own imagination, his craft, that I remember. It’s not easy to act a moment like that. The traps are all over the place—it could seem mawkish, sentimental, or, worse, fake. Newman also had to do it within the larger context of the scene, so it had to actually happen to him—which makes it more like something you would see on the stage, rather than on the screen. It is why so many film actors fail when they try to do a play. They are used to having prep time for their big scenes. They are used to the cutting and interrupted flow of storytelling. To use their imagination in the moment is difficult. Newman, with all his stage work, and his devotion to the craft of acting, had none of those problems. He knew how to do it. It’s a true piece of poetry!
THE STING (1973)
The second thing that came to mind when I heard of Newman’s passing was his raucous, campy performance as Henry Gondorff, the con man in The Sting. It’s a mere 11 years after Sweet Bird of Youth and the transformation is so startling that you can’t believe it’s the same actor. Newman has none of that studied quality anymore, none of that “let me show you my sensory work” Method-type acting from earlier in his career. He has, to put it mildly, arrived. This is an example of perfect casting, as well, and I think that Newman, because of his looks, took hits harder when he was miscast. There’s an Adonis-like quality to his younger face which, naturally, led him to be cast in certain kinds of roles. He was in Picnic on Broadway, his debut, where he played Alan Seymour, the preppy college boy whom Madge throws over for Hal, the sexy drifter. It’s interesting to consider that Newman’s actual personality was far more suited to the Hal part: the wild-boy ways, his undomesticated charm, and the fact that every woman—married homemakers, spinsters, intellectual bookworms, or high school beauty queens—looks at him and can’t help but think: “That man knows how to fuck.” Mrs. Potts, the hard-working Kansas woman who has hired Hal to work on her house, has a monologue in the last couple of moments in the play where she admits the effect Hal had on her:
“With just Mama and me in the house, I’d get so used to things as they were, everything so prim, occasionally a hairpin on the floor, the geranium in the window, the smell of Mama’s medicines … He walked through the door and suddenly everything was different. He clomped through the tiny rooms like he was still in the great outdoors, he talked in a booming voice that shook the ceiling. Everything he did reminded me there was a man in the house, and it seemed good … And that reminded me … I’m a woman, and that seemed good, too.”
If that doesn’t describe who Paul Newman was in his best roles, then I don’t know what does! But Newman’s natural devilishness had not yet gotten a chance to express itself. The 60s freed him up. The Yale-educated preppy boy faded and the rakish “man who knows how to fuck” persona ascended.
The reason I bring up The Sting is personal. When I was a little kid, my parents let my brother and me stay up late (on school nights, no less) only two times. Once was to see What’s Up, Doc?, and I still remember my brother, probably 8 years old at the time, hunched over on the ottoman, holding his stomach he was laughing so hard at the Chinese dragon flying through the streets of San Francisco. The other time was to watch The Sting. I was probably 9 years old when I first saw it, and to this day it has the glow around it—a personal glow—that my parents wanted my brother and me to see it. They thought we would love it, and that we were ready for it. I do remember being shocked by the strip club scene with the dancer twirling her tassels (this on primetime!), and I also remember being utterly gobsmacked by the last “sting” in the film—the one where the film itself “stings” the audience. I didn’t get it. My parents had to explain it to me: “See, that F.B.I. office wasn’t real ….”
Paul Newman’s performance in The Sting was probably a walk in the park for him. This was not new territory for him, neither was working with Redford, but one of the things I love so much about it is how much of a kick HE is getting out of the entire thing. Newman took acting seriously. He was the president of the Actors Studio, after all. He had worked hard at his craft. He has said that he felt that his wife was actually a genius … a natural talent, and he was the one who really had to work at it. But by the time he did The Sting, you rarely catch him “working.” He is fearless, funny, campy, crotchety, sexy in a mischievous (yet always friendly) way, never soft. He is behaving in front of the camera. All moments feel “caught” rather than “performed.” He is having a blast. That translated to me as a small child. Even though he was a grown man, I related to him. He behaved inappropriately. He had fun for the sake of fun. He messed with people. He burped. You know. That was all in the day of a life for me as a child!
Again, to imagine that Newman got his start playing Alan, the upstanding domesticated waiting-for-marriage good boy of Picnic is just indicative of how hard Newman really worked, and how he seemed to understand very early on that it would be his acting that got him ahead, not just his looks. If he skated on his looks, then he would never have played Henry Gondorff in the way that he did. Newman’s relationship with his beauty was always an interesting element in his career, and it just got more interesting the less interested he was in it. It’s not that he grew into his face. It’s that life did a number on him, as it does a number on all of us, and his experiences showed. His became one of the most lived-in faces in movies, and in The Sting we are starting to see the veneer crack. What comes out is a helluva lot of fun.
OUR TOWN (2003)
Lastly, I must mention Paul Newman’s performance as The Stage Manager in the televised production of Our Town (2003), which he had also played on Broadway. I have seen Our Town more times than I can say. I have seen all kinds of Stage Managers. It’s the kind of role that lends itself to pretty much any energy. I saw it at Trinity Rep in 1986, and Richard Kneeland, the actor playing the part, inhabited it with a kind of folksy gentle humor. He strolled through the audience, you’d suddenly realize that he was sitting right next to you on the stairs, nudging you and grinning about the action going on onstage. He was compassionate towards the poor mortals in the play, who had no understanding of their own mortality. You got the sense that he once lived in Grover’s Corners.
I saw Spalding Gray do it on Broadway, with Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller as George and Emily—and Gray was much more of a modern presence. That guy never lived in Grover’s Corners. He represented the universal eye, the omniscient consciousness. The production, with its completely empty stage and its stunning poster (a picture of the globe from outer space) had a distance to it, as though all of us in the audience were circling the earth via satellite, staring down at the puny problems of the invisible masses below. Gray dressed in unobtrusive gray (the other characters wore period-appropriate costumes, but he was in modern dress), and really did nothing more than be himself, saying Wilder’s words. It fit. While he wasn’t warm, you also got the sense that he “got” it. You knew that he looked on George and Emily’s blossoming romance, thinking, “Yes. Yes. Life sometimes can be like that. I do remember.” Penelope Ann Miller spent the entire third act shrieking at the decibel-level of a Greek-tragedy (please leave some space for ME to cry, Penelope, don’t take up all the tears for yourself!), but Gray emerged as the real tragic figure. He was us … and I realized that the poster was from his perspective, and that was what made him so quietly sad.
Now we come to Newman. The televised production is so worth seeing with many wonderful performances (Jane Curtin, especially), but Newman, looking at the action over his glasses, with a rather forbidding expression on his face, his presence a stern, still reminder of mortality, is truly haunting. I’ve never seen the Stage Manager played the way he played it. Emily looks around for comfort, reassurance, but she’ll find none of it from him. He acts mainly as a tour guide, but the way Newman does it makes it seem like a tour of Pompeii, as opposed to something in the more recent past. Our Town is performed so frequently that I sometimes forget its power. It becomes diluted. Not so here. The set is shadowed, Newman stands silhouetted in the background, and there are times when he seems almost tired in his role. Life wearies him. He’s over it. It’s so effective. He too, to quote James Joyce, is becoming a “shade.” And so Emily’s new-found grief is nothing to him, because his concentration is already starting to turn to the end, his own end.
Patricia Neal tells a chilling story in her autobiography about one of her first conversations with Paul Newman, when they began working on Hud. Her daughter Olivia had died the year before. Neal had not recovered. Neal writes:
“We had not yet played a major scene together. In fact, we may have been discussing the work to come. Suddenly, I found myself not talking about the picture at all. I was telling him about Olivia. I went on about her loveliness and talent and her fragility and how much I loved her …
“My sisters-in-law took charge of everything. They did not let me do a thing. I didn’t even see Olivia.” I found myself admitting. “Do you think that’s right?”
“Paul didn’t answer.
“I just saw that damned closed coffin. I should have taken a stand at the time, don’t you think? I was her mother. I had a right to see her.”
“Paul finally looked at me. For a long moment, he just stared through me with those blue eyes. Then he got up and said quietly, “Tough,” and walked away.”
Neal was crushed. Maybe Newman felt like she was over-sharing, maybe he was uncomfortable, or maybe he felt that whatever dynamic they developed had to be expressed onscreen, not off … and in this vein, Neal writes:
“I began to realize that although I had poured out my heart to Paul Newman, it was Hud Bannon who had responded.”
I bring this episode up because Newman’s blunt “Tough” in response to Neal’s story is what I see him capturing in the Stage Manager, and his performance highlights, in a very unusual way, the true brutality at the heart of that American classic.
In the last moments of the play, Emily turns to the Stage Manager and says:
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
The Stage Manager replies: “No,” before softening it a bit with, “The saints, poets, maybe—they do some.” Richard Kneeland, at Trinity, said it in a sorrowful way, feeling Emily’s grief as his own. Spalding Gray had more of an existential shrug in the line, he had to tell her the truth, but he was so used to it that there was no sense getting sad about it!
Paul Newman is ruthless in the moment. She barely gets the line out before he fires back, “No.” Total shut-down. Total rejection of her concerns, and her sadness. Truth: unvarnished. Don’t bother kidding yourself, sweetheart. This is the reality. Get used to it … and stop sniveling. His elaboration of “saints, poets, maybe,” then, comes off as a careless afterthought, relatively meaningless. Instead of being a contemplative moment of acknowledgment that yes, some people do “get it,” it feels more like he’s throwing her a bone. Brilliant. Devastating.
“No.” I can see the entire trajectory of Paul Newman’s diverse career in that one ruthless line-reading.
There was always a cool-ness to Newman in his best roles. He didn’t cheapen himself by giving it all away. He did not make a commodity out of his own emotions, like so many actors do. He worked. He knew what he was good at, and yet when he needed help he took it.
Sidney Lumet, in his book Making Movies, shares a very moving anecdote about Paul Newman, when starting work on The Verdict:
“He is an honorable man. He is also a very private man. We had worked together in television in the early fifties and done a brief scene together in a Martin Luther King documentary, so when we got together on The Verdict, we were immediately comfortable with each other. At the end of two weeks of rehearsal, I had a run-through of the script … There were no major problems. In fact, it seemed quite good. But somehow it seemed rather flat. When we broke for the day I asked Paul to stay a moment. I told him that while things looked promising, we really hadn’t hit the emotional level we both knew was there in David Mamet’s screenplay. I said that his characterization was fine but hadn’t yet evolved into a living, breathing person. Was there a problem? Paul said that he didn’t have the lines memorized yet and that when he did, it would all flow better. I told him I didn’t think it was the lines. I said that there was a certain aspect of Frank Galvin’s character that was missing so far. I told him that I wouldn’t invade his privacy, but only he could choose whether or not to reveal that part of the character and therefore that aspect of himself. I couldn’t help him with the decision. We lived near each other and rode home together. The ride that evening was silent. Paul was thinking. On Monday, Paul came in to rehearsal and sparks flew. He was superb. His character and the picture took on life.
“I know that decision to reveal the part of himself that the character required was painful for him. But he’s a dedicated actor as well as a dedicated man. And … yes, Paul is a shy man. And a wonderful actor. And race car driver. And gorgeous.”
The 20th century is marked by his work. Gorgeous, indeed. Gorgeous, indelible ink.
House contributor Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.
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
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
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
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
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
Review: Our Time Doggedly, Elliptically Considers the Costs of Partnership
The film elides politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.3
Filmed in low, awesomely wide angles, the series of vignette-like scenes that make up the lengthy opening sequence of Carlos Reygardas’s Our Time are a sociological survey in miniature, observing the nature of the interactions between people of the opposite sex at various ages. Young girls fuss with a broken beaded necklace as boys, sticks in hand, go marauding through a shallow, muddy lake surrounded by distant mountains. “Let’s attack the girls,” one of them says, as they disrupt a gossip session among pre-teen girls on a large innertube. With a slipstream rhythm, the action pivots to older teens experimenting with alcohol and drugs and maneuvering sexual attraction and frustration. After a while, we arrive at the grown-ups, a set of urbane, cosmopolitan ranchers who haven’t left any of this behind.
The backdrop of this sequence, which lasts from bright daytime to well past dusk, recalls the simultaneously transcendent and frightening opening of Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, depicting a child alone in the wild. In his first collaboration with a new cinematographer (Diego García, who shot Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendour), Our Time retains some of the director’s penchant for specialized lenses—like fisheye—and prismatic lens flare, but their effect is muted relative to the sometimes outrageous transcendentalism of his previous work. Reygadas’s latest unfolds more in the mold of recent work by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, relentlessly probing the more stubborn and outdated aspects of modern masculinity.
Reygadas himself plays Juan, a renowned poet and the owner of a ranch outside Mexico City, and the filmmaker’s wife, Natalia López, stars as Juan’s spouse, Esther, who manages the ranch. (Their children, Rut and Eleazar Reygadas, play Juan and Esther’s two younger children, with Yago Martínez in the role of their teenage son.) The family is rarely alone, and they retain domestic help and numerous cowboys to manage the bulls and horses on their property. At the party that opens the film, Esther connects with an American horse trainer named Phil (Phil Burgers) and begins an affair that gradually undoes her marriage. Our Time is, by all accounts, a pretty faithful biographical account of Reygadas and López’s recent marital troubles.
The conflict between Juan and Esther, which elevates from a gentle simmer to physical outbursts over the course of the film, isn’t merely about lust; it’s also about semantics and self-presentation. The couple have long had an open marriage—an allusion to Juan’s ex-wife suggests this decision was an effort to avoid past mistakes—so Juan’s feeling of betrayal is less about Esther sleeping with Phil than it is about her concealing the act, along with her continued communication with him. In his roles as writer and director, Reygadas crafts Juan as a self-styled progressive and empath. Unlike the patriarch in Post Tenebras Lux, who ran headlong into class warfare, Juan is exceedingly companionable with his hired help and open-hearted toward his children. Though class markers are everywhere in Our Time, from Juan’s clean chaps to his conversations with relatives of his workers (one requests that Juan “sponsor” him with the purchase of a new race car), the film elides these politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.
As politics drop out of his purview, Reygadas integrates nature—typically an external force of rapture and terror in his work—into his study of human behavior. Often, he does this in the most prosaic of ways, twice transitioning from arguments to instances of wild bulls picking violent fights. At the same time, the ranch is a haven in Juan’s very image, and he treats moments like these as violations of his peaceful dominion. Reygadas explores Esther’s psychology in more interesting ways, sending her to a timpani performance (by Mexican percussionist Gabriela Jiménez), which is shot with such urgency that it feels like a heavy metal concert, conjuring Esther’s turmoil as she texts with Phil in a symphony hall that would be pitch black if not for the slight glow of her phone.
With limited evidence that their affair is continuing, Juan’s fixation on Esther’s interest in Phil yields a handful of lengthy discourses on Juan’s fears for their future. His words are eminently judicious, but they wear Esther down, until she reacts to him with physical sickness and increasing desperation. Their distance yields Reygadas’s boldest narrative tactic, which is to effectively turn our time into an epistolary three-way romance for an entire act of the film. Juan, Phil, and Esther all dispassionately say their piece in voiceover monologues reciting letters and emails they’ve written to one another (one is recited over a bravura shot captured from the landing gear of a plane). In odd instances, a few of these communiques are read by one of Juan and Esther’s children, a suggestion that they understand what is happening or are perhaps fated to make the same mistakes as their parents.
Our Time’s foundation as a sort of Knaussgardian, auto-fictional overshare may account for both its curiously absent politics and what for Reygadas as unusually vibrant, dimensional characters. (Phil, an inane lunk trying to reconcile conflicting orders about whether or not to have sex with Esther, doesn’t achieve such depth.) Though the film suffers in its later scenes, as Reygadas turns Juan’s anxieties into actions and assures us that this auteurist self-portrait is appropriately self-excoriating, Our Time is remarkably balanced in considering both sides of its central marriage. As Juan’s mixed emotions unfurl in lucid, bountiful words, López reveals in simple gestures and shifts of position how Juan’s behavior has robbed Esther of her independence. Though artistically tame by Reygadas’s standards, Our Time doggedly pursues ugly truths about how partnership necessarily requires the sacrifice of one’s agency.
Cast: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Phil Burgers, Eleazar Reygadas, Rut Reygadas, Yago Martinez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 177 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Blue Note: Beyond the Notes Trumpets the Freedom of Jazz
The documentary proves that the history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself.3
The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.
Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.
The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)
Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.
If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.
Director: Sophie Huber Screenwriter: Sophie Huber Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Being Frank Is Cringe Comedy of the Most Nonsensical Sort
The film sends the curious message that any time spent with an abusive parent is time well spent.
Miranda Bailey’s Being Frank immediately homes in on the tensions that divide a perversely controlling father, Frank (Jim Gaffigan), and his moody 17-year-old son, Philip (Logan Miller). In this dark comedy’s early stretches, the filmmakers pay reasonably nuanced attention to Philip’s anger and frustration over his father’s domineering ways and constant traveling for work. But when the teen sneaks off to a nearby resort town for spring break and conveniently discovers that his father has an entirely separate family there—thus explaining Frank’s frequent work trips to “Japan”—the film quickly drops all pretenses of authenticity as it starts to seemingly lay the groundwork for a revenge comedy in which Philip wields his newfound knowledge against his hypocritical father.
As Philip works his way into the good graces of Frank’s second family, he delights in his father’s perpetual discomfort, particularly as the teen’s half-sister, Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), unaware of their blood relation, develops a crush on him. For a while, the screenplay by Glen Lakin is content to mine middling yet harmless cringe comedy from the awkward collision of two worlds that Frank had planned on keeping forever apart. Soon, however, Philip decides to not only forgive his father, who’s done nothing short of make his life a living hell, but to conspire with him to continue protecting his secret. It’s at this point that Being Frank takes a bizarre and completely unconvincing turn toward a conciliatory buddy comedy as Philip becomes an inexplicable co-conspirator in his father’s web of lies.
For a while, you may be willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, as Philip would appear to be motivated to protect his mother, Laura (Anna Gunn), and sister, Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander), from the truth, as well as make his father squirm. But after Philip chooses to remain in the resort town and subsequently endures the torture of seeing Frank appear happier and more laidback with his second family, his endgame becomes increasingly muddled. As his initial gratification at finally having the edge on his father morphs into pity and compassion, his actions become more senseless, as if driven solely by narrative demands that require him to stick around simply to set up the requisite show of father-son bonding.
Once Laura also shows up at the resort town and inevitably stirs up more trouble for her husband, Being Frank only leans further into its farcical elements, losing all perspective on the psychological damage Frank’s behavior has caused to those around him, especially to his son. As Frank’s carefully constructed double life begins to unravel, he’s eventually held accountable for his deceitful actions by at least a few people, yet his relationship with Philip somehow remains not only intact but also grows stronger. Although Frank’s frequent manipulation of his son is often couched in humor, the film’s celebration of their bonding through such toxic conditions is, at best, misguided, all but condoning bad parenting by suggesting that any time an abusive parent spends with a child is time well spent.
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Isabelle Phillips, Alex Karpovsky, Danielle Campbell, Gage Banister, Daniel Rashid, Jessica VanOss, Emerson Tate Alexander Director: Miranda Bailey Screenwriter: Glen Lakin Distributor: The Film Arcade Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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