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The Shape of Substance: Brian De Palma and The Function of Form

Maybe our mothers were right all along. Maybe true beauty really does come from within. Or doesn’t it?

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The Shape of Substance: Brian De Palma and The Function of Form

Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 09/17/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran.

Maybe our mothers were right all along. Maybe true beauty really does come from within. Or doesn’t it? A considerable part of today’s critical establishment would seem to agree with Mom’s assertion, for the tired “style over substance” rant is currently all too frequently aimed at films that display a dash of visual flair. In fact, some reviewers are so taken by the concept that they will praise a movie’s aesthetic only to lay bare the gaping emptiness underneath.

Just ask yourself how many times you’ve come across the following platitudes:

For all its visual splendor, this movie is really just a mindless piece of crap.”
“The film’s technical bravura can’t make up for its sluggish plot.”
“A typical case of flashy pictures camouflaging for shallowness.”
“Fortunately the director has kept the stylistic tomfoolery to a minimum.”
“If you like gee-whiz visual pyrotechnics above a decent story, this one’s for you.”

Apparently, looks are deceiving and we’d better believe the critics instead, for according to those who know best, the Holy Grail of cinema lies buried deep below its silver surface where absolutely no one is able see it.

The treachery of images

It’s not hard to figure out where this skepticism of visual style comes from. After all, we’ve all been fooled by appearances before. Whether it’s the luring call of commerce or the friendly face of politics, reality proved to us time and again that looks are not to be trusted. Much like our mothers used to tell us, it’s what’s inside the packaging that counts. So whenever we come face to face with a slick presentation, our antennae go up, our faith crumbles and the magic comes to a screeching halt as we try to see through the magician’s trick. If it looks impressive on the outside, we reckon, something rotten must be at the core: All style and no substance. It’s the knee-jerk response of a mediawise audience that has trained itself to distrust glossy surfaces. Seen through our world-weary eyes a pretty visage has thus become suspicious by definition and every blinking light, every bell and every whistle is more evidence against the defendant.

Fair enough, the entertainment industry sure loves those bells and whistles. And in spite of our skepticism, a part of us must love them too, because the average moviegoer pays big bucks to behold them. Without the slightest hint of guilt, we marvel at the latest breakthrough achievement in special effects, outrageous art direction, bling bling costume design or a set-wrecking stunt sequence. As long as we’re not expected to take the thrill anymore seriously than a theme park ride, we relish in superficiality as much as we look down upon it. Hardly surprising then, that directors of eye-popping Hollywood extravaganzas like The Mummy Returns, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Catwoman are more than happy to dazzle their audiences without having anything particular to say. If it’s flashy pictures we ask for, it is flashy pictures we’ll get.

But if we are to believe the critical “connoisseurs,” these derivative box office attractions are only the tip of the iceberg. Just check the reviews, in print and on the Web, and you’ll notice that the style-over-substance accusation is just as easily brought up in reference to offbeat fare like Lola Rennt, The Limey, Fight Club, In The Mood For Love, Elephant and Oldboy. This would imply that, according to quite a number of (largely self-proclaimed) experts, the names Tom Tykwer, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant and Chan-wook Park deserve to be thrown on the same pile as Stephen Sommers, Simon West, McG, Michael Bay, Stephen Norrington and Pitof. With all due respect to the latter league of hard-working gentlemen: Jean-Claude Van Damme may kick serious butt, he’s not exactly Sean Penn either, is he?

Even if we have good reasons to frown upon the hollow spectacle of the average blockbuster, it’s quite a different thing—not to say rather crass—to claim that a medium’s formalist qualities are only skin-deep. To claim that is to confuse aesthetics with cosmetics and to ridicule the meaning of form altogether. But precisely this has become the order of the day. A persistent focus on false appearances and communicative noise has caused audiences and critics alike to mistake the exception for the rule. As a result, we’ve arrived at a point where style in film is hardly taken seriously at all.

Have we forgotten that once upon a time, long long ago, style was not supposed to distract from the message, let alone disguise a lack of content? To the contrary: that style was supposed to express substance, reveal it, enhance it, complement it? And if we did forget all about pure cinema and effective communication, are we still able to separate the fancy gift wraps from the real thing?

Form Follows Function and other dictums

As it seems, evaluative film criticism analyzes style from a predominantly functionalist standpoint. There’d better be a solid motivation behind whatever fills the screen, no matter what. Actually, this very motive is about the only thing that interests most reviewers—the visuals themselves, or how they make us feel, pretty much leave them cold. It is telling for how lazy film criticism has become that reviewers don’t even bother to look for the meaning encrypted in the images. They’re attempting to read without an interest in the vocabulary.

In line with the famous modernist motto Form Follows Function—a principle that justifies stylistic choices as the organic consequence of a certain intended purpose—filmic form is almost exclusively appreciated for its utilitarian potential to ensure the fulfillment of a much Higher Goal: the story, or more particularly, its substance. This humble design philosophy never discouraged true modernists from establishing a not-so-humble artistic idiom all of their own. Some would even argue the Form-Follows-Function dictum was their mythical excuse to legitimize an out-and-out formalist aesthetic indeed. Cinema’s contemporary critical elite has all the same dispensed with every possible grain of salt to take the functionalist doctrine to new extremes.

In a nutshell, the “culturally correct” assumption is this: a substantial story equals a ripping yarn built around a lofty theme, played out by characters you can believe in and backed up by a fair amount of logic. Compared to this giant cornerstone of Good Taste, a movie style or form is seen as a redundant triviality, acceptable only insofar it doesn’t overshadow the fundamental narrative and serves the aforementioned intended purpose, being the narrative. Note the word “serves”—the substance police make it abundantly clear that the dominant position is already taken. Style has become the slave to story’s dominion instead of the elemental means of expression it ought to be.

I am not implying that there is something wrong with narrative film. Neither am I placing formalism above realism. The heart of the problem lies in a rather pointless but seemingly ineradicable distinction in film criticism that keeps emphasizing style as a separate entity from substance, whereas the one should be biologically connected to the other. Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard described this natural synthesis better than anybody else:

“To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.”

And still critics choose to splice the unity of style and content over and over again. A real pity, because Godard’s formulation carries style beyond the mere serviceable and offers a way of acknowledging form as the outward manifestation of content. This criterion—style as the shape of substance—may sound pretentious, but those who examine films accordingly are likely to hit upon levels of meaning overlooked by others.

Three degrees of style-driven cinema

Valid points could be made in favor of specific films that do value style over substance. To name but one: if style over substance is as despicable as some experts believe it to be, what makes substance over style more praiseworthy? But before we can truly begin to get our head around style’s significance, it should be made clear that the style-over-substance label isn’t just sloppily applied, but insufficient to begin with. The word “over” suggests that style prevails at the cost of substance—as if style by itself is incapable of prompting any thought. True in the case of Catwoman, for sure, but Elephant or The Limey hardly deserve the same qualification. With this in mind, it is reasonable to propose two degrees of style-driven cinema independent from style over substance: style as substance and substance in style.

In films that fall under the style as substance category, style takes on a substance of its own. These movies are, quite literally, about their style. In a visually oriented world, that must count for something. Estimable examples are just about any film by Quentin Tarantino, as well as Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, the Coen brother’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, Roman Coppola’s CQ, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Sin City by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Such titles are so filled to the brink with aesthetic value, mood, kinetic poetry and cultural reference that their stylistic bravado alone functions as a sort of exoskeleton holding the film together, even without the holy trinity of plot, theme and character development as traditional backbone. Predictable enough for something so dependent on style, whether you dig these movies or not is more a question of personal taste than anything else. No matter how well they’re put together, they are only as profound as they resonate for you. But however you may feel about them, at least they have plentiful personality.

Substance in style, the third degree of style-driven cinema, is something else entirely. And apart from the nametag I just gave it, it’s nothing new either; going back as it does to the cinema of old school formalists like Fritz Lang, Michael Powell and Orson Welles. These renowned visual stylists used form to evoke and flesh out an inherent message—hence substance in style. Lang, Powell and Welles never settled for style as the proverbial icing on the cake; their aesthetic sense was always an integral part of the whole baking process, down to the careful selection of only the finest spices and freshest ingredients to bring out that special pastry flavor. The result? Not your average brownie, that’s for sure. Their films are so tightly composed that form and content become near inseparable. A perfect harmony is achieved in a style that reinforces the story and a story that elicits the style in return. Sadly, new releases that pick up on this almost forgotten recipe are likely to be mistaken for brainless eye candy.

To say that substance in style is underrated these days would be an understatement. It is in desperate need of a re-appraisal. So let’s concentrate on the highest degree of style-driven cinema, then, and investigate a prime example. And while we’re conducting this inquiry, why not treat it like an actual case? We could assemble the facts and handle them as they would in court. You, the reader, can be the jury. Let’s see… Which visual stylist will we sue for this? But of course! Who else could be more appropriate than the usual suspect?

Your Honor, in the case of Style vs. Substance, I call to the stand the defendant:
Brian De Palma.

The peculiar case of Brian De Palma

How ironic can you get? The filmmaker who has arguably suffered most from the style-over-substance stigma—in itself the product of a deep-rooted skepticism of fancy appearances—has spent the better part of a career spanning four decades exploring the treachery of images as a central theme. Yet somehow, Brian De Palma’s stylistic sensibility consistently has been taken at face value.

What is behind this peculiar case of film critic’s myopia? Diversion, mostly. In a sense, De Palma made it way too easy for the prosecution to defeat him, having regularly handed his detractors the beating stick on a silver platter. Especially De Palma’s fondness for bloody set pieces involving luscious ladies in peril made him the favorite whipping boy for critics with a nut to crack about the deteriorating state of cinema.

An over-confident prosecution warms up the jury:

Look at all that gratuitous sex and violence! Look at all that high-buffed gloss, those showy camera angles! Those ridiculously far-fetched plot twists! Just look at the ripped-off sequences this fraud wants us to call “homages!” Surely such an oversized bag of tricks must mean the filmmaker in question has a lot of shallowness to compensate for.

The defense rises:

Objection, Your Honor! Counsel is arguing his case.

Objection sustained. Signature De Palma techniques like the split screen, the long take, slow motion and the stalking camera are usually dismissed as style for style’s sake, simply because they attract so much attention to themselves. It never occurs to the De Palma naysayers that these techniques do so for a reason: because there are messages encrypted in the form. Indeed, to “see through” the surface of De Palma’s cinematic design means missing the point completely. Its substance is in the style.

The prosecution bites:

Very well, let’s shed some light on this supposed collective blind spot to get a hint of what we are missing, shall we? How about Mr. De Palma’s self-reflexive use of slow motion? Surely there’s no way to defend this frivolous indulgence of the shameless aesthete?

The defense takes up the challenge and explains how slow motion is a technique De Palma has developed over many years and that its application can be justified for various reasons. To heighten the sense of urgency and create suspense in what normally would be surprise (Carrie, The Fury). To add emotional resonance and dramatically punctuate the narrative (Obsession, Casualties of War). To analyze cause and effect and deconstruct the method in the temporal madness (The Untouchables, Raising Cain). To give grace to tragedy and amplify the inevitable by suspending and almost freezing the time that’s bringing it (Blow Out, Femme Fatale). And finally to sustain moments that usually pass us by much too quickly and enrapture us with life’s naked essence. One could call that a “frivolous indulgence,” the defense calls it “pretty damn substantial.”

But we’re only scratching the surface, really. Let’s not isolate one technique from the larger objective. If we track back and overview De Palma’s erratic filmography—shifting as it does between hit and flop, cult, mainstream and avant-garde—a returning stylistic pattern becomes evident. Not only do his films frequently contradict with each other, they each contain a multitude of antagonisms of their own. They’re at once moral and manipulative, compassionate and calculating, gorgeous and repellent, spellbinding and unsettling, sardonic and rhapsodic, gloomy and sublime. Looking at a De Palma film is entering a land of paradox. No wonder the man has always inspired controversy: De Palma’s entire oeuvre is the pinnacle of conflict.

The prosecution can’t stand it any longer:

Objection, Your Honor. Lack of foundation. Pretty pictures may be the defendant’s specialty, but what’s the point? Stylistic coherence cannot pass for substance when ultimately it leads to nothing. Forget the form, where’s the meaning?

Overruled. The meaning is right there in the form. Right there in that recurring paradox motif. De Palma has explained himself as an artist who works on moral outrage. Another typical De Palma axiom: no matter how immoral his movies may appear (his talent for infusing all things nasty with poetry is legendary), at the heart they are intricate tales of morality. From the revenge fantasies that make up Carrie and The Fury to the cathartic moment of forgiveness in Casualties of War; from the fruitless run for redemption at the close of Blow Out to the divine second chance given in Femme Fatale; from the sleazy adventures of an all-American housewife to the hooker with a heart of gold in Dressed to Kill—they’re all vivid representations of the dualism between the righteous and the crooked, the vulnerable and the obscene, of predestination versus willpower, of crime and punishment.

De Palma’s characteristic use of discordant style elements like the double, parallel action sequences, split screen and split-diopter shots, rear projection, reverse angles, clashing archetypes and symbolic inversions serve not to show off his directing skills, but are there to help the viewer see both sides of the moral coin and explore the effect of contrarian choices during similar opportunities. What better way to lay bare the mechanisms of fate, choice, power, obsession and betrayal than to let your audience experience the subjectivity of truth firsthand through multiple points of view, or to follow two people who are either polar opposites or a close match within the same storyline? If the similarity is obvious, the difference will be easier to detect. And it’s the difference that matters in a morality tale; the difference between fortune and tragedy, life and death, innocence and guilt, failure and success. Knowing that nuance is to know right from wrong, or to realize how hard it is to make that difference.

Despite the archetypes and schematic structures, De Palma never arrives at a black and white conclusion. He deceives expectation to reveal there is no such thing as a single truth, or that our perception of it is incomplete. Even when his doubles expose a yin/yang dynamic right from the beginning, he complicates matters by reversing roles halfway through the film (Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne in Snake Eyes), juggling around with false identities (Gloria Revelle and Holly Body in Body Double, the face swapping in Mission: Impossible) or fusing his antagonists (Dr. Robert Elliott and Bobbi in Dressed to Kill, Carter and Cain in Raising Cain). This eloquent masquerade and constant shifting of perspective is what makes De Palma’s oeuvre so fascinatingly ambiguous. Ultimately, all his works share a uniquely personal vision on the duality of Man.

Kubrick vs. De Palma: two kinds of visual stylists

The trial suddenly takes a shocking turn when the prosecution is permitted to call for a surprise witness: none other that the great Stanley Kubrick! We hear a loud gasp and muttering from the corner of the defense. Just now that Style was making progress, in comes this other bearded American auteur known and, yes, actually respected for his formalistic excellence. This powerhouse director should be on the defendant’s side—they’re even linked thematically!—but oddly enough he’s here to testify in the name of Substance instead. Beads of sweat form on Mr. De Palma’s forehead. If there were one visionary with the baggage to crush his defense at the final hour, it would be this revered colleague.

The prosecution thanks the late Mr. Kubrick for coming:

We know you’re not much of a talker, especially in your current condition, so we’ll keep it short. You are without a doubt familiar with the defendant’s… how shall we put it… baroque stylistic idiom. The evidence shown over the course of this trial—location photographs, storyboards, computer models—have given us an idea about the excessive lengths Mr. De Palma is willing to go in order to establish his cinematic vision prior to shooting. One would presume that a skilled director like yourself is as concerned as Mr. De Palma when it comes to aesthetic matters like, say, the placing of the camera or the staging of a scene. Could you please tell the Court if you approve the formalist working tactic of the defendant?

From the witness box, Mr. Kubrick lets out a deep sigh:

I find that, with very few exceptions, it’s important to save your cinematic ideas until you have rehearsed the scene in the actual place you’re going to film it. The first thing to do is to rehearse the scene until something happens that is worth putting on film—only then should you worry about how to film it. The what must always precede the how.

Sound bites like these may not have won Kubrick any Oscars during his lifetime, but the members of the jury are nodding approvingly today. Aha! The what must always precede the how: Form Follows Function. This sounds more assuring than what the furious Mr. De Palma proclaimed earlier in the trial, when he interrupted the examination of substance-expert Marcia Pally by banging his fist on the table, shouting:

I’m a visual stylist, a VISUAL STYLIST! I’m dealing with a white canvas up there and I may be one of the few practitioners doing that today. […] The content of my films is a secondary issue. I don’t start with an idea about content; I start with a VISUAL IMAGE.

There it is. Style shapes substance instead of style serves substance. De Palma’s formalist working method is the antipode to Kubrick’s more widely accepted functionalist approach. His most personal films are, in his own words, “driven by visual ideas, as opposed to character-driven or story-driven.” Just listen to De Palma’s initial inspiration for making neo-noir thriller Femme Fatale:

I always wanted to make a movie with a film noir protagonist because I think these women are so much fun—they’re dark, they’re sexy, they’re manipulative. I tried to find a venue to make that work in and then I got this idea of putting this noir story into this dream sequence, because I don’t think you can do noir straight in a kind of realistic setting.

In De Palma’s case, form finds function. He uses a style element as starting point—in this case an archetype belonging to a specific genre he finds amusing—to later spin a story around it. Does this reversed working order have a noticeable impact over the end result? The judge gives the last word to Mr. Kubrick:

I think it’s worthwhile for anyone interested in filmmaking to study the contrast between the films of Eisenstein and those of Chaplin, which is another way of referring to the difference between style and content. The greatness of Eisenstein’s films represents the triumph of cinematic style over heavy-handed, often simple-minded content. Chaplin’s films are masterpieces of content, taste, and sensibility over what is virtually a noncinematic kind of technique. If I had to choose between the two, I would take Chaplin.

Ah, that settles it then! The prosecution smiles and lets the judge know it has no further questions. Mr. Kubrick continues:

Fortunately, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive…

Absolute silence in the courtroom. Oh my, the witness just blew the case! Read Kubrick’s last sentence again: The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. This goes a long way to explaining why Kubrick’s films were stylistically just as revisionist as they were in terms of content, and why the seemingly superficial qualities of De Palma’s films prove more complex and multilayered with each subsequent viewing.

Even if De Palma’s working method might not have worked for Kubrick, it’s just another approach to arrive at basically the same thing. Whereas Kubrick’s cinematic visions were tailor-made to fit a predetermined subject of interest, De Palma trusts his formalist instincts to intuitively lead him to the root of his obsession. That doesn’t mean that Kubrick was a poorer visual stylist or that De Palma has fewer things to say; it just means different artists draw from different sources of inspiration. De Palma’s starting point is the form, for Kubrick it was content. Yet unlike Chaplin and Eisenstein, these two visual stylists meet each other halfway because of a shared interest in using the medium to its fullest.

Closing statement

My impression is that “style over substance” is less the skeptic’s phrase than it is the cynic’s. Its increased usage within critical circles indicates an ignorance of, or even latent contempt for, the unique possibilities of the cinematic art form. I wonder where this sarcasm stems from. Is it because reviewers today hold craftsmanship in higher esteem than artistry? Is it because film criticism puts too much emphasis on the mighty mechanics of plot, psychology and plausibility? Or is it simply the medium’s unparalleled photographic realism that urges critics to judge movies by naturalistic rather than aesthetic standards?

Probably all of the above. But whatever the reasons, they can’t be reason enough for style to be critically less regarded in the world of cinema than it is in the realms of literature, painting, design, architecture and performing arts. Have you ever stumbled upon a critical bashing of Shakespeare’s ornamental use of the iambic pentameter? I didn’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury… Have you reached a verdict?

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

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

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here aht the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.

Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.

Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973

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

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

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

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

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

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


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

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


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

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


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

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


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

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

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

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

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

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

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

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

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

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

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

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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