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Understanding Screenwriting #102: The Master, Robot & Frank, Taken 2, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #102: The Master, Robot & Frank, Taken 2, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Master, Robot & Frank, Liberal Arts, Taken 2, Trouble with the Curve, The Racket, The General Died at Dawn, The Fall Television Season 2012, but first…

Fan Mail: A bit of old business first. A few days after I sent #101 off to Keith, “AStrayn” added some comments to US#100, although he described himself as a “lurker not a commenter.” I welcome all kinds, but the more “commenters” the better, since the high class readers of this column tend to have very interesting stuff to say. He, as do I, appreciates David Ehrenstein’s comments and rebuttals. AStrayn also was delighted I am going to continue the column, since he has read every one. I hope he has a life as well.

David was back with comments on #101. He thinks Struges could have made up for Grable’s lack of edge in The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend by giving more edge to the other characters. I am not sure that would have been enough. Zoe’s granddad tried that in his direction of Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949). He let her blandness stand in for a kind of shock at her situation and the intensity of the other characters. It sort of works there, but I don’t think that would work in Sturges’s film, since in the case of Blonde Grable’s character may just seem more out of it than she already does. But it’s certainly something to think about.

And David informs me that Jacques Rivette and I actually agree on something (Winslet’s performance in Titanic). That’s another sign of hell freezing over. Congratulations also to David on his new book on Roman Polanski. Sometime I will tell you about meeting Polanski and Sharon Tate…

“outsidedog” mentions that he found the transcript of the first of the Kasdan-Spielberg-Lucas discussions on Raiders on the Internet. I haven’t seen it, but he says it is easy to find. Well, maybe for someone who is not a Luddite about computers as I am, but I may give it a try. Meanwhile the rest of you can see what you can find.

The Master (2012. Written by Paul Thomas Anderson. 137 minutes.)

Can we all stop thinking about L. Ron and Tom Cruise and just watch the damned movie?: I always seem to have mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. I never saw Hard Eight (1996), but I thought Boogie Nights (1997) was an interesting mess. I remember reading in an interview with Anderson at the time that the script for Boogie Nights was originally much longer than the film, which still clocked in at 155 minutes. It struck me in watching the film that there were several scenes that were obviously intended to be part of a longer film and that Anderson had not gotten around to cutting them, either at the script level or in the film editing, to fit the running time of the film. Some of the scenes with Julianne Moore’s character Amber dealing with her legal problems are the most obvious examples.

Magnolia (1999) was also a sprawling script, but it hung together better than Boogie Nights, not so much on a narrative level but on thematic levels, especially with the recurring Anderson theme of fathers and sons. Plus the deluge of frogs, structured to hit at just the right moment in the running time of the film. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was Anderson’s mostly tightly controlled film and closer to a more conventional film, as if Anderson was saying, “See, I can do that if I want to.” There Will Be Blood (2007) had a sprawling plot, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but without the range of characters of the two earlier films. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday were both very emotionally closed off characters, which reduced audience involvement with the story. In terms of its narrative, There Will Be Blood has a lot going on outside of what we actually see in the film, and our suspicions grow that those elements may have been more interesting to watch than those we actually see.

The Master first introduces us to Freddie Quell, a Navy enlisted man in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. You might assume you are back in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), since the photography is gorgeous, but given the sailors frolicking on the beach, you might expect them to break into “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific (1958). But Anderson is of the show, not tell, persuasion, so the sailors make a sand model of a naked woman on the beach, which Freddie proceeds to have simulated sex with. He’s the most interesting, and also most creepy, character among the sailors, and therefore the one we most want to follow. So we do, into post-war therapy. The shots in the group lecture are exactly like the close-ups John Huston uses in his banned documentary Let There Be Light (1945-1948-1980; it was shot in 1945, copyrighted in 1948, and finally released to the public in 1980). Anderson also uses dialogue from Light, slightly varied for this film. And then Freddie is off to a series of jobs he seem unable to keep. If Daniel and Eli are closed off characters, Freddie lets it all hang out; we never know what he is going to do or say. Most of what he does and says is usually the wrong thing for the occasion. As interesting as he is to watch, we sort of want him to get his shit together.

He wakes up one morning on a yacht captained by Lancaster Dodd, who runs what we can only call a cult, the Cause. Dodd has been compared to L. Ron Hubbard, but Anderson only uses Hubbard as one of many models for Dodd, and the Cause could be any cult. Anderson is creating his own world here, and if you are paying attention to the film, you will quickly stop making comparisons with Hubbard. Anderson could have simply made this a satire of Scientology, but that is only a very minor element in the film. Dodd is a much more open character than most cult leaders, and the kicker is that he is funny. Not funny in the sense of being satirized, but a character with a real sense of humor. Rumor has it that Anderson and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Dodd, based the character in part on Orson Welles, and I can believe it. Hoffman as Dodd is absolutely charismatic.

So shortly we get a great two-person scene between Freddie and Dodd as Dodd starts what he calls “processing.” See my comments on Hope Springs in US#99 for how most shrink scenes don’t work and why. The scene here works beautifully for several reasons. It is not strictly speaking a therapy sequence. Freddie does not unload his woes with Dodd nodding politely. Dodd is asking Freddie a series of quick questions, repeating a question when he thinks Freddie is not telling the truth, which is most of the time. We are also well past the half-hour mark in the film, so we are very invested in both Freddie and Dodd. And finally, with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie and Hoffman, you have two actors at the height of their powers.

Freddie fascinates Dodd, who rightly calls him a scoundrel, and Dodd thinks if he can “cure” Freddie, then it will be a great triumph for him. That’s the film’s plot, for those of you who did not think the movie had one. Eventually Freddie goes through the complete processing experience. Now that should be as compelling as their two-man scene, since it shows a process, something that movies are usually very good at. In fact, this is one of the weakest sections of the film, since it is very repetitive. You will probably get as tired as I did of Freddie crossing the room from window to wall again and again.

Meanwhile we get hints of what is going on outside Dodd’s group. Police show up at one point to arrest Dodd for financial shenanigans. The yacht we saw when we first met him belongs to a rich woman who wants him to pay for damages. The group moves from house to house, each house owned by a member of the Cause. We learn there will be a big convention in Arizona, but it’s in a large storefront office rather than a convention hall. Anderson gives us only what we need to know about the Cause and the outside world as it affects the story, unlike the activities outside the main story in There Will Be Blood. Freddie and Dodd are more interesting as individuals than Daniel and Eli, and they hold our interest. Anderson and Hoffman keep Dodd just this side of absurdity, so we at least half believe in what he is doing. And we hope he will be successful with Freddie.

Freddie runs away from the Cause and returns to see Dodd only several years later. Dodd is now in England, which you would think would not be susceptible to the Cause but apparently is. We get another great two-man scene between Freddie and Dodd. Both are disappointed Freddie did not work out, but his demons are still in control of him. Dodd is sympathetic, but with an edge, and then he begins to talk about time travel and we realize how flaky he is. Is Freddie better off out? With all his demons? Could the Cause have eventually worked for him? We’re both happy he’s out and sorry it did not work out in the group. With Freddie and Dodd we have another of Anderson’s surrogate father-and-son, but done in more depth. The film is also a very American story, with Dodd standing in for any number of movements toward self-empowerment. Americans love the idea that we can make ourselves into better persons, and in this sense The Master is a tragedy, since Freddie has not changed by the end of the film. Except that he is having sex with a real woman rather than a sand model. And he is using some of the Cause’s terminology to seduce her. How much more American can you get?

Robot & Frank (2012. Written by Christopher D. Ford. 89 minutes.)

Robot & Frank

Charm, take one: I used to tell my screenwriting students that if you were going to write a film in a well-known genre, you had better bring something fresh to mix. This is exhibit A for the prosecution. We have had over the last hundred or so years about a million or so movies about robots. We have had them sexy (Metropolis [1927]), stalwart (The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951]), lethal (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]), and cute (Star Wars [1977]). So the degree of difficulty for Ford to make something fresh was very high. Give the man a 10.

We are in the near future. Frank is a retired jewel thief who has serious memory problems and does not seem to take very good care of himself. Hunter, his son, gets him a help robot that will make food, clean the house, etc. Frank, like most curmudgeons in their seventies, hates the idea. OK, Frank and the robot are obviously going to bond and become buddies. Nope. Ford is great at establishing Frank’s humanity, giving Frank Langella a lot to do in the role. On the other hand, Ford is also great at not establishing the robot’s humanity. Most robot movies make us think there is some humanity in the robot. Here there is not. None. Not a jot, not a tiddle. The robot is a machine, but he is very smart in the kind of mechanical intelligence that robots can have. Ford doesn’t turn the robot cute, but gives him lines that can come legitimately out of the kind of intelligence that robots have.

So when Frank figures out he can use the robot’s mathematical skills to pick locks and its mechanical skills to do things he can no longer do, the robot does not develop a moral conscience. He is more into the mechanics of what they are doing. And he is very good at them. Ford makes his robot very consistent. When he is introduced to “Mr. Darcy” (a great name), the robot who will be taking over the local library as it goes all digital, the two robots have no small talk because they are robots, for Christ’s sake.

The living actors (Langella, Susan Sarandon as the local librarian, and James Marsden and Liv Tyler as Frank’s children) are given enough to do. The robot is “acted” by two people. The human inside the suit is actress Rachel Ma, who is thoroughly convincing, and the voice is perfectly done by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard makes Ford’s dialogue smart in exactly the right ways. Sarsgaard gets my vote for voiceover of the Year.

Liberal Arts (2012. Written by Josh Radnor. 97 minutes.)

Liberal Arts

Charm, take two: Radnor’s trying to rely a little too much on charm here. Radnor, who also directed and plays the lead, has written a starring role for himself. Here is he Jesse, a New York college admissions interviewer in his mid-thirties. We get a nice scene at the start when we see him responding to a variety of unseen applicants about college. You can tell that a lot of them don’t belong in college, and that he is rather tired of dealing with them. So when a former professor of his, Peter, asks Jesse to come out to Ohio (the picture was filmed on the campus of Radnor’s alma mater, Kenyon) for Peter’s retirement dinner, he goes. And meets Zibby, the 19 year old daughter of friends of Peter. Radnor as a writer does not give himself much to do, but as a director he holds on himself more than he needs to. As a writer, he does not give Zibby that much to do, and he doesn’t get very deeply into how she feels about the developing relationship with Jesse. As in the similar Hello I Must be Going (see US#101), there is not enough texture in the characters. Zibby, on the other hand, is played by the luminous Elizabeth Olsen. As happened in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, see US#86), the script does not give her enough to do, but Olsen has more star quality than Radnor and she wipes him off the screen. She has the charm to carry their scenes, and he doesn’t. He is also upstaged by Richard Jenkins as Peter, Zac Efron as a campus flake, and Allison Janney as a former professor of his. He has written good parts for them, and they get the most out of them. Maybe Radnor should not star in his own scripts.

Radnor is also sloppy in the script about not giving us the interesting details. Jesse is a reader, and on the campus he meets Dean, an emotionally wounded student. Dean is reading a big thick book and Jesse tells him it is his favorite book too. But we have no idea what the book is. Later Jesse and Zibby get into a disagreement over her love for a trilogy of vampire novels. They are obviously supposed to be the Twilight novels, but we can see the cover of one of the books, and it is not a Twilight book. For a film that promotes reading, and that’s good thing, not being precise about what is being read is rather tacky.

Taken 2 (2012. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. 91 minutes.)

Taken 2

Just a typical take-your-daughter-to-work day: You may remember from US#20 that I liked Taken (2009) for what it was: a good, fast, who-cares-about-the-plot implausabilities B-movie. The sequel is in that same tradition. I was amused by one review that went on and on about how this is just the same as the first one, but when the review come to describing the plot it picked up on one major plot element that’s different. And that’s not the only thing.

Taken père mostly takes place in either a nighttime Los Angeles or a nighttime Paris, with Bryan Mills killing a lot of anonymous baddies in dark rooms and even darker hallways. Taken fils starts with some great aerial shots of a truck going through the mountains of what turns out to be Albania. In the back of the truck are several boxes that look to be caskets. Which they are. They carry the bodies of some of those anonymous baddies, who were not anonymous to their family and friends. Especially not to the father of one them. He is Murad Krasniqi, and he is determined to get the man who killed his son.

So then we get Bryan and Kim, his daughter who was kidnapped the last time. They both seem to have adjusted to what happened, and Bryan comes to pick her up for her driving lesson. She has failed her driving test several times, and Bryan is determined to help her. That sounds like filler, doesn’t it? Stay tuned.

Bryan has to go off to a mission in Istanbul and suggests Kim and his ex-wife Lenore join him. This is another example of Besson and Kamen going so quickly you don’t question it. So they all end up in Istanbul and Kim is kidnapped again. Nope. Here’s where it gets interesting. The baddies want to get all three of them, but they end up getting only Bryan and Lenore. Kim avoids capture. And so for the next half hour or so Kim is trying to rescue Bryan and her mom. Bryan manages to communicate with her—don’t ask—and tells her to go to his equipment bag in his hotel room closet and bring two grenades and one gun. Not three grenades and two guns. Bryan is like Q in the Bond movies: only bring to a fight what you will need. It works and soon Bryan and Kim are free, escaping the bad guys in a car. Kim insists Dad drive. He says, “Can you shoot?”


“Then you drive.” Those lines are the epitome of what the Taken movies are all about. And see what I mean about the driving test scenes earlier? Eventually it comes down to Bryan having to rescue Lenore, or as he says when Kim asks him what he is going to do, “What I do best.” Well, since that is the franchise, of course we want to see him in action, but it’s the least interesting section of the film. Since Lenore is played by Famke Janssen, who was memorable as Xenia Onatopp in the 1995 Bond film GoldenEye, you’d think she would get a chance to kick a little bad guy butt, but not here.

Besson and Kamen use the fast pace they set for a nice payoff at the end. The threesome is back in Los Angeles and is having lunch at a seaside restaurant. Eventually Kim’s boyfriend of the moment shows up and joins them. The scene goes on just a little longer than it should, and we just know something is going to happen…to set up #3 if for no other reason. But it doesn’t. Given how much money Taken 2 is making, I am sure there will be a 3, and I hope they let Xenia Onatopp in on some of the action.

Trouble with the Curve (2012. Written by Randy Brown. 111 minutes.)

Trouble with the Curve

Where are the great lines?: A lot of people think of Clint Eastwood as the strong, silent type who seldom says anything in his pictures. As we have talked about before here, that’s not true. In US#18 I wrote about how the dialogue in Gran Torino (2008) brilliantly caught American male attitudes about race. In US#44 I started the discussion of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) with a list of several great lines from the film. And then there is “Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “Go ahead, make my day.” The major weakness with Brown’s script here is that the dialogue is completely flat and literal. Everybody says exactly what they think and how they feel, and they don’t say it in any interesting ways. This is a script set in the world of baseball, so Brown is going up against Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988) and Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball (2011). No contest.

Trouble almost feels like a response to Moneyball, which showed how modern managers learned how to use statistical analyses to figure out which players to buy. The older scouts were seen as out-of-touch dinosaurs in that film. Here the main character, Gus, is one of those dinosaurs, but he and his fellow scouts are shown to have much more of a feel for the game and the players than the computer nerds. Gus, with the help of his daughter Mickey, warn his team not to hire a hot-shot hitter, but they do anyway and he flops. Gus is a curmudgeonly type, like Walt in Gran Torino, but Brown does not give Eastwood anything more to do than squint, which of course Eastwood is great at. Amy Adams is fun as Mickey, but she is inconsistently written. Sometimes she says she was happiest as a kid when she was watching games with Gus, but then gets on his case for palming her off on relatives most of her youth. You could bring those two elements together with a couple of lines, but Brown doesn’t.

The Racket (1928. Scenario by Del Andrews, adaptation by Bartlett Cormack, based on the play by Bartlett Cormack. Titles by Tom Miranda. 84 minutes.)

The Racket

Getting into the movies: I first brought Bartlett Cormack to your attention in the item about Fury (1936) in US#79. This is the film that got Cormack into the movies. The stage play opened on Broadway in 1927 and had a reasonable run of 119 performances, closing in early 1928. It’s set in a suburban police station where Police Captain McQuigg has been sent by his corrupt bosses, who are under the thumb of racketeer Nick Scarsi. McQuigg is determined to nail Scarsi, and when Scarsi’s younger brother kills a woman in a hit-and-run accident, McQuigg uses that to get Scarsi out to the station. Violence ensues. Since Cormack was a reporter, he has two reporters, Pratt and Miller, hanging around the station, and neophyte reporter Ames, who looks as though he may get involved with Scarsi’s brother’s gold-digging girlfriend. I sort of assumed on reading about the play that it was a rip-off of the more famous play dealing with cops and newspaper people, the Hecht-MacArthur The Front Page. But a check of the Broadway Data Base shows that Cormack’s play opened and closed before The Front Page opened in later 1928.

While the play is all on one set, the film does not get to the station until 35 minutes into the film. We see a lot of what was probably exposition in the play acted out in a variety of locations. Then the tension tightens as we focus on the events in the station. While the titles are credited to Tom Miranda, I can’t help but think many of them must have come from the play. The girlfriend says to the young reporter, “Didn’t your mother tell you not to speak to strange ladies?” When somebody asks McQuigg why he’s ready for a fight with Scarsi, he says, referring to the suburban location, “It’s the country air.” The director of The Racket is Lewis Milestone and it is not surprising that three years later, when he came to make the first film version of The Front Page, he had Cormack working on the script. Milestone obviously recognized good writers.

The General Died at Dawn (1936. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, story by Charles G. Booth. 98 minutes.)

The General Died at Dawn

On the other hand…: Milestone directed this film as well, and it’s a mess. Based on Odets’s 1935 New York playwriting successes Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing, he was brought to Hollywood and assigned to this film. Why anybody at Paramount thought the poet of the American proletariat would have been a good choice for an exotic melodrama set in China is anyone’s guess. It is not a match made in heaven. The dialogue is clunky and overwritten, and there is a slightly-more-than modest amount of left-wing speechifying. The Hollywood actors, most of them first rate, are at a loss with how to deal with Odets’s language, and Milestone gives them no help at all. Normally excellent actors like Madeleine Carroll and Porter Hall give bad performances, while Gary Cooper is smart enough to protect himself by underplaying the dialogue.

Not only is the dialogue bad, the plotting is awful. Cooper plays O’Hara, an arms dealer trying to get a supply of weapons to some rebels. In the early scenes he is told by several different people to fly to his destination and under no circumstances to take the train. Cut to O’Hara on the train, hanging out with Carroll’s Judy Perrie, whom he seems to already know. Comments on the IMDb raise the question of whether a reel is missing, but the current running time is the same as its original. There is probably a scene or two missing that got cut, without any additional reshoots of either the cut scenes or the remaining scenes. Paramount seems to have been satisfied with what they had; Thalberg at MGM would have cleared up the mess. If what we see is what Odets wrote, he did a worse job than I thought.

Not only is Milestone’s direction of the actors bad, he does not capture the exotic look the film is going for. One critic said the film looked as though it was shot on the sets left over from Shanghai Express (1932), which pretty much tells you what Paramount had in mind for the film. But to bring something like that off you need Jules Furthman and Josef Von Sternberg, not Clifford Odets and Lewis Milestone.

The Fall Television Season, 2012.

Go On

New and returning: As I write this, it has not been a great season for new shows, but there are a few with potential. Let’s start with the lesser ones. Go On brings back Matthew Perry as a talk radio host getting over the death of his wife by going to group therapy. I am not sure what the franchise is here. Is it the radio scenes or the group scenes? I think the group scenes, but the other people are rather standard issue.

The New Normal is about two gay guys (Brian’s the flamboyant one, David’s the “straight one”—isn’t it time for a new set of cliches?) who hire Goldie to be the surrogate mother for the child they want. Maybe, but Goldie’s Nana shows up, spouting the anti-gay cliches the industry assumes people in fly-over parts of the country all believe. They don’t, and we might, maybe, forgive her if the comments were funny, but they are not. I also have to wonder about Goldie’s eight-year-old daughter Shania, who after watching Grey Gardens once is suddenly swanning around the house as Little Edie. Ben & Kate are brother and sister. She is the mature one, and he is staying with her and her young daughter. He is the classic man-child and the writers are relentlessly obnoxious about it.

The Mindy Project is about an ob-gyn whose personal life is messy. How’s about we have an ob-gyn whose personal life is not messy? Just for a change. Emily Owens, M.D. is about a surgical intern whose person life is… yeah, you guessed it. The pilot, written by Jennie Synder Urman, spends way more time than it needs to comparing the hospital to high school. Maybe on Grey’s Anatomy, but not most hospitals I know. Still the show does have the luminous Mamie Gummer as Emily.

Neighbors is about a family that moves into a gated community where all the other residents are aliens from another planet. The wittiest thing about the show is that the aliens have renamed themselves after sports figures. Other than that, there is nothing you have not seen on 3rd Rock from the Sun, or longer ago, My Favorite Martian.

666 Park Avenue is a haunted apartment house show, as opposed to just a haunted house show. A young couple moves in, with the wife taking over as the manager. The owners, Gavin and Olivia Doran, are probably up to no good. Well, we know Gavin is because we see him at it. He may in fact be the Devil. But Vanessa Williams, who plays Olivia, should be collecting unemployment insurance for all she is given to do. The show may amount to something, but it seems pretty much standard issue for now.

Partners is a sitcom about two guys, one of whom is the flamboyant gay guy and the other is the straight guy. No, really, he’s straight. And he just got engaged to Ali. The show is based on the real-life relationship of its two creators, David Kohan and Matt Mutchnick, but so far all the episodes have focused on Louis, the gay one, interfering with the straight one Joe’s love life. A little of that goes a long way, although I am a big fan of Michael Urie, late of Ugly Betty, as the straight one. No, not really. He’s the gay one, and he brings a lot of energy to the show.

Nashville is created by Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, Something to Talk About), and I knew it was in trouble when two minutes into it my wife said, “It’s another All About Eve.” Right you are, dear, as Khouri makes so obvious so immediately. One thing I love about Mankiewicz’s script is that he doesn’t let us know for sure that Eve is a bitch until very far into the movie. We suspect, but we don’t know. In the pilot for Nashville, Khouri established that the older country music star, Rayna, is nice to her husband, her kids, and anybody who crosses her path. She does her own makeup, for God’s sake, whereas the younger Juliette has lots of people doing her makeup and hair, and she treats them like shit. The show is putting the two singers together on a tour, but I doubt if there will be many surprises. On the other hand, the show does capture the flavor of Nashville and the country music scene better than Smash did Broadway. Snails and oysters, as Crassus would say; I happen to prefer Broadway to Nashville.

Elementary is another redo of Sherlock Holmes, this time in modern New York and with a woman as Dr. Watson. She is a former doctor who has been hired by Holmes’s father to be a “sober companion” for Holmes. She is also smart about medical stuff, and in the first few episodes is given a little more to do than Dr. Watson usually does. And she is played by Lucy Liu, who brings a lot of colors to the role.

The new show that I like the best is Vegas, co-created by Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the book and screenplay for Casino (1995), and in Vegas he gets a chance to correct the mistake that Scorsese made with the film. As I wrote in my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, “I also think that Scorsese was so into the tragic, melodramatic view of gangsters that he did not understand that for everybody living west of the Hudson River, the story was basically a comedy: Goodfellas Go to Vegas and Get Their Clocks Cleaned by a Bunch of Cowboys.” Pileggi gets that the story is a comedy, and we are encouraged to laugh as Sheriff Ralph Lamb gets the better of gangster Vincent Savino. The interplay between the two as Savino tries to figure out how to deal with Lamb makes for some interesting scenes, as does the kind of documentary material about the casino business that Pileggi brought to Casino. That material is more interesting so far than the typical crime stories the show deals with.

On the returning front, NCIS, NCIS:LA, and CSI all had a lot of cleaning up to do their first episodes from the kind of cliffhanging stuff they left us with in the spring. If you had not been watching in the spring, you would have had no idea what was going on in these episodes. The Good Wife showed how to handle the transition. Yes, Lockhart Gardner is undergoing financial problems, so we have a trustee appointed to study the financial situation. He is Clarke Hayden (played by the most restrained Nathan Lane you have ever see in your entire life—and he’s wonderful), and in the first episodes, we don’t quite know where he stands. The first episode, “I Fought the Law” (written by Robert King & Michelle King), brings on Hayden, but he is secondary to the situation where Alicia’s son Zach gets into a tangle with a cop in another county. Alicia, with some technical help on the Internet from Zach, finds out that the area the cop stopped Zack was a bit of the highway where a lot of drug stops are made. That would be enough for some shows, but not The Good Wife. The drug cars on this part of the road that are stopped are going northbound. Which means they are not the cars bringing drugs into the county, but taking the drug money back to Canada. Needless to say, the cops confiscate the money. And the police union threatens not to support Peter for governor if Alicia carries through the case, which would close down this lucrative practice. Our guys win, at least for now. And in following episodes we get return engagements by some of the great guest stars the show has built up over the years.

On Castle last spring Castle and Beckett finally fell into each other’s arms. Now they are trying not to let anyone know about. Yeah, fat chance. Castle’s mom and daughter pick up on it almost immediately. In “Murder, He Wrote” (written by David Grae), the two other cops, Ryan and Esposito, are determined to find out who Beckett’s secret boyfriend is. She and Castle have gone out of his county estate in the Hamptons for a romantic weekend. Yeah, fat chance. A guy falls into Castle’s swimming pool and dies, and Castle and Beckett reluctantly help the local sheriff, who has never handled a murder case before. Castle gets Ryan to look into some New York connections, and Ryan figures out from one of the people he interrogates that Beckett is with Castle. Now, does he tell, or not? If not, how do you show he is not telling? Well, in this case, Esposito is pushing him to say what he learned in the interrogation, and Ryan is deliberately not telling him about Castle and Beckett. This episode also lets Stana Katic, who plays Beckett, be looser, funnier, and sexier than she normally gets to be. I’ll vote for that.

On Modern Family Gloria is now pregnant, and in the first episode (“Bringing up Baby,” written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh), Jay has to find out. It’s his birthday and Phil and his friends take him fishing. Gloria tells her son Manny, who thinks that Jay will be upset, as do we. Jay hears from his friends all day long about how miserable being old will be, so he turns out to be delighted that Gloria is pregnant, which will give him a second chance at fatherhood. Everybody is surprised at his reaction. On Two and a Half Men, we are still getting more of Walden and less of the others, which is too bad since he is the least interesting character on the show. In “Four Balls, Two Bats, One Mitt” (story by Chuck Lorre & Eddie Gorodetsky, teleplay by Don Reo & Jim Patterson), Alan suggests to Lindsey they have a threesome. Lyndsey thinks it’s a great idea, but it should be two men and her: Alan and Walden. Alan’s not happy, but we get a great scene of them all trying it (as much as you can on network television), and then when Alan and Lyndsey pick up a girl for their threesome, the girl falls for Walden. It’s risque and funny, and it tells us a lot more about Alan and Lyndsey than it does about Walden. On How I Met Your Mother, we still haven’t met the mother. And on Two Broke Girls, Max and Caroline are still trying to make it with their cupcake business, but at least they have stopped saying “vagina” in every other sentence.

30 Rock came back from hiatus with “Episode 701” (written by Jack Burditt), which was just silly, as Jack is trying to run NBC into the ground by putting on bad shows. He thinks he can then buy it cheaply. “Episode 702” (written by Robert Carlock) is a little better. It showed on October 6th, the night of the vice-presidential debate, and started with the news that Paul Ryan had been thrown off the ticket because it was discovered he was born in Kenya. He was replaced by Bob Dunston, a Herman Cain-type buffoon, who is a dead ringer for Tracy Jordan. Jack does not want them to do political satire, since it always raises the ratings. He makes Liz promise she will not write a single word about Dunston. Jack is upset when he sees the sketch, but Liz points out she did not write anything, just selected quotes from the actual Dunston. The whole Dunston plot surely comes out of Tina Fey’s experience doing Sarah Palin four years ago. But in this episode it is not as well developed as it could have been, and the episode was cluttered with a lot of other subplots. Carlock should have re-read the section in Fey’s book on the Sarah Palin business.

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: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.




Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.




Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.

The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.

As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.

Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.

The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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

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




A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.




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.




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.




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.



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


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.




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.




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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