In the spring of 1972 I was teaching a course in the history of motion pictures at Los Angeles City College. Rick Stanton, the head of the Cinema Division, asked me to write a proposal for a course on the history of documentary film, which he hoped to add to the curriculum. I did, putting the entire sum of my knowledge of documentary film into it. The course was approved and, two days before the course began in the fall of 1972, I was hired to teach it. One slight problem. That proposal, with the entire sum of my knowledge of documentary film, was one page long.
Obviously, I was not going to be able to lecture a lot. Just as well, since the varying lengths of documentary film made standard one-hour lectures impossible. So I decided to let the students tell me what they thought of the films. I would give a little introductory material about the film, show it and then we would discuss it. It turned out to be the way to teach the course. Now, 37 years later and knowing a lot more about documentaries, I still teach it the same way—although a few years back I had students complain that I let other people talk too much. Imagine that: students wanted the teacher to talk more. I started talking more, but the focus of the class is still on what the students have to say. What all these years have given me is a front row seat on how people respond to documentaries. Not what I think about the films, or what historians and critics think about the films, but what a wide variety of people think and feel about them.
A word about our students. What makes teaching at LACC so much fun is that you never know who or what is going to walk in the door. I have had students ranging in age from the late teens to the seventies and eighties. We have students from every continent except Antarctica, and representatives of all five major sexual orientations and several minor ones. Needless to say, their responses run the gamut.
I generally start the course with a reel of early actuality films from the late 1890s and the early 1900s. The reel includes a couple of staged recreations from the Spanish-American War and the students are shocked, shocked to discover that documentaries were staged from the very beginning, but at least this prepares them for Robert Flaherty. We usually show Nanook of the North (1922), which charms today as much as it did then. Students are surprised at the nudity in the film, and I have to explain that the film is a demonstration of the double-whammy of American sexism and racism: in those days nudity in film was socially acceptable as long as it was a) female and b) non-white.
Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934) often splits the class down the middle. Half love Wright’s poetic images and his equally poetic cutting. The other half hate the film because it is non-linear, i.e., does not tell a story, or focus on a single character. The complexity of the structure makes for an interesting discussion, which sets up a context for them to deal with later non-linear films. The exoticism of the film appeals, and not just to western students. I had an Indian student who on his summer vacation went over to Sri Lanka, as Ceylon is now called, and did a video documentary on the temples Wright had photographed. And once I had a student from Sri Lanka who left the screening with tears welling up in her eyes. She said, “It makes me so homesick.”
Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936) works better, at least partially because it is a very linear film: the train goes from London to Scotland. W.H. Auden’s poetry in the narration of the last section usually leads to someone commenting that they did not know England had rap music back in the thirties. The poetry in Pare Lorentz’s narration for The River (1937), on the other hand, just seems too much, and only those who paid attention in English class recognize the imitation of Whitman. As overbearing as the narration seems, at least it cements firmly in their minds the concept of Voice of God narration.
I shift the chronological order and show Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) before Triumph of the Will (1935). Although every ten years or so I show both parts of Olympia, usually I just show Part II, since it has the most cinematically inventive sequences (the diving sequences, the gymnastics, the bicycle races). Students are dazzled by her techniques and style, and those who have watched a lot of sports on television recognize where it all started. Those who are familiar with Riefenstahl’s reputation are amazed that there does not seem to be any propaganda at all in Olympia. Once I get them to admit that, I tell them I have them right where I want them to spring Triumph of the Will on them the next week. I show the complete 110-minute version and they stagger out of it at the end, often thinking what one student said to me at the door on the way out, “How did the Germans ever lose the war?” Riefenstahl’s images and sound are so overpowering that one afternoon when there was a small earthquake during the long parade sequence at the end, the class just thought it was part of the film. It takes a full two-hour discussion to sort out all the ways the film works, both as a film and as propaganda.
The next week they get the American response, in the form of two of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (1942-45) documentaries. I generally have found that I have to start with Prelude to War (1942), since the younger students often have no idea who was fighting whom in World War II. Once I had an older gentleman in the class who had been a junior officer during the war. He had the job of delivering the lecture series that the films supplanted. He brought in his copy of the lecture notes. Looking them over, one could easily understand why General George C. Marshall wanted the film series instead.
One issue that comes up first with Riefenstahl, if not sooner, and then gets a thorough airing with Capra, is the question of the moral responsibility of the documentary filmmaker. Not surprisingly, when you look at some of Capra’s more obvious manipulations and his occasional racism (referring to the Japanese as Hitler’s “buck-toothed pals” always gives students a start, and not just those who are Japanese or Japanese-American), some students end up thinking Capra was less morally responsible than Riefenstahl. (And then there was the student who tried to do a parody of Hitler before the screening of Triumph of the Will and managed to offend both the Jewish people in the class and any neo-Nazis who might have been enrolled. I am still not sure how he did that.) Needless to say, there are those students who criticize Capra’s films for not being more critical of American society. This is especially true when I show The Negro Soldier (1944), which seems incredibly naïve and evasive today (check out how Capra whisks through the Civil War with a shot of the Lincoln Memorial, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the sound track and no mention of slavery). Part of my job, of course, is to help them understand the historical context of the films and the attitudes in them. Sometimes it helps. And sometimes it is unneeded. When I ran the World War II films, including the ones listed below, in the Spring 2003 semester, they happened to fall right at the beginning of the Iraq War. History provided the context.
We show two of the John Huston documentaries, San Pietro (1943-45) and Let There Be Light (1945-80). The first works better than the second, since it seems more modern in style, a forerunner of the Direct Cinema filmmaking of the sixties and later. The staged quality of Light, particularly the artificial Hollywood lighting of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, dates the film, as does the simplicity of the cures. Contemporary audiences know a lot more about psychiatry and that it is just not as easy as the film shows. World War II ends with Night and Fog (1955), still the most devastating film about the Holocaust. The students are so drained by the end of that half-hour film that I have to arrange a short break afterwards, since I have found that people are unable to say anything coherent for about ten minutes.
After the horrors of war, we take a break with a week of Walt Disney documentaries from the late forties and early fifties. Often these are films students have grown up with and seen either in school or on television, so it takes them a while to get into discussing them in any depth. Once it is clear that it’s open season on Uncle Walt and the middle-class messages in the films, students examine them with great glee. Why does the lost baby seal in Seal Island (1948) look different in every shot? Why is the “suitor” of the beautiful female beaver that the boy beaver in Beaver Valley (1950) runs off with not the “husband” of the female? Where did the female beaver’s babies come from? Is she a single mom? A divorcee from Encino? How can nature possibly have squeezed all that into half an acre in Nature’s Half Acre (1951)? What were the animators smoking when they came up with the vision of what life on Mars might be like in Mars and Beyond (1957)? (According to Ward Kimball, the producer of the film who was a guest in class once, they were not smoking, but drinking: stingers.)
Contemporary students are astonished to discover that once upon a time, the commercial television networks actually produced hour-long documentaries. Nightmare in Red (1955) is a history of communism in Russia that is a particular favorite of my students who escaped communist regimes in the seventies and eighties. Harvest of Shame (1960) can’t be the sixties, can it?: there’s no rock-and-roll on the soundtrack. Hunger in America (1968) raises the question of why doesn’t somebody do something to eliminate hunger; Congress did, and then discovered it was not all that easy. Black History: Lost Stolen or Strayed (1968) shows that Bill Cosby was once actually angry about something other than what he has been angry about lately.
The textbook I used for the course until recently was Erik Barnouw’s Documentary (Oxford University Press). Before that I used to use Richard Barsam’s Nonfiction Film (Dutton), which is a little more straightforward, but one day a student came up to me, waving Barnouw’s book in my face and saying, “Mr. Stempel, you ought to use this book. He writes just like you talk.” I read the book again and could see her point: both Barnouw and I are willing to stop for an interesting anecdote or two. I also like the distinction he makes between “Direct Cinema” (using the lighter weight camera and sound systems to follow the action) and “Cinema Verité” (using them to interview people). I have recently moved to the more up-to-date A New History of the Documentary Film by Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane, which retains that distinction.
We begin our section on Direct Cinema with Primary (1960), which I used to describe as “the first time most of the new equipment was working most of the time.” After talking to Richard Leacock, one of the filmmakers, a few years ago I had to amend that to “some of the equipment was working some of the time.” For students who have grown to love the visual beauties of Song of Ceylon, The River, and Olympia, the rough-hewn quality of Primary is a shock. Others feel this is the first modern documentary we see. Because producer Robert Drew and his filmmakers have made an effort to be fair to both John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, the two candidates in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Presidential Primary, the class often splits on who they think the film favors most. The preponderance of the students feel it favors Kennedy, but after Humphrey’s death in 1978, the next class or two felt it favored Humphrey. For younger students, who know Kennedy only as the president who slept with Marilyn Monroe and was shot by one or more people, it is a surprise to see how charismatic he was. For older students, the film brings back memories, sometimes very painful ones.
The same is true, only more so, for the companion piece to Primary, the same filmmakers’ 1963 Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. That film deals with the Kennedys’ (John and Attorney General Robert) attempt to integrate the University of Alabama in the face of George Wallace’s announcement that he would “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent it. For older black students, the film brings back memories of why their families had pictures of the Kennedys on their walls. For younger students, black and white, there is the shock that less than forty years ago, black students were not allowed in some colleges. When I showed the film in the Fall 2008 semester, it was the day after Obama’s election. The night section of the class, mostly older students, were moved, some almost to tears. The day section, mostly younger students, followed the lead of a foreign student who spoke up first. He thought it was “silly.” By that he meant it was silly that the federal government had to go to all that trouble just to enroll two black students. Well, yes, but that is part of this country’s history. And very much on the other hand, there was the black student several years ago who agreed with Wallace: he thought there ought to be separation of the races. I have only had that reaction once.
What is also a shock about Crisis is the sheer intimacy of the film: Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and James Lipscomb shooting in the White House, in Bobby Kennedy’s home, in the Governor’s mansion. Seeing the film in an era in which non-government filmmakers would not be allowed within miles of any of those places makes students mourn the loss of that kind of access. Especially given the level of political discourse in the Oval Office scenes, which was particularly awe-inspiring after the release of the Nixon Watergate tapes.
Intimacy with the subjects is one of the hallmarks of both Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité, and audiences can have mixed feelings about it. Crisis, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), Tom Cohen’s Family Business (1982: from the PBS Middletown series), and Keva Rosenfeld’s All-American High (1986) all introduced the audiences to characters they loved. On the other hand, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’s Seventeen (1982: the film in the Middletown series that PBS and Xerox declined to run), split the audience. The first time I showed it, in the mid-eighties, the class loved Lynn, the smart-mouthed “heroine” of the film. I last showed it a few years ago and one section of the class just hated the whole white trash bunch, including Lynn. I am a big fan of Jill Godmilow and Judy Collins’s 1974 Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, a film about Antonia Brico, the woman orchestra conductor who was denied conducting opportunities for many years, but some students, especially the men, have not liked her or the film.
And then, as it must to all documentary students, comes a Frederick Wiseman film. I rotate the Wiseman films, having shown nearly all of them over the years (except for the REALLY LONG ones). The discussions of Wiseman film usually begin with ten minutes of students ranting. There are six standard objections they raise. Some classes raise only a few, some all of them. The are: 1) It’s too long; 2) It needs narration; 3) It’s boring; 4) It does not tell a story; 5) It does not follow a character; and, inevitably, 6) Why did you show us this? Once they are done venting, and get curious about my saying “That’s number two” as I check something off a list they cannot see, I quote the line from the end of the first part of the play Angels in America: “And now the great work begins.” And we get down to the serious business of figuring out what Wiseman is up to, how he goes about it, what the themes are in his work, how they relate to other themes in his other films, how the films are structured (thematically rather than narratively, among other ways), and finally, why weren’t you all laughing? Wiseman’s ear for the absurdities of American life and behavior is astonishing, and a lot of it goes right by first-time viewers. Wiseman is one of the few filmmakers I show whom former students, now in advanced filmmaking classes, come back to look at in following semesters. Sometimes they help me get the current classes laughing. Sometimes it does not help: once I had a former student come to see Racetrack (1985) and he and I cracked up at the shot near the beginning of Metropolitan Hospital, the location of Wiseman’s previous Hospital (1970), but there is no way Wiseman virgins would get the joke.
Not getting the jokes is a problem with my students, who have grown up, as we all have, with the idea that documentaries are serious films about serious subjects. The fact is, the best documentaries, like Wiseman’s, can be hysterically funny, but that is not part of the conventional wisdom about documentaries. In 1990, when every magazine was making up ten-best lists of the 1980s, I wrote an article on the ten funniest documentaries of the 1980s. Needless to say, only one of the ten was nominated for an Academy Award, and I think Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988) won in spite of the dark humor Ophuls found in the former O.S.S. and C.I.A. personnel’s explanations of why it was really in the best interests of the country to let Barbie escape. It may not surprise you to learn that I could not get the article published anywhere.
In the latter part of the course, I often run “theme weeks,” where I combine films on a single or related subjects. One area is music, which can mean anything from a paring of the Pennebaker-Leacock Company: Original Cast Album (1970: I have to remind Sondheim fans not to sing along) and Charles Braverman’s The Making of a Live TV Show (1971: the Goldiggers are musically not quite up to Sondheim’s standards) to the Maysles’s Gimme Shelter (1970) and what I announced simply as “another documentary about a rock group,” This is Spinal Tap (1984: some people knew the joke, some got it as the film progressed, and some had to have it explained to them afterwards, so good was the filmmakers’ imitation of rock documentary style).
Since we tend to have a fair number of women students, I often have a week or more of films by and about women. Partly this is payback (no, not for the nudity in Nanook; the payback for that comes from the nude men in the sauna at the beginning of Olympia Part II) for the World War II and Vietnam documentaries. One semester I had some women complain about the amount of blood and gore I showed in the World War II section. The reactions of the guys in the class were, snap, “Hey, that’s reality. Get used to it.” Later that semester I showed Claudia Weill and Joyce Chopra’s Joyce at 34 (1972) which begins with a very explicit birth scene. Now the guys were complaining and the women did not miss the opportunity to go, snap, “Hey, that’s reality. Get used to it.” Documentaries are not for wimps.
As we have seen, context can be crucial in terms of reaction to a film. A film I often show is Nick Broomfield and Sandi Sissel’s Chicken Ranch (1982) about a legal bordello in Nevada. It is the best of several documentaries about prostitution because it lets the women speak for themselves, and their nasty put-downs of men in general and young men in particular is a much-needed shock to young male students who grew up with the likes of Pretty Woman (1990). From time to time I have run it with Ted Reed’s 1989 film Coming Out. On its own, it’s a moderately interesting film about the annual Debutante Cotillion in Washington, D.C. Seen after Chicken Ranch, it immediately provokes a discussion about who is more honest about selling young women to men.
Toward the end of the semester I usually run documentaries that are “self-reflexive,” that is, call attention to the fact that they are films, and raise questions about the nature of documentary. One of my favorites is Robert Stone’s Radio Bikini (1987), where he uses not simply footage taken by the Navy at atomic tests in 1946, but the outtakes and multiple takes of that footage to show how “constructed” the earlier documentaries were. An audience seeing that in the context of the history of documentary film can understand without much prompting what Stone is up to.
Given the amount of war and other evils that a semester of documentary films shows, I try to end on an upbeat note. One film I have used as a closer is John Korty’s Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids? (1977). If seeing the Debolts deal with all their adopted kids and their medical problems with robust good humor does not warm the cockles of your heart, your heart needs a new set of cockles. Another ending series of films begins with Lois Shelton’s Ernie Andrews: Blues for Central Avenue (1986). This look at the jazz scene on Central Avenue in Los Angeles was begun as a student film at LACC and is an encouragement to our students. I follow this with Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss’s International Sweethearts of Rhythm (1986), about a 1940s interracial all-woman jazz band, and the same filmmakers’ closer look at one of the members of the band and her companion, Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1988). One time I had shown a documentary on an abortion clinic and one of the women in the class had said that I should also show a film about a mother. I decided that Tiny Davis, singer, trumpeter, mother, lesbian and grandmother was the greatest mother of them all. And my classes, even the homophobes, seem to agree.
In early 2002 I heard about a film on George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign called Journeys with George. It was playing the liberal salon circuit in Washington and the word was that it really showed Bush to be an idiot. When I saw it at a sparsely attended, hardly advertised screening the film knocked me out. It not only showed that Bush was a fairly likable guy, but that he was not an idiot. Journeys with George vividly demonstrated how the media completely, and I mean completely, geeked their coverage of the campaign. When its filmmaker, Alexandra Pelosi, was on Charlie Rose a few months later, promoting the HBO showings of the film, she tried to convince Rose that the film did expose the media coverage as terrible. Rose, who also works for CBS, simply found it impossible to believe. As the years have gone by, more and more people not only realize the film did this, but that it was the first of many, many documentaries that picked up on all the stories the mainstream media were geeking: the campaign and the Supreme Court decisions afterward, the run-up to the Iraq War, the war itself, and on and on and on. I have shown Journeys with George almost every semester since, and students have had the same reactions I did to that first screening: Bush is personally likable and the media did geek the campaign. I usually pair it with a film like Gunner Palace (2004) or Baghdad ER (2006) to show the outcome of that 2000 campaign. I realized after the Obama election, I never have to show Journeys with George ever again.
Even with the Bush and Iraq documentaries, I still try to end on an upbeat note, as difficult as that may be to do. One film that works, especially if there are a number of foreign students in the class is Marlo Poras’s Mai’s America (2002), about a teenaged Vietnamese girl named Mai, who comes to this country as an exchange student. We not only see what she goes through, but get her perceptions on the people she meets and on America in general. Mai is charming and funny and smart, and she is the best I can do after Bush and Iraq.
I am planning on retiring from teaching in 2011, which should give me enough time to run what I am sure are going to be some very interesting documentaries about the Obama years. All I am waiting on is for people to make them.
Tom Stempel, in addition to teaching at Los Angeles City College, writes the “Understanding Screenwriting” column for The House Next Door.
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.2.5
Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.
Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”
Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.
The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.
Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story
Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.3
At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.
As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.
As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.
Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.
Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.
The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.3
Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.
Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.
The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.
The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.
Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.
These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.
Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.
There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.
These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.
Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019
Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair
Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.1
Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.
Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.
Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.
The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.
Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.
Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen
18. Monsters University (2013)
It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson
Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels
The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.3
It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.
Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.
Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).
Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.
Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).
Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.
Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.
So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019
Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life
The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.1.5
Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.
Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.
So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.
Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.
From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.
The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
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