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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned.

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

Jason Bellamy: For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned. Serendipitously, we selected films that the other person had yet to see. You elected to champion 2004’s Undertow. I selected 2002’s Solaris. These films have few similarities, and so there will be no attempt to connect them beyond our feeling that they are deserving of increased discussion and praise.

Thus, we begin with Undertow. Prior to seeing this film, I knew exactly four things about it: 1) Its director is David Gordon Green; 2) Its star is Jamie Bell (or as I usually call him, “The kid from Billy Elliot”); 3) It’s set in the South; 4) Roger Ebert loved, loved, loved it. That’s it, and that’s all. I vaguely remember the film coming out and being interested in it. Yet somehow I never got to it until now.

If Undertow was maligned (I’ve avoided checking Metacritic to this point), I don’t remember that. Overlooked seems right. Mention of Green usually inspires reference to Undertow predecessors George Washington and All the Real Girls. I’m sure you and Ebert aren’t Undertow’s only fans, but I can’t say I remember anyone else so much as mentioning it.

Am I surprised? Having seen Undertow a few days ago, I can’t say that I am. Not even five full years since its release, Undertow strikes me as the typical forgotten film: not brilliant enough to be considered great, not faulty enough to be worthy of venomous derision, not complex or ambiguous enough to inspire endless debate. I have multiple thoughts on the film, but for the most part I’d like to approach this discussion through your views, and I’ll start by asking you a question: Did you submit Undertow for examination here because you think the film is criminally misunderstood or because you think it’s criminally unknown (or something else in between)?

Ed Howard: I wanted to talk about Undertow largely because it’s been forgotten: you’re right that almost no one brings it up these days in talking about Green, who’s mostly known for his first two films and now the Judd Apatow collaboration Pineapple Express. Ebert’s rave aside, I believe Undertow got decidedly mixed reviews upon release, including its fair share of very negative ones, but on the whole I wouldn’t say it’s maligned so much as simply overlooked. That’s unfortunate, because in my opinion it is Green’s best film thus far, the film that comes closest to fulfilling the tremendous promise he’s displayed in all his features. It’s not a perfect film by any means, not a masterpiece, but in its own strange way it is “great,” a baroque fable about the loss of childhood innocence and the totemic power of family. I don’t use that word “fable” lightly, either. I think Green is quite consciously tapping into the language and aesthetic of fables and children’s stories, especially the darkness running through the Grimm fairy tales or, in movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. This is what I like so much about this film. All of Green’s films are fables to one extent or another, heavily stylized fantasy visions of the South. It’s tempting to call George Washington or All the Real Girls “realist,” or maybe “poetic realist,” but in fact they only give the impression of realism. The rhythms of these films approximate the slow rhythms of life, with lots of start/stop conversations and languid pauses, but the language and aesthetic choices distance the films from ordinary reality.

Undertow is the first of Green’s films to fully embrace this tendency, to revel in the artificiality of his vision of the American South. The film contains realism as just one mode among many, one choice that the director might make for a time before shifting to something else. There’s a lovely, moody silent sequence in which Green cuts back and forth between the brooding John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) smoking in his den, and his rebellious son Chris (Jamie Bell) constructing a rough wooden toy for his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan). This is Green’s poetic realist moment, as is the mumbled, halting conversation between John and Chris afterwards, but the quietly realistic sensibility of these moments jars against, for example, the cartoonish performance of Josh Lucas as John’s bitter brother Deel, or the exaggerated idiot savant behavior of the paint-eating Tim, or the barrage of filters and effects applied to the opening credits. The film shifts genres fluidly: the credits seem to promise a darkly comic farce, a rural parody of 70s cop TV, while later the two brothers move from a low-key domestic drama to gory horror to a chase thriller drawn heavily from The Night of the Hunter. This is Green’s loosest and most imaginative film. Here he discards the urge toward realism that ran through his earlier films, and finally admits, “this is a myth.” And it’s a poignant, affecting myth, centered around the relationship between two young brothers and their desire for family, safety, security and love.

JB: Ebert’s review makes similar observations. He ends his assessment saying: “Films like Undertow leave some audiences unsettled, because they do not proceed predictably by the rules. But they are immediately available to our emotions, and we fall into a kind of walking trance, as if being told a story at an age when we half-believed everything we heard.” That’s right on the money. It’s to Green’s credit that Undertow shifts genres as “fluidly” as it does, and yet I wonder if these transitions are too seamless for their own good. I imagine that watching Undertow made many moviegoers feel like WALL-E in the scene when the robot goes to file away one of his latest detrital treasures and realizes with confusion that the utensil in his hand doesn’t belong in the cup of plastic spoons or the cup of plastic forks, because it’s a spork. Right or wrong, audiences and sometimes even critics tend to file cinematic sporks in the waste bin of filmmaker gaffes. But there’s no question in my mind that Green is confidently and intentionally crossing genre lines here. He’s a filmmaker who isn’t rebellious so much as he is liberated from such restrictions to the point that he almost seems oblivious. That’s a compliment.

As for the notion that Undertow is Green’s best film, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. George Washington is the kind of picture that should (and did) make people drop everything and take notice of a filmmaker in his 20s, but there’s an intentional aimlessness about that film that I find overwhelming. In Ebert’s Undertow review he cites the moment when the girl asks, “Can I carve my name in your face?” and I laughed reading that, because George Washington is a collection of similar non sequiturs (not all of them spoken). By comparison, All the Real Girls is far more conventional, and it’s the closest Green film to my heart, because of the effortless and understated way in which Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel paint a heart-rending portrait of young love. That said, I’m not convinced that Green has made a “great” film as yet, though he’s certainly done enough to convince me that he’s a great filmmaker.

EH: That “carve my name” moment that both you and Ebert mention is a very good example of what Green is aiming for. As I believe Ebert points out, no one ever expresses themselves in quite that way, and yet everyone has felt the kinds of things that are being expressed: the confusion and potential pain of love, the angst of adolescence and puberty. The line is funny just because it’s so bizarre, so completely unexpected, and yet it’s not just an empty non sequitur. It’s a way of summing up, in a single line, the awkward, weird tensions of young love and desire. You get the feeling that these kids don’t know how to express themselves yet, don’t know what they want or what they mean to one another: they’re saying things, and doing things, they don’t fully understand. As good as they are, both George Washington and All the Real Girls sometimes feel self-consciously quirky, and I think Undertow is the first of Green’s films where the off-putting weirdness of his aesthetic is more purposeful. This film is a fable because fables are universal, they express feelings and fears we all have in stylized form. The distrust of strangers runs through the grisly tale of Hansel and Gretel, the desire to be able to transcend oneself drives the mermaid who wants to become a human, and Undertow is motivated, above all, by the need for family structures, for comfort and security.

When the film opens, Chris is alienated from his father, feeling trapped and confined by life on the isolated farm that John moved them to as a way of escaping from the world. When Deel arrives, Chris initially sees in him a potentially more promising father figure, something he hungers for so desperately that he doesn’t note the more sinister undercurrents of Deel’s persona. Of course, soon enough we learn that Deel is probably Chris’ biological father, and that he’s no more worthy as a father figure or role model than John is. The rest of the film continues this search for family, the desire to find someplace to simply fit in and make a comfortable home. The episodic structure allows Green to explore this central idea in several different contexts. First, Chris and Tim settle in with a black couple (Eddie Rouse and Patrice Johnson) who are badly affected by the premature death of their own child some years ago, but who are obviously deeply in love and remain joyous and appreciative of life. They provide a model for Chris and Tim, who barely remember their own mother and never experienced anything like the fun and humor that these people infuse into their clearly poor but nevertheless vibrant household. Later, the two boys attempt to create a familial structure among the homeless teens living in a kind of open-air hippie commune in the woods.

And in one of the film’s best scenes, Chris and Tim actually construct their own home from the detritus lying around a junk yard. The “Home Sweet Home” mug they place within this rusted metal structure is a bit much, an example of Green making his point too obviously, but the scene as a whole is nonetheless affecting: these two kids are so desperate for some shred of normality that they try to build a home from discarded car parts. In a lot of ways, Undertow is about America’s abandonment of its kids, the disinterest that so many people today seem to show in raising their children, providing them with the love and attention they need. The film is full of kids simply wandering, left to their own devices, saddled with parents who are either completely absent or absorbed in themselves or, at best, fiery clichés like the shotgun-wielding overprotective father who chases Chris during the opening credits. Because this is a fairy tale, Chris and Tim finally find what they need at the end, in the form of the kindly grandparents (Bill McKinney and Thelma Louise Carter) who accept them and take them in. But this happy ending doesn’t erase the violence and abjection that preceded it, the harrowing journey that these kids must take just in order to finally find a family.

JB: It’s certainly a harrowing journey. Emotionally, Undertow’s greatest triumph is the tactile vulnerability of Chris and Tim. Of all the genres that Undertow explores, from its Dukes of Hazzard meets Mark Twain opening to its Night of the Hunter-esque premise, horror isn’t one of them. Nothing goes bump in the night here—every threatening moment happens in broad daylight. And yet my stomach was in knots for Chris and Tim, even though the Southern-fried buffoonery of Deel suggests that he’s only slightly more competent than Rosco P. Coltrane. The latter half of the film is saturated with dread.

Thus, my disappointment with Undertow stems from the fact that there isn’t much else to it. In his mostly negative review for Variety, Scott Foundas notes that while “Green’s partisans claim he lyricizes the South… what Green does is more fetishization than lyricization. He wallows in the dirt, mud and sweat…piling the twangy Southern accents on extra-thick and filling the soundtrack with the incessant sound of hogs squealing.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly is in the same ballpark when he calls Green “an artist so sensitive that he savors every moment, to the point that you occasionally wished he’d savor it a little less.”

I’m all for meditative films, and I don’t think a picture needs to be epic to be “great” or “classic.” Still, Green’s films have a way of looking at puddles as if they are oceans. After splashing around for a while it can be unsatisfying to realize that I’m only wet up to my ankles. As Gleiberman puts it in relation to Undertow: “By the end, you realize there’s not much beneath that surface.” I’d agree. Which isn’t to suggest that Undertow is some sort of dismal failure—I have a hard time imagining how someone could get that worked up over it—it’s just to say that Undertow isn’t a film that suggests I’ll find more within it on a repeat visit.

Am I undervaluing Undertow? Let’s be direct: In your opinion, how great is it?

EH: In my opinion, yes, you’re undervaluing Undertow. Maybe I just like what Green finds in the puddles he’s looking at. Maybe I don’t think that looking at puddles is inherently less valuable or interesting than looking at oceans. After all, it’s just water either way, and by looking at puddles we might learn something about oceans. To unpack the metaphor, Green’s films locate universal truths and themes within seemingly prosaic events and characters. Basically, I don’t agree that there’s nothing deeper or more substantial to Green’s films, and to this one in particular. Beyond its genre pastiche (and would you really argue the central gory murder isn’t horror?) and its lyrical mood, the film gets at universal ideas and fears in very interesting ways. The dread we feel for Chris and Tim isn’t just—or even primarily—about Deel catching up to them. It’s more an existential dread, a fear that things aren’t going to work out for these drifting, parentless kids, that they won’t be able to find a place where they can fit in and be allowed to grow up normally.

As much as Green’s style is structured around disruptions and disjunctions, very showy intrusions of artifice, the film is emotionally complex and layered, not only in the bond between the two brothers, but in the distant, deceit-based relationship between Deel and John, the subtle parallels between the two generations of the family we see here, and the conflicted emotions of John, who seems to want desperately to be a decent father to his sons without quite having the emotional resources to carry through on it. The emotions in this film are small and subtle—in direct contrast to the outsized performance of Deel, inspired as much by Wile E. Coyote as anything else—but no less potent for their quiet simplicity. I already mentioned the scene of John contemplatively smoking while Chris assembles a wooden airplane out in the shed, but it’s a perfect example of the way Green infuses such simple moments with deeper subtexts. By fading back and forth between father and son, each quiet and alone in his separate space, Green unifies them even while emphasizing the distance between them; the camera moves as though panning from one to the other within the same space, bridging the gap between them in a way their conversations never do.

There’s a similar emotional ambiguity to the scene of John staring at his family’s portrait on the wall, which at first seems like a straightforward expression of his longing for his dead wife and the united family he’s since lost. Later, however, when we learn more about that portrait and what secret it hides, in retrospect we begin to wonder what exactly John is feeling at that moment. Greed? Foreboding? Regret? Guilt? Nostalgia? All of the above? There’s a great deal of complexity to even deceptively simple moments like that, which are opened up and complicated by the web of relationships and conflicted feelings between the characters. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I feel the emotions that much more intensely, see the underlying themes with that much more clarity. It’s a film that is broad and obvious in its surface effects, but much subtler and quieter beneath the surface, a strange combination that has perhaps contributed to its overall dismissal from the film conversation.

JB: Interesting. Maybe it deserves another look. (Knowing me, it’ll get one either way.) But I think one of the reasons I felt underwhelmed by Undertow had to do with an inkling that I’d seen it before. Prior to introducing myself to Green on DVD just a few years ago, I often heard it said that Terrence Malick is one of his key influences. In George Washington and All the Real Girls, I saw hints of what people were talking about, but on the whole I thought comparisons to Malick were overstated. Having now seen Undertow, I understand. This film is like a perfect hybrid of Badlands and Days of Heaven, from its muddy young runaways drifting through a ghastly fairy tale, to its ambiguous idiot-savant dialogue, to its meditative pacing, to its fondness for voiceover and, of course, its reverence for lush naturally-lit compositions. Given that Malick is known for the succulence of his images, it seems like a twisted Hollywood in-joke that Green would borrow Malick’s aesthetic so blatantly for a film that includes a character who eats every filthy (yet somehow appetizing) thing in sight. That amuses me.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Green of thievery in noting his Malick emulation, and I’ve noticed that you have found numerous ways to praise the compositions of Green’s film without mentioning the edible deliciousness of its celluloid. Still, for someone who loves Malick, Undertow’s allusions are plentiful to the point of distraction, causing my mind to wander to Badlands and Days of Heaven—which is the same thing as wanting to watch those films immediately. If Undertow wasn’t so locked in to the palette and themes of those Malick landmarks, I might have settled into its mood more freely. Instead, Undertow struck me as a film that’s better to look at than to look into. I still enjoyed it more than not, but I didn’t find the emotional heft in it that you have, certainly in comparison to a Malick picture.

EH: Well, there’s no use arguing the Malick references, since he’s an obvious influence on Green—hell, he even produced this film, so the affinities between them are apparent. I think it’s interesting, though, that you’d call Undertow “a film that’s better to look at than to look into.” Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I could imagine that description applying just as easily to Days of Heaven, an undeniably beautiful film that I love in many ways, but which nevertheless leaves me with the impression that Malick is sometimes more comfortable filming wheat fields than people. Now, of course, this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek: there’s a lot of emotional depth to Days of Heaven, a lot going on in between its landscape shots. But on its surface it’s a rather conventional love triangle story that happens to be graced with some of the most sumptuous cinematography in the cinema.

I won’t go so far as to argue that Undertow is a better film, by any means, but I think you’re doing to Green’s film something similar to what I just did to Malick’s. It’s very easy not to look beyond the pretty surfaces of films like this, to be seduced by the beauty of the images or the cinematic allusions and miss out on the emotional undercurrents. I think a lot of people do the same thing with Tarantino: they get so caught up with trying to spot all the kung-fu movies he references that the emotional arc of Uma Thurman’s Bride across both volumes of Kill Bill simply doesn’t make the impact it should. So I guess the question is, is originality everything? And does Green simply regurgitate Malick like so many paint chips, or does he process his influences into something new? Clearly, I believe the latter, but I’ll throw it back to you for now.

JB: I’m glad you asked. I absolutely agree that since Green so closely approximates Malick that it’s fair to presume that the same criticisms I applied to Undertow could also apply to Days of Heaven or Badlands. Thus, in a very basic respect, Undertow’s biggest burden is coming second. No, originality isn’t everything, but, from an audience perspective, discovery is a hell of a lot. For example, I’m sure that when Saving Private Ryan came out and Steven Spielberg was receiving unrestrained praise for his epic D-Day sequence, fans of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One must have been wondering what the big fucking deal was. In this case, I wouldn’t fault Fuller followers for being emotionally attached to “their” beach storming sequence, nor would I fault those unfamiliar with The Big Red One for thinking that Spielberg had created something wildly unmatched. Those are both fair and just reactions. (And let me pause here to offer that Spielberg does just what he should with Saving Private Ryan: he borrows what works and then adds to it, enhances it, reinvents it. The influence of Fuller is undeniable, but the brushstrokes of Spielberg are recognizable, too.)

To use a different analogy, what I’m getting at is the idea that perhaps the second trip to the moon can’t possibly have the same emotional impact as the first. At the risk of implying that Green is some kind of rip-off artist, I see less enhancement and reinvention of Malick in Undertow than reflection of Malick. It’s close to being the same thing, but somehow Green’s implementation of the same techniques isn’t quite as poignant, in ways I’m not sure I could ever quantify. Essentially, it’s a gut feeling. So what’s interesting to me is that I agree with the idea you hinted at, that perhaps Green and Malick have the same fascinations or impulses or intentions. Underneath it all, maybe it’s an illusion that Malick’s films are somehow more genuine. But after falling for Malick’s artistry like I have, I can’t help but have a special reverence for it. Still, I’m open-minded enough to qualify that with this: Perhaps I’m making a mistake of Vertigo proportions. As we know, the brown-haired Judy is actually more authentic than the blonde Madeleine … but good luck getting Scottie to believe that. For him, Madeleine is the measuring stick, and always will be. The same goes for me and Malick.

Before we move on, I want to touch on your reference to Tarantino, because I was thinking of that very example as I was writing my previous comments. Without a doubt, there’s a similarity in my reactions above and those of Tarantino naysayers so consumed with identifying which films Kill Bill references that they overlook what it actually does. Also similar is that way that I’m criticizing Green for the same reason that Tarantino gets into trouble: because the emulation is so fucking skillful that it appears dangerously effortless, as if these guys are painting by number rather than creating from within. That said, I think there are two distinct differences between Tarantino’s emulation and Green’s, both of which come down to the plural vs. the singular. First, Kill Bill, to keep with the example, nakedly and wholeheartedly embraces the stylistic trademarks of multiple filmmakers, while Undertow stylistically references pretty much Malick alone. Second, Tarantino is one of many filmmakers to blatantly draw upon Sergio Leone, to pick one, while Green is the only filmmaker I can think of to so unabashedly (and adeptly) channel Malick. The result? Tarantino is like the musician who tries to emulate Dylan and the Beatles simultaneously. He’s part of a mob. He blends in a bit more. Green, on the other hand, is like the poet who is ballsy enough (or dumb enough) to write in lowercase. Just like I couldn’t possibly read that poet’s work without thinking of e.e. cummings, I can’t possibly look at Undertow without seeing Malick. I think it’s a special case.

EH: See, I don’t actually agree that Malick is the only cinematic touchstone for Green here. Maybe that’s true of George Washington and All the Real Girls, which is one of the things that makes me value them slightly less than I would otherwise, but in Undertow I see the first evidence of Green reaching beyond Malick’s influence, entering territory that his mentor never explored. Most obviously, we’ve already discussed the ways in which the film is a genre pastiche, drawing its basic story from The Night of the Hunter, visually referencing 70s cop shows, and incorporating disjunctive techniques borrowed from avant-garde film, like the freeze frames and color filters that are used most frequently during the credits but recur at key moments throughout the film.

If Green’s first two films might be reduced to Malick rip-offs—and as much as I find to like in those films, I wouldn’t disagree—Undertow cannot be dismissed so easily. With this film, he begins incorporating the influence of Malick into a larger, more idiosyncratic patchwork, becoming more like Tarantino in that he’s developing his own cinematic personality from the confluence of his influences. That’s my take on it, anyway. Though Undertow often visually recalls Malick, the texture of the film feels quite distinct from its antecedents. Most noticeably, Green subtly blends the languid moodiness of Malick with more jittery interjections, purposefully shattering the overall atmosphere with those washed-out and filtered inserts—the most powerful of which are the haunting, sustained shot of Chris staring into a bathroom mirror, and the credits shot that freezes on a closeup of Chris’ foot a half-second before he lifts it off the ground to run away. There are a lot of subtle touches in the film that owe little to Malick, that in fact show Green developing his own sensibility that incorporates Malick as only one influence among many. I think, in that respect, he has further to go from here, and I fully expect him to make better films than Undertow in the future, but for now this film is an intriguing, beautifully realized work in its own right.

And also a startlingly funny one. I don’t think we’ve touched yet on just how damn funny this film often is, perhaps because its humor is so jarringly at odds with the overall melancholy tone of its narrative that it’s easy to forget about it in retrospect. This is another crucial way in which Green diverges from Malick, who whatever else he might be, couldn’t really be called funny. There’s a streak of dark humor running throughout Undertow, but it’s not cynical mockery. It’s more like an appreciation that even the darkest, most macabre moments can look entirely different depending on one’s perspective. John phrases it best when he tells his son, “sometimes it’s the strange moments that stick with you.” That’s the closest I can get to pinning down a sensibility that’s distinctively Green’s. It’s the sensibility that stages the opening chase as an exaggerated farce in which Chris gets a nail stuck through his foot and hobbles around with a wooden board stuck to him, an image that is both painfully horrifying and, seen from an objective distance, kind of ridiculous. And it’s the sensibility that, after Chris’ dad picks him up from the police station, has the desk officer casually hand back the board to Chris as though it’s one of his possessions. There’s a real deadpan humor to this film, a sense that as dark as things are for the characters, they’re not yet so hopeless that laughter is impossible. Even Deel’s frenzied pursuit of the duo is frequently hilarious, especially when he runs into a succession of laconic rural types who might’ve been rejected extras for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. If nothing else, I don’t think Malick has ever made a film that’s this funny, nor one where the humor rubs so uncomfortably against the darker emotions at the story’s core.

JB: Well, giving credit to someone for being funnier than Malick is a little like patting someone on the back for being more somber than Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “Frequently hilarious” seems a bit far (though it certainly applies to the tow-truck scene), but I concede the larger point. Green isn’t explicitly tied to Malick, by any stretch; thematically he mixes his influences with the gusto of Tarantino. Visually, however, I maintain that Undertow is right out of the Malick portfolio, with mostly insignificant exception. In the same way that Tarsem’s The Fall seems made to sell Blu-ray players and high definition TVs, Undertow looks like it could be a late-1970s ad for Kodak film stock—albeit with dirty-fingered models. Ebert was too forgiving when he wrote that “we never catch [Green] photographing anything for its scenic or decorative effect,” because that presumes that only traditionally beautiful things can be ogled. Regardless, if Undertow’s only fault was being easy on the eyes, that would be no fault at all.

As I filtered through reviews at Metacritic over the course of our conversation, I noticed something that seems to further underline why the film has been overlooked. In the handful of reviews I sampled, Undertow was called a “fable,” a “Brothers Grimm tale,” a “thriller,” a “’balls-to-the-wall’ revenge story” and a “deep-fried piece of Sothern Gothic.” These aren’t necessarily antithetical descriptions, but they illustrate the difficulty with which someone might describe the film. All the Real Girls remains the Green film that I most cherish, and yet I agree that Undertow doesn’t deserve to be ignored. I’m thankful to have seen it. At the same time, I wait expectantly for the day when Green creates a film that cannot be forgotten.

EH: Although I obviously appreciate Undertow much more than you, we’re not entirely at opposite poles here, in that I’m also eager to see where Green goes next: I think Undertow is a promising indication of a great director breaking out rather than a mature masterpiece. It deserves to be remembered, and I hope there are others who love and enjoy it as much as I do, but more than anything I hope that Undertow serves as a stepping stone for even better work in Green’s future. And even if it means confounding those critics who want something they can easily describe, I hope that Green remains as unclassifiable and slippery as he is here. I’ve never bought into that old maxim about a story only being worthwhile if it can be summarized in a sentence. That doesn’t mean it’s a good story; it means it’s a simple one. That’s a screenwriter’s theorem for those who believe that a film’s strength lies in clearly and powerfully expressing a single idea, which is certainly a valid thing for a film to do but hardly the only valid thing. Green’s oeuvre thus far, particularly Undertow, is an eloquent rebuttal of this too-ingrained idea. It’s a film that deliberately contains traces of all the disparate attributes those Metacritic reviews mention, and yet it cannot be completely described by any of those phrases alone. To me, this evasiveness and restless creativity can only be a good thing, even if it isn’t the best way to attain commercial success. Like you, I look forward to watching Green develop further as a filmmaker, but I think I’ll always have a soft spot for the bizarre, messy pleasures of Undertow.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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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

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

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

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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.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art

Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.

A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.

Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.

Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here 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

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Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman

In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.

Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”

Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.

The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.

Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story

Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.

As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.

As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.

Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.

Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.

The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.

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

Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.

Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.

The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.

The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.

Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.

These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.

Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.

Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.

There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.

These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.

Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair

Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.

Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.

Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.

The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.

Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels

The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.

3

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.

Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.

Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.

Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).

Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.

Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.

So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.

Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.

So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.

Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.

From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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