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Understanding Screenwriting #100: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run

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Understanding Screenwriting #100: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run

Coming Up In This Column: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run, Paul, 5 Fingers, The Password is Courage, The Closer/Major Crimes, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes indeed, folks, this is the one hundredth Understanding Screenwriting column. Since it is a virtual column, we are celebrating with a virtual party. Step over to the virtual table and have a piece of the virtual cake. Didn’t the decorator do a great job recreating my picture from US#99 of the Cattle Pocket in the Alabama Hills? At the other end of the table is the virtual popcorn. You will need a real hand wipe to clean the butter off your hands. In the virtual ice chest, you will find virtual Diet Cherry Coke and virtual Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper. Enjoy, enjoy.

Keith asked me a while ago if I wanted to stop the column at 100, a nice round number. I told him I was having way too much fun doing it. I intend to keep on doing it until, to use a line of my brother’s, it starts interfering with my naps.

In the Fan Mail category, “Lylebot” picked up on the comments “eyesprocket” had that I responded to about learning how to understand screenwriting from this column. Lylebot notes that he is not a would-be screenwriter (he obviously doesn’t live in LA), but a scientist and just interested in learning in general about screenwriting. I always liked to have non-film majors in my classes at LACC because they brought interesting points of view. I can see why Lylebot doesn’t have a great interest in the technical stuff, or my whacking the screenwriting gurus. He’s interested in the process of writing, and I think he and I can agree that you can learn a lot about writing in general from screenwriting, especially in they area of structure. He notices that in the item on Bourne Legacy I mention screenwriting only in talking about the new character in one paragraph, but then talk about other things. I may have misled him, because in my comments in the Fan Mail section I suggested that in the Legacy item that would be one element you could find. This is why I never told my students in advance “Here are the five important things you should learn from Citizen Kane.” If I did that, those five things were the only things they would find. Most of the other stuff in the Legacy item has to do with how the screenwriting is carried through in the production of the film.

Lylebot brings up a crucial point, one that anybody writing about screenwriting has to deal with: how much description of the plot and the characters do you have to give? I wrestled with this in the book Understanding Screenwriting and I wrestle with it on every item in the column. And sometimes I lose the wrestling match, and there is way more description than I need, but I try to keep cutting stuff to just the essentials the reader needs to understand what I am getting at. I am sure Lylebot sometimes runs into that in scientific writing as well. Lylebot is also right that sometimes I shortchange the analysis, which is especially noticeable if I have over-described. It’s a constant struggle. But one worth having, at least from my perspective.

Tom Block commented on his trip to Lone Pine, pointing out there are a lot of film locations in the area, not just the ones I mentioned. He also had a link to his blog so you can see his pictures of what he did there on his summer vacation.

And David Ehrenstein and I agreed, for the fourth time in recent weeks, on something. The sound you hear is hell freezing over.

Ruby Sparks (2012. Written by Zoe Kazan. 104 minutes)

She’s no Eliza Doolittle: Calvin is a thirtyish writer who had a big success with a novel he wrote in high school. And he has not been able to write another one. Oh, boy, those are danger signs all over place. Watching writers write is boring. Watching them not write is even more boring. And he goes to a shrink, so we are going to have some more boring scenes in which they talk about it. Fortunately Kazan understands the problems and avoids most of them. The exposition we get about Calvin comes very quickly. We also see he is socially inept, because he cannot even score with a young woman at a book reading who is dying to do him. And it is the shrink who suggests that Calvin just sit down and write something, anything, to get the words going. That’s a standard piece of advice to writers who have writer’s block, by the way, since it gives you permission to turn off the critical side of your brain, at least for a while.

So Calvin starts writing (on a typewriter, no less; well, maybe it’s his lucky typewriter, although with ten years since his last novel, I would think not so lucky) and on the page creates Ruby. And she comes to life. We and others in the film assume she is just a figment of Calvin’s imagination, and Kazan has some witty ways to teach us all that Ruby is real. Shortly after the halfway point, Calvin takes Ruby to a family gathering to meet his hippie parents, and the picture begins to go off the rails. Ruby is much more outgoing than Calvin and fits in better with his family than he does. But Kazan doesn’t develop that idea. Nor does she have Ruby turn into an independent woman on her own. She’s not threatening to run off with Freddy Eynsford-Hill. One can be glad that Kazan doesn’t follow the standard pattern in Pygmalion stories, but she does not replace it with much. Calvin gets upset that Ruby only does what he wants, or what he writes. This gives us a dramatic scene where Calvin writes Ruby happy, which she becomes, then sad, which she becomes, etc. Kazan is also an actress and plays Ruby, and I suspect this scene is what made her want to write the story this way. The scene is a real actor’s showcase, but as with many such scenes, it takes us out of the story. Kazan could have developed this better.

Eventually Calvin and “his” Ruby break up, he writes the story in a novel, which is a big bestseller. And then he runs into a woman who looks exactly like Ruby. Well, she’s also played by Kazan. And she seems to be exactly like Ruby, which is a very weak ending. If Calvin learned anything from this experience, it ought to have been that he could deal with a real woman. It would not have taken more than a couple of lines to establish this new woman as completely different from Ruby. It might have made for a better film is this final scene happened a little earlier and we got to watch Calvin deal with the new woman.

Premium Rush (2012. Written by David Koepp & John Kamps. 91 minutes)

Premium Rush

This is how you make a B movie: David Koepp is best known for his scripts for big blockbusters: the first two Jurassic Park movies, the first Mission: Impossible movie, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). He has also written and sometimes directed smaller films. He was the writer of Panic Room (2002), a great “enclosed space” thriller, and he co-wrote with John Kamps and directed Ghost Town (2008), which I wrote about in US#33. Premium Rush is one of his smaller films, and the script is a perfect model of how it should be done.

The plot is simple: Wilee (as in Wile E. Coyote) is a bicycle messenger in New York City. He is assigned to deliver an envelope before 7. A bad guy will do anything to get his hands on the envelope. So right away you have action establishing Wilee zipping in and out of New York traffic, with all the comments from drivers as he goes by. So we know this is going to be a very kinetic film, to put it modestly. As with so much in this script, we don’t get any more than we need to know about Wilee’s character: he loves speed, he has no gears on his bike, and no brakes as well. He has a girlfriend, Vanessa, who is also a messenger, which is useful for later plot developments, and she is being hit on by another messenger. And that’s all we know about them. And all we need to know up front.

Wilee picks up a slim envelope from Nima, a young Asian woman at Columbia. Nima has roomed with Vanessa, and uses the bike messenger service for the university, so her asking for the service makes sense. Before he can get off the Columbia campus, he is stopped by a man who says he is with university security and needs the envelope back. Wilee doesn’t give it to him, partly because security of the packages is guaranteed by his company. I would have thought he would have been suspicious of anyone who claims his name is Forrest J. Ackerman, but neither Wilee nor anybody in the audience I saw it with picked up on that. We know “Ackerman,” actually a cop named Monday, is not a good guy, but look at how long before we find out how bad he really is. Monday is played by the great Michael Shannon, who bears a slight resemblance to David Letterman, so when Monday is in high dudgeon he seems like Letterman at his crankiest. Well, I thought that was funny.

Koepp and Kamps are as careful as Burt Kennedy is in the Ranown films to hold off telling us useful information until we would kill our grandmothers to know it. Look at how long it takes us to find out what’s in the envelope: a movie theater stub with a smiley face. Big help; look at how long it takes for us to find out what that means. And even longer to find out why. Koepp and Kamps understand that you will need some quieter scenes as a change of pace from all the bike scenes and they use those to catch up on the plot points, rather than delve into character. And then we are ready to get on the road again. The writers also borrow a trick from Buster Keaton’s The General (1927). In that film Keaton is chasing his engine in the first half, then being chased by the Union army in the second half. Wilee is chased by Monday in the first half, then Wilee has to chase down the messenger (the one who hits on Vanessa, of course; nothing wasted here) before he delivers the envelope to Monday at the wrong address. And the writers save some of their best invention for the last: Wilee has to escape from a police impound warehouse, which means riding his bike over the cars and trucks there.

Not only is the script good, but Koepp as the director understands something very basic about speed on film. It does not matter how fast an object is going if we cannot feel its speed. You have all seen establishing shots of jet airliners flying through the sky. They are traveling 400 to 500 miles an hour, but you cannot tell because you have nothing to judge them against. A bike going through New York traffic here gives us a sense of the bike’s speed relative to everything else. Koepp’s cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen has shot a lot of second unit stuff for big action movies so he knows how to make it look great. That’s not true of the next film.

Hit & Run (2012. Written by Dax Shepard. 100 minutes)

Hit & Run

This is not how you make a B movie: Well, the opening is sort of charming. Charlie and Annie are in bed talking about the present, how this day is going to be great, how it…where the hell are Burt Kennedy, David Koepp and John Kamps when you need them? The dialogue in this film is anything but laconic, and a lot of it has the air of having been improvised by the actors, but then not shaped either in the rewriting or editing. Shepard not only wrote the script, but plays Charlie, and is the co-director as well. He and Kristin Bell as Annie, make a semi-charming if loquacious couple. Annie learns that she has the opportunity for a great new job running a new department at a university. Which university? Well, it’s UC, as University of California. But there are several UCs throughout the state. Charlie and Annie eventually wind up in Los Angeles, which would make it UCLA, but it’s never called that in the film.

Annie has to go to this UC, whichever one it is, for a job interview. Great, Charlie can drive her (I am not sure they establish why she just can’t drive herself). Ah, there’s a problem. Charlie, full name Charlie Bronson, is in the Witness Protection Program and the people who want to do him harm are in…Los Angeles. Now as a longtime fan of In Plain Sight, I have picked up a thing or two about Witsec. Shepard apparently never watched the show, or just got sloppy. Charlie has managed to keep his car from the old days, which Mary Shannon would have driven off a cliff by the first commercial break. He has told Annie he is in Witsec; Mary would have slapped him upside the head for that. And Annie has told her ex-boyfriend about Charlie in Witsec. OK, as we know from In Plain Sight, the people in the program can behave stupidly, but this seems excessive. On the other hand, the marshal watching out for Charlie is no Mary Shannon. He is Randy, and he cannot seem to do anything right. He’s funny in some scenes, but just over the top in others. The one good laugh in the film comes from how Randy’s sexual orientation is revealed.

So Charlie and Annie go off. Her ex, Gil, sees them driving off in Charlie’s old car, gets the registration, which is in Charlie’s real name, and finds out about Charlie’s case. Did I mention that Shepard is sloppy? Try this: Gil is already Facebook friends with Alex, the head of the gang that’s after Charlie. So car chases ensue. And Shepard and his co-director David Palmer, do not have a clue how to film speeding cars. We get lots of shots of cars driving down the highway, but very little sense of how fast they are going. The chase will stop eventually, and then start up again, stop, start up again. Shepard does not use those non-chase moments for anything interesting, the way Koepp and Kamps do. Shepard’s idea of a changeup is to have Charlie and Anna switch cars.

Koepp and Kamps use Wilee’s occupation in interesting ways. Annie is a specialist in conflict resolution, but never see her use whatever her skills might be. OK, Alex has a gun and just wants the money he thinks Charlie has hidden, but you could have written a couple of very inventive scenes of Annie outhustling him with her skills. Nothing of the sort appears here.

Shepard has gathered so many of his friends for this film that, because the script is so mediocre, the film feels like a home movie. Most of the actors are given free reign; Tom Arnold does a nice job with Randy, and Jason Bateman has a great understated scene as a marshal. Bradley Cooper, trying to break out of leading man parts, is Alex, but the script does not give him anything inventive to do. A wasted opportunity, as is the film.

Paul (2011. Written by Simon Pegg & Nick Frost. 104 minutes)

Paul

This could have gone wrong in so many ways: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been working together, mostly as actors, for over a decade. Pegg co-wrote and he and Frost starred in both Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), but this is the first time they have collaborated as writers on a feature. I never caught Shaun, but I did see Hot Fuzz. The latter was funny, but awfully sloppy, especially in the writing. So I gave Paul a miss when it was in theaters last year, but caught up with it now via HBO. It is much sharper than Hot Fuzz, and it avoids the pitfalls of the story they set out to tell.

Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British comic book geeks who have finally managed to make a trip to America. Here’s the first hurdle the writers get over: Graeme and Clive are likeable. Give us likeable characters and we will follow you, even to ComicCon. Yes, ComicCon is nowadays a very easy target, but the writers don’t dawdle. And we get a nice scene with the guys and sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild, who is obviously tired of meeting the public. Note his bottle of hand sanitizer. Then Graeme and Clive hit the road, intending to stop at all the standard UFO spots: Area 51, Roswell, etc. And when they get to Area 51, who do they run into in a diner but Pat Stewart, the waitress. That could be not much of a scene, but Pat is played by Jane Lynch, who you want for those three or four minutes. Lynch also shows up at the end and nails a great scene with Kristen Wiig in which you get a whole set of possibilities for their relationship in five or six lines. And next the boys pick up Paul. Paul is an alien, who has just escaped government captivity. He looks like all the images of aliens. He is not, however, a sweetheart like E.T. He is foulmouthed, but that is not all he is. He has learned a lot about American culture in his sixty years of captivity and he has contributed to it as well, as a great little cameo shows. Graeme and Clive, who have seemed similar, have two different reactions to Paul, so we get some character dynamics between them.

They stop at a trailer park and end up picking up Ruth. In a typical Hollywood version of this story, she would be a buxom, dim-witted blonde. She’s not. She is a born-again Christian who does not believe in evolution (check out her T-shirt), at least not until Paul shows her the light. Then she decides she does not have to be a goodie-two-shoes anymore. In the typical Hollywood version we would get a lot of nudity and simulated sex. Not here. We get her trying to learn how to swear. She’s an amateur at it, and listen to the lines Pegg and Frost give her. Yes, I am aware that some of them may have improvised (Kristen Wiig plays Ruth), but the writers obviously laid out the template for the improvisations. As opposed to Hit & Run, the writers here have given their new BFFs a lot of great stuff to say and do.

Needless to say, Paul and the guys are being chased, and the director Greg Mottola is just as good with chases as he is with actors. The senior officer of the case is Agent Zoil, played by Jason Bateman, and he is even better here than in Hit & Run, because he has better material. His underlings are Haggar and O’Reilly. They are klutzes, and most writers would leave them at that, but Pegg and Frost given them their own plot, which complicates everything. Although our guys set out for Roswell, they end up in Wyoming, where Paul first landed. And we meet the little girl who saw him land. She is now an old lady, living alone, because everybody has always made fun of her for claiming to have seen a flying saucer. Blythe Danner is wonderfully sympathetic in the part, and then the guys give her a great pay-off line as they drive away from the farm. So why, other than to see her, are we in Wyoming? Didn’t you see Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

5 Fingers (1952. Screenplay by Michael Wilson and, uncredited, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the book Operation Cicero by L.C. Moyzisch. 108 minutes)

5 Fingers

Epistemological thrillers: I watched this one again several months ago and have been meaning to write about it ever since. As I was writing this column in the dog days of summer film releases and before the fall TV season started, it seemed the time to do this one and the one that follows. I had another movie on DVD from Netflix that I was going to watch. I had made lunch, along with a big bowl of popcorn. But the DVD was flawed and would not play. I am not about to waste a good bowl of popcorn, so I went through my collection and pulled out my VHS copy of 5 Fingers. (There is a DVD out, but it is a Korean one and sort of a mess, at least according to those who bought it on Amazon). The film is one of the greatest spy movies of all time.

L.C. Moyzisch was an attaché at the German embassy in Anakara, Turkey, during World War II. He was approached by a man offering to sell him photos of classified English documents. Moyzisch, with the approval of his superiors, made the deal, giving the spy the code name Cicero. Cicero delivered. And delivered. And finally delivered documents that outlined the plans for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. And the Germans did not believe any of it. Well, some of them did, and some of them didn’t, and nobody took action on the information. This may well have been because the British Double Cross system, which ran all the German spies in England and some elsewhere, had been feeding the Germans misinformation, letting them know the invasion was going to be at Calais. There is, by the way, a great new book by Ben MacIntyre called Double Cross, about five of the major double agents the Brits used. In any case, the Germans did not believe Cicero’s information. Moyzisch wrote his book about it in the later ‘40s, and 20th Century-Fox picked it up.

The screenplay, a fictionalized documentary version, was written by Michael Wilson before he was blacklisted. His structure and scenes are terrific. His Cicero is named Diello. The name of the real Cicero was Elyesa Bazna, and you can read the Wikipedia entry for him here. Wilson makes Diello a former valet to the Count Stavski, and now friend and lover to his widow, the Countess Stavski. There was no such character in real life, but it gives the film a smart romantic element. As in real life, Diello was the valet to the British ambassador, who made the mistake of bringing classified material up to his private quarters. He kept it in a safe, which Cicero easily broke into to photograph the documents. A new alarm system was finally Cicero’s undoing, but he escaped the British and the Germans, who wanted to kill him as well. In the film he ends up in Rio, but the Countess has earlier skipped town in Turkey and gone to Switzerland. Diello is alone with his money.

Darryl Zanuck was trying to keep Joseph L. Makiewicz on the Fox lot. Mankiewicz had recently won Oscars for both writing and directing for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950) and was anxious to get out from under Zanuck’s thumb. Mankiewicz loved the story and agreed to direct the film. He also agreed to do an uncredited rewrite. Several things I have always assumed were Mankiewicz contributions turn out to be in Wilson’s script. The Countess, whom Mankiewicz renamed Staviska to make her more feminine, seems like a typical Mankiewicz woman, which may be why he was attracted to the story, but she is a creation of Wilson. Mankiewicz certainly redid the dialogue. Wilson claimed Mankiewicz did not change that much, but Mankiewicz’s biographer Kenneth Geist (his book is Pictures Will Talk and most of the information about the film is from it) compared the screenplays and found more Mankiewicz than Wilson in the dialogue. Geist quotes the Wilson and Mankiewicz versions of one scene and you can see the difference. The dialogue is so good that during a screening several years ago at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX), there was a spontaneous round of applause after one great dialogue scene. You just did not hear that kind of great dialogue in films in the 1980s.

Wilson and Mankiewicz give us a great final scene, which I for many years assumed was probably fictional. The Countess, who has been keeping Diello’s money, escapes with it to Switzerland. Diello makes one last score (the Overlord documents) and goes to Rio. He is living the life of luxury when his banker shows up to tell him the British bank notes with which he opened his account are all forgeries. The forgeries have also turned up, he says, in Switzerland. Diello tosses his money in the air and laughs.

In the early 1980s we were visiting friends in Lancaster, England, and they suggested we watch a rerun of a miniseries they had loved. It was called Private Schulz (1981), in which the main character, a German forger, is ordered to make…British currency. I don’t remember if I literally slapped my forehead, but I knew that was the money they gave to Diello and the Countess. Since the Germans did not believe his material, why should they pay him real money? There was also a 2007 German film on the subject called The Counterfeiters.

Why didn’t the Germans believe him? As I mentioned, the British Double Cross system had them convinced the invasion was going to be at Calais. Secondly, as MacIntrye in his book and Christopher Andrew in his history of MI5, Defend the Realm, make clear, the Germans were incredibly thick-headed and easy to deceive. But beyond that, the Cicero story raises the basic epistemological questions about all intelligence work. And historical research for that matter, especially film history. How do we know what we know? How do we evaluate the information we get? What is the source? How can we know if the source is playing us, either deliberately or not? Most of those questions get raised by the characters in 5 Fingers.

At the end of 5 Fingers, the Countess sends notes to both the British and German ambassadors saying Cicero is working for the other side. He may well have been. John Masterman, one of the men who ran the Double Cross system, later claimed that Cicero was a double agent working for the British. I find this doubtful, since the whole Double Cross system was devoted to giving the Germans the wrong information and Cicero was giving them the real stuff. Masterman may have been covering up a rumor that Mankiewicz discovered during his location shooting in Turkey: that Bazna was the gay lover of the British ambassador. Needless to say, the 1952 film does not even suggest that, although James Mason is a lot better looking that Bazna was.

Bazna never left Turkey since the Brits and the Germans were not out to kill him. He later wrote an autobiography…but why should we believe any of it? Watch the movie instead. Wilson and Mankiewicz are great tellers of tales in their own right.

The Password is Courage (1962. Screenplay by Andrew Stone, based on the book by John Castle. 116 minutes)

The Password is Courage

Speaking of epistemological problems: This is the other one I saw a few months back. It’s the story of Charles Coward, who had a knack for escaping from German prisoner of war camps. The book the film is based on spends more time on his more famous adventures than the film does. Coward claimed to have broken into Auschwitz and rescued hundreds of Jews. Many of those claims have since been called into question, since Coward was very imprecise about the names of those he saved. The film is a more lighthearted look at his time at Stalag Luft III. Hmm, that place sounds familiar. It was the prison camp in The Wooden Horse (1950, which I reviewed in US #75 ), as well as the one in The Great Escape (1963, which I mentioned slightly in US#78). So what we have here is a film going over territory that by now we pretty much know. Since this version is mostly Coward’s version, it appears from the film that he was Big X, and the Scrounger, and…well, nearly everybody. Which we would find mildly amusing, except that the scenes that Stone writes, presumably from the book, are not a patch on the ones the various writers on The Great Escape developed. I wrote in US#78 about how much I liked the tailor scene in Escape, since the tailor behaving like a real tailor gave it texture. Here the equivalent scene is flat and literal. And so it goes in the rest of the script.

The script does give Stone, who also directed, a chance to do some action scenes of the kind he loved. He liked the physicality of the real thing. In his 1960 film The Last Voyage, he actually shot on board a sinking luxury liner. He here he stages a nice, full-sized, no-model-work train wreck. Andrew Sarris, writing about Stone in The American Cinema, says, “If they [his wife was his editor] want to blow up a train, they blow up a real train.” Then Sarris has “One sobering conclusion: If the Stones had made On the Beach [1959, about the end of the world], none of us would have been around to review it.”

The Closer/Major Crimes (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes)

The Closer

Going and coming: After seven seasons, Brenda Leigh Johnson is leaving Major Crimes and going to work in administration for the District Attorney, thus bringing The Closer to an end. Brenda Leigh was a great character. She was a tough Southern woman put into the macho Los Angeles Police Department. She loved Twinkies, always said “Thank Ye-e-e-w,” and was ruthless in the Box. She was as good as Frank Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Street at sweating people into confessing. She was often on the outs with her boss and former lover, Chief Pope, but not in the usual rouge-cop-versus-by-the-book-boss way. She was a character with a lot of nuance along with her hard-driving personality. And she had a great supporting cast of characters. I have written before on several occasions about how the writers use the reactions of the members of her squad for both drama and comedy. Her mom and dad showed up, but they were not given as much time as Mary’s family in In Plain Sight, thank goodness. Fritz, Brenda Leigh’s boyfriend/husband, was a little too good to be true, but that was only a minor flaw.

Why was Brenda Leigh leaving? Because Kyra Sedgwick, the actress playing her, wanted to leave the show. Brenda Leigh was a very intense character, and I can see why Sedgwick might want to give her up after seven years. Actors very often get tired doing the same character over and over again, either in television, movies (Sean Connery giving up Bond), or the theater. Actress Irene Tsu, the former student of mine I have written about before, once told me she hated to do theater because she didn’t like doing the same thing over and over again. So Sedgwick left the best role she ever had to do…The Possession (2012). Actors.

Rather than close down the show completely, the powers that be decided to continue it. In 2009 the show brought on Captain Sharon Raydor as kind of a watchdog over Brenda Leigh. Raydor plays her cards very close to her vest, so we never quite knew if she was supporting Brenda Leigh, or about to rat her out to her bosses or opposing attorneys. On The Closer we learned very little about her, and that added tension to the show. The powers that be have now spun off a new show from The Closer called Major Crimes, in which Raydor replaces Brenda Leigh as the head of the Major Crimes unit. Chief Pope has gone on to become Chief of Police, and Sgt. Gabriel has gone off with Brenda Leigh. The rest of the squad remains. So far it has been a bumpy start.

Because Raydor has never been as open about her emotions as Brenda Leigh was, there are not the kind of great scenes you had with her predecessor. We have learned that she was married, is now separated from her husband, and has grownup kids. That does not really help us much in the stories the writers are telling. In her first episodes, she is taking care of a teenage male hustler named Randy, a witness in a murder investigation, but the scenes with him are not very interesting. Raydor does not have a specific talent the way Brenda Leigh did. She and the Deputy District Attorney want to make deals with the criminals to save the money of trials, but discussing a plea bargain is just not as compelling as an interrogation. There is some friction between her and the squad, especially Provenza, who objects to the plea-bargaining, but it’s minor. You have a good supporting cast of characters, but Raydor has not really been re-conceived as a star part. In The Closer, the cast was supporting and not just an ensemble. It remains to be seen whether the writers can get the balance right.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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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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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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Review: Our Time Doggedly, Elliptically Considers the Costs of Partnership

The film elides politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

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Our Time
Photo: Monument Releasing

Filmed in low, awesomely wide angles, the series of vignette-like scenes that make up the lengthy opening sequence of Carlos Reygardas’s Our Time are a sociological survey in miniature, observing the nature of the interactions between people of the opposite sex at various ages. Young girls fuss with a broken beaded necklace as boys, sticks in hand, go marauding through a shallow, muddy lake surrounded by distant mountains. “Let’s attack the girls,” one of them says, as they disrupt a gossip session among pre-teen girls on a large innertube. With a slipstream rhythm, the action pivots to older teens experimenting with alcohol and drugs and maneuvering sexual attraction and frustration. After a while, we arrive at the grown-ups, a set of urbane, cosmopolitan ranchers who haven’t left any of this behind.

The backdrop of this sequence, which lasts from bright daytime to well past dusk, recalls the simultaneously transcendent and frightening opening of Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, depicting a child alone in the wild. In his first collaboration with a new cinematographer (Diego García, who shot Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendour), Our Time retains some of the director’s penchant for specialized lenses—like fisheye—and prismatic lens flare, but their effect is muted relative to the sometimes outrageous transcendentalism of his previous work. Reygadas’s latest unfolds more in the mold of recent work by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, relentlessly probing the more stubborn and outdated aspects of modern masculinity.

Reygadas himself plays Juan, a renowned poet and the owner of a ranch outside Mexico City, and the filmmaker’s wife, Natalia López, stars as Juan’s spouse, Esther, who manages the ranch. (Their children, Rut and Eleazar Reygadas, play Juan and Esther’s two younger children, with Yago Martínez in the role of their teenage son.) The family is rarely alone, and they retain domestic help and numerous cowboys to manage the bulls and horses on their property. At the party that opens the film, Esther connects with an American horse trainer named Phil (Phil Burgers) and begins an affair that gradually undoes her marriage. Our Time is, by all accounts, a pretty faithful biographical account of Reygadas and López’s recent marital troubles.

The conflict between Juan and Esther, which elevates from a gentle simmer to physical outbursts over the course of the film, isn’t merely about lust; it’s also about semantics and self-presentation. The couple have long had an open marriage—an allusion to Juan’s ex-wife suggests this decision was an effort to avoid past mistakes—so Juan’s feeling of betrayal is less about Esther sleeping with Phil than it is about her concealing the act, along with her continued communication with him. In his roles as writer and director, Reygadas crafts Juan as a self-styled progressive and empath. Unlike the patriarch in Post Tenebras Lux, who ran headlong into class warfare, Juan is exceedingly companionable with his hired help and open-hearted toward his children. Though class markers are everywhere in Our Time, from Juan’s clean chaps to his conversations with relatives of his workers (one requests that Juan “sponsor” him with the purchase of a new race car), the film elides these politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

As politics drop out of his purview, Reygadas integrates nature—typically an external force of rapture and terror in his work—into his study of human behavior. Often, he does this in the most prosaic of ways, twice transitioning from arguments to instances of wild bulls picking violent fights. At the same time, the ranch is a haven in Juan’s very image, and he treats moments like these as violations of his peaceful dominion. Reygadas explores Esther’s psychology in more interesting ways, sending her to a timpani performance (by Mexican percussionist Gabriela Jiménez), which is shot with such urgency that it feels like a heavy metal concert, conjuring Esther’s turmoil as she texts with Phil in a symphony hall that would be pitch black if not for the slight glow of her phone.

With limited evidence that their affair is continuing, Juan’s fixation on Esther’s interest in Phil yields a handful of lengthy discourses on Juan’s fears for their future. His words are eminently judicious, but they wear Esther down, until she reacts to him with physical sickness and increasing desperation. Their distance yields Reygadas’s boldest narrative tactic, which is to effectively turn our time into an epistolary three-way romance for an entire act of the film. Juan, Phil, and Esther all dispassionately say their piece in voiceover monologues reciting letters and emails they’ve written to one another (one is recited over a bravura shot captured from the landing gear of a plane). In odd instances, a few of these communiques are read by one of Juan and Esther’s children, a suggestion that they understand what is happening or are perhaps fated to make the same mistakes as their parents.

Our Time’s foundation as a sort of Knaussgardian, auto-fictional overshare may account for both its curiously absent politics and what for Reygadas as unusually vibrant, dimensional characters. (Phil, an inane lunk trying to reconcile conflicting orders about whether or not to have sex with Esther, doesn’t achieve such depth.) Though the film suffers in its later scenes, as Reygadas turns Juan’s anxieties into actions and assures us that this auteurist self-portrait is appropriately self-excoriating, Our Time is remarkably balanced in considering both sides of its central marriage. As Juan’s mixed emotions unfurl in lucid, bountiful words, López reveals in simple gestures and shifts of position how Juan’s behavior has robbed Esther of her independence. Though artistically tame by Reygadas’s standards, Our Time doggedly pursues ugly truths about how partnership necessarily requires the sacrifice of one’s agency.

Cast: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Phil Burgers, Eleazar Reygadas, Rut Reygadas, Yago Martinez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 177 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Blue Note: Beyond the Notes Trumpets the Freedom of Jazz

The documentary proves that the history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself.

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Blue Note: Beyond the Notes
Photo: Eagle Rock Entertainment

The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.

Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.

The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)

Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.

Director: Sophie Huber Screenwriter: Sophie Huber Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Being Frank Is Cringe Comedy of the Most Nonsensical Sort

The film sends the curious message that any time spent with an abusive parent is time well spent.

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Being Frank
Photo: The Film Arcade

Miranda Bailey’s Being Frank immediately homes in on the tensions that divide a perversely controlling father, Frank (Jim Gaffigan), and his moody 17-year-old son, Philip (Logan Miller). In this dark comedy’s early stretches, the filmmakers pay reasonably nuanced attention to Philip’s anger and frustration over his father’s domineering ways and constant traveling for work. But when the teen sneaks off to a nearby resort town for spring break and conveniently discovers that his father has an entirely separate family there—thus explaining Frank’s frequent work trips to “Japan”—the film quickly drops all pretenses of authenticity as it starts to seemingly lay the groundwork for a revenge comedy in which Philip wields his newfound knowledge against his hypocritical father.

As Philip works his way into the good graces of Frank’s second family, he delights in his father’s perpetual discomfort, particularly as the teen’s half-sister, Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), unaware of their blood relation, develops a crush on him. For a while, the screenplay by Glen Lakin is content to mine middling yet harmless cringe comedy from the awkward collision of two worlds that Frank had planned on keeping forever apart. Soon, however, Philip decides to not only forgive his father, who’s done nothing short of make his life a living hell, but to conspire with him to continue protecting his secret. It’s at this point that Being Frank takes a bizarre and completely unconvincing turn toward a conciliatory buddy comedy as Philip becomes an inexplicable co-conspirator in his father’s web of lies.

For a while, you may be willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, as Philip would appear to be motivated to protect his mother, Laura (Anna Gunn), and sister, Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander), from the truth, as well as make his father squirm. But after Philip chooses to remain in the resort town and subsequently endures the torture of seeing Frank appear happier and more laidback with his second family, his endgame becomes increasingly muddled. As his initial gratification at finally having the edge on his father morphs into pity and compassion, his actions become more senseless, as if driven solely by narrative demands that require him to stick around simply to set up the requisite show of father-son bonding.

Once Laura also shows up at the resort town and inevitably stirs up more trouble for her husband, Being Frank only leans further into its farcical elements, losing all perspective on the psychological damage Frank’s behavior has caused to those around him, especially to his son. As Frank’s carefully constructed double life begins to unravel, he’s eventually held accountable for his deceitful actions by at least a few people, yet his relationship with Philip somehow remains not only intact but also grows stronger. Although Frank’s frequent manipulation of his son is often couched in humor, the film’s celebration of their bonding through such toxic conditions is, at best, misguided, all but condoning bad parenting by suggesting that any time an abusive parent spends with a child is time well spent.

Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Isabelle Phillips, Alex Karpovsky, Danielle Campbell, Gage Banister, Daniel Rashid, Jessica VanOss, Emerson Tate Alexander Director: Miranda Bailey Screenwriter: Glen Lakin Distributor: The Film Arcade Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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