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Understanding Screenwriting #104: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #104: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, Silver Linings Playbook, Middle of Nowhere, Covert Affairs but first…

Fan Mail: First an addition to US#103. I mentioned in the credits for Argo that there was another source listed in the credits of the film, but I could not find it. Shortly after I sent off the column, the new issue of the British magazine Sight & Sound arrived. It identifies the other source as “based on a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez.” I’m guessing that’s the Tony Mendez.

David Ehrenstein liked my Sharon and Roman story so much he has added it to his one-man show, currently at finer bookstores near you.

“Erbear423” understandably took me to task for appearing to dump Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg into the same category as Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. I can see how you can read my comments that way, but what I was trying to get at was more the kinds of roles they often play rather than the actors themselves. I like Dano and Eisenberg very much and they have been terrific in some very good movies, but even then they are often playing the sensitive young man finding his way in the world. My point was that there were no characters like that in Argo, for which I was grateful. As for Adam and Andy, they’re on their own.

Lincoln (2012. Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. 150 minutes.)

The public figure: I have always liked Tony Kushner, and not just the concept of Tony Kushner the public writer. The latter would be the playwright and activist who writes about public issues like AIDS, race, violence and politics. What I like about Kushner is that he is a hell of an interesting writer. OK, I will admit that when I first saw the stage play Angels in America in 1995, the writing instructor in me mentally got out my red grading pen. I imagined waving it in the air, saying, “You can cut this;” “You’ve said that three times, twice is probably enough;” “We don’t need all that.” Even though the TV film of Angels (2004) was shorter than the play, I brought out the mental red pen again. And his 2001 play Homebody/Kabul was probably talkier than it needed to be. But his book for the 2002 musical Caroline, or Change was a model of precision. And his screenplay, co-written by Eric Roth, of the 2005 film Munich was one of the smartest scripts of the last decade.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times by Rebecca Keegan, Steven Spielberg had been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln since he was a kid. In 2001 he optioned Goodwin’s book, even though she had not yet finished writing it. Spielberg tried other screenwriters, but was unhappy with the results. The screenplays were all over the map. Finally he went to Kushner, who worked on the script for five years. In typical Kushner style, the first draft ran 500 pages, about 150 pages of which interested Spielberg: Lincoln trying to get the 13th Amendment past the recalcitrant House of Representatives to outlaw slavery for good. Why would that appeal to Spielberg? The storyline has no spectacle, no chance for elaborate swirling camera moves, and not even much of a chance for a sweeping John Williams score. Spielberg told Keegan, “I was getting into a performance art form of literature and language, without any of my super-strengths that I could turn to make something magically stand out to audiences. It was an experience I’ve always desired to have and never allowed myself to have it until Lincoln came into my life.” Keegan does not report whether he had this idea before hiring Kushner, or whether it developed as Kushner wrote the screenplay. Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review, thinks there is a conflict between Kushner and Spielberg’s styles in the film, but I think not. What Spielberg’s vision meant was that he was going to have to put his talents at the service of the material, which is exactly what he does. The film becomes as much the writer’s film as the director’s.

Kushner delivers. Kushner as the public writer deals with a multiplicity of subjects, one of the things he does best. Who else would have combined Mormons, AIDS, and Roy Cohn as he did in Angels in America? Like Caroline, or Change, this script is about race, and like Angels and Homebody/Kabul, it is brilliantly about politics. It is true to the politics of the period, and without nudging us in the ribs, makes us aware of the similarities to our times, if only in showing that the Republicans and Democrats of 1865 stood for exactly the opposite principles they stand for now. We watch how the president manipulates and wheedles people for the votes he needs. The political Lincoln here seems more like Lyndon Johnson in his arm-twisting days than the stately figure in the Lincoln memorial that Capra loves so well. The sheer entertainment value of the wheeling and dealing could make a film all by itself.

As a writer of drama, Kushner also delivers. One thing he did during the five years he worked on the script was to read extensively about the period, going over transcripts of Lincoln’s meetings. which gave him a good sense of how people talked. Kushner told Randee Dawn for another article in the Los Angeles Times (at this time of the year, there are a lot of articles in the Times about movies, at least those which might be involved in the orgy of awards season), “Shakespeare was so central to 19th-century American speech, that and the King James Bible were so central to the way they spoke in that day.” They were literate people who were not afraid of a well-turned phrase. The film, as we would expect from Kushner, is dialogue heavy, but it is enthralling dialogue. In addition to the elevated language, there is also the political invective of the time, which puts today’s foul-mouthed politicians to shame. Listen to the name-calling in the House scenes. And you think this year’s campaigns were dirty! Kushner also brilliantly uses Lincoln’s known gifts as a storyteller. His Lincoln is always stopping to tell a backwoods tale, mostly to the amusement of those around him, sometimes to their irritation. When he starts one more tale his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton says in irritation, “Not another story.” So in dialogue terms you have three intertwining styles: elevated, invective, and folksy. Kushner mixes them brilliantly. In the character of Lincoln particularly, we see both the public figure, the politician, but also the drama of the private man.

In writing about the first Jurassic Park (1993) in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I criticized Spielberg’s direction of the actors, but pointed out that what was crucial to the success of that film were the dinosaurs. You get actors right but not the dinos and the picture falls apart; you get the dinos right, who cares about the acting. In Lincoln Spielberg realized this was all about the actors handling Kushner’s script. Spielberg has always loved actors, but only later in his career, most notably in Schindler’s List (1993) and Munich, has he been as concerned with character. Here he loves the characters as much as the actors. Kushner, writing for performance, has created a wonderful gallery of people and the producers have hired a marvelous collection of great American actors to play them. With the brilliant exception of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, they are not British actors, whose native language is Shakespeare, but American actors who can speak Kushner’s quintessentially American dialogue. Lincoln’s budget was only about $60 million, lunch money for most Spielberg movies. The physical production is not lavish by Indiana Jones standards, but the money went to actors, and the film gets its money’s worth. I will let all the other reviews tell you how great the specific actors are, but as we have seen before, if you don’t give the actors a good script, it doesn’t matter how great they are. James Agee, in a review collected in the first volume of Agee on Film, writes about a now forgotten 1943 film about Lincoln’s vice president Andrew Johnson titled Tennessee Johnson. He points out that the only actor who looks and sounds authentic 19th Century American is character actor Morris Ankrum playing Jefferson Davis. In Lincoln, they are all Morris Ankrums.

Skyfall (2012. Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan, based on characters created by Ian Fleming. 143 minutes.)


Well, it’s not Quantum of Solace: You may remember from US#12 that I had problems with the lack of characterization in Quantum of Solace (2008). As in, there wasn’t much. More action than character. I apparently was not the only person concerned about that. The script for Quantum, by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade had been rushed because of a pending writers’ strike, and the producers were not happy with the results. So they were determined to get a better script with better characterization for Skyfall. And they did. And they were helped by MGM’s going into bankruptcy. MGM, having taken over United Artists, the studio that started the Bonds, owned the rights. The delay in getting financing meant that the producers and the writers and director Sam Mendes could spend more time on the script. The cute thing to say is that they went too far in the other direction. That’s not true, but they have created some related flaws.

They have not shortchanged the action. The film gets off to one of the best Bond openings ever. Bond is in Istanbul searching for the film’s MacGuffin, a computerized list of all of MI6’s spies. While he is doing that, he gets a call from Kim Mills, the daughter of his C.I.A. friend Bryan Mills whom Bond knew under his real name as Felix Leiter. Kim tells Bond that Bryan and her mom have been kidnapped. What Kim of course doesn’t know is that Bond was her mother’s lover when she was Xenia Onatopp and he might actually be Kim’s father. So Bond rescues Bryan and the two of them chase the assassin who has stolen the McGuffin. We suspect the assassin may be “Jason Bourne,” because he certainly rides a motorcycle like Bourne over the roofs of Istanbul. Then Bond and Chinese Supercop Inspector Chan fight with “Bourne” on top of a train. Evelyn Salt has Bond in her sights and M tells her to take the shot. She does and Bond falls to his death into a river. Roll opening credits.

OK, how long did it take you in the last paragraph to realize I was funning with you a little bit? The references, if you care, are to Taken 2 (2012), GoldenEye (1995), The Bourne Legacy (2012), Supercop 2 (1993), and Salt (2010). If you haven’t seen Skyfall or any of the other films, you could imagine how all that could work. The Bond films are the granddaddies of those kinds of films. The writers in the inventive opening sequence in Skyfall (chasing that McGuffin, motorcycle chases, the fight on the train, and Bond getting shot) show that although the Bond films have been around for fifty years, they still can do it as well as the next franchise. We know by the end of the sequence that we are in Bond country.

Bond of course is not dead, but hanging out drinking and screwing a local girl on an exotic island (there’s always an island in Bond films). After an attempt on M’s life, he shows up at M’s apartment. She puts him to work, even though he fails all his re-evaluation tests. Well, she has a maternal sweet spot for Bond, and we learn the roots of that later on. He is to track down the guy who has hacked into MI6’s computers and has the MacGuffin list. The baddie is exposing five British spies every week. Then we get into conventional Bond scenes. Bond meets the assassin in Shanghai, kills him, gets a chip from a casino in Macao, trades in the chip at the casino for a briefcase full of money. There are fights, a seductive woman, and sailing to an island (always an island…). These scenes are not that compelling because 1) we don’t get much characterization, and 2) Sam Mendes as director does not have a light touch needed for typical Bond scenes. There are a number of Bond-like lines in the script, but Mendes zips right through them like he did not understand they were jokes. It makes the picture a little unbalanced.

The film picks up when we get to the island. We meet the villain of the piece, and he is the best Bond villain in a long time. He is Silva and he is not trying to take over the world, nor is he working for some other foreign power. He is an ex-MI6 agent whom M let the Chinese know about in the runup to the turnover of Hong Kong. Silva is out for revenge on M, so you could say he has mother issues, as he assumes, not entirely inaccurately, that Bond has as well. We find out that Bond was an orphan that M brought into the organization after his parents died. Silva also plays seductive homoerotic games with Bond, a first for the series, at least in such an obvious fashion. With the character faceoffs between Bond and Silva, Mendes is on his home court and the picture works.

Bond manages to capture Silva a little too easily and transports him back to London. We are only a little over half-way through the film. I have heard a couple of people complaining that the last half of the movie goes on way too long (“I felt my lifeblood drain away,” as one of them put it), but I don’t think so. Silva escapes and goes after M at a government hearing, which is a terrific action sequence, and then we get more character scenes as Bond and M escape to Scotland in his Aston Martin. Yes, he still has it in a garage, and some of its weaponry still works. The script is very sly about throwing in references not only to older Bond films, but to other films as well (Silva in the sewers of London reminds me, if no one else, of The Third Man [1949]). The final confrontations between Bond, Silva, and M do go on a bit long, but by then we are very invested in their characters.

I suspect that the typical Bond scenes were written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, since they wrote the last two Brosnan Bond films and the first two Craig ones. They know the drill. The character scenes are probably written by John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator (2000), The Aviator (2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), and Hugo (2011). My suspicions may or may not be accurate, since so far nobody in the writers’ room is talking. In addition to interesting characters, the writers have all come up with a new twist for the Bond films that bring them into the modern era. The villain is using computers more than physical force, although there is the latter, to upset the civilized world, as indicated by the fact the last half of the film is in London and Scotland.

By the end of the film M, as played by the great Judi Dench, has been replaced as the head of MI6. The new M is Gareth Mallory, whom we are first introduced to as just the bureaucrat boss of M. As the film goes along, we discover there is a lot more to him than that. One of my acquaintances with connections to the intelligence world tells me all the spooks he knows think the new M will be terrific. And in another payoff, Eve, the agent who took the shot at Bond in Istanbul, turns up in a new job at MI6, which makes perfect sense once Bond finally learns her last name. Let’s just say she’s going into the family business.

Flight (2012. Written by John Gatins. 138 minutes.)


You may think you know, Mr. Gittes…: Here’s the setup: an airline pilot manages to land a plane with mechanical problems, and saves the lives of nearly all the people on board. Then his blood tests show that he had alcohol and cocaine in his body. You just know where Gatins got the idea: Captain Chesley Sullenberger lands the plane on the Hudson in 2009, and Gatins thinks, what if he had drugs in his system? That’s the simple and logical explanation for the development of the story. Like a lot of simple and logical explanations, it is wrong.

What started Gatins thinking of the idea was an airline flight he took in 1999. He happened to be sitting next to an off-duty airline pilot on a flight, and the pilot was just an ordinary guy. Gatins was horrified. He wanted the people he entrusted his life to when he flew to be perfect. As he told John Horn in an article in the Los Angeles Times, “I want pilots to be somebody who would take a bullet to get me to JFK. And here was a guy with the potential to reveal that he wasn’t a god.” Gatins, as he has revealed in interviews, is a recovering alcoholic, so he had some experience to bring to the character of Whip Whitaker. He runs into a problem that I noticed over the years with my screenwriting students who were recovering addicts. They don’t really want to write about their recovery process but rather about all the terrible things they did while they under the influence. I assume that is part of the recovery process. The problem with that, and Flight shows it in spades, is that drunken behavior is very dreary and repetitious for us outsiders to watch. Whip gets coked up before he flies and then again when he faces the hearing board, which almost suggests (especially when his dealer gives him a funny crash hangover cure with coke before the hearing) that coke is a good way to deal with your problems. Would Whip have been able to land the plane without it? Nobody ever asks that question, but it hangs in the air. We have a lot of scenes of Whip pouring out booze, then getting some more. Then pouring out more and getting even more. He is struggling with his addiction, but as this story is told, he is constantly falling off the wagon. It would have been a lot more dramatic if he were seriously trying to get off the stuff. Gatins does give us a lot of detail of how Whip deals with what we see, and Denzel Washington gets every nuance. Washington would be even better if the film were not so repetitive.

Some of the other characterizations are good, especially his dealer Harling Mays, played by John Goodman. On the other hand Don Cheadle and Melissa Leo are not given enough to do as his union lawyer and the chairperson of the NTSB hearing. Whip does get involved with a junkie, Nicole, but she is very highly idealized. There is nothing feral about her the way there is about real junkies, and Kelly Reilly, freckles and all, is a little too clean for the part.

Whip finally admits to his drinking at the hearing, but it seems a little too unearned from what we have seen. Then we get Whip confessing to all his faults to what turns out to be a bunch of convicts in his prison. That’s a very sentimental scene, and straight out of an AA meeting. I once worked with a guy who went to meetings, and he told me that one group would have a monthly “bad Friday,” in which nobody would be supportive to the confessing member at all. As in, “If you want to stop, just do it and stop whining,” or “If you want to drink that much, just go ahead and drink, who cares?” That sort of thing would have made a much fresher scene. And the final scene in which Whip’s estranged son comes to the prison to get to know his dad is even more sentimental.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012. Screenplay by David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick. 122 minutes.)

Silver Linings Playbook

Getting it more or less right: Russell avoids at least some of the problems Gatins had with Flight. The main character here is Pat, a mid-30s manic-depressive. Before the film opens he has beat up a man he found in the shower with his wife, Nikki. Pat was sent off to a mental hospital in Baltimore, but as the film starts his mother has arranged for him to be released, against the advice of the staff. The staff does seem as concerned about their liability as his condition. Dolores, his mom, takes him back home to Philadelphia, somewhat to the surprise of his dad, Pat Sr. Dolores hadn’t told him her plans. Pat insists he is improving, but it is hard for us to see that. Just as we get a lot of Whip’s drinking in Flight, we get a lot of Pat’s colorful behavior. More than we really need, especially since Pat is not particularly sympathetic. He is edgy, delusional, and obsessed about winning Nikki back, even though she still has a restraining order against him. A lot of praise has been heaped on Bradley Cooper, who plays Pat, and rightly so, but he and the writing make Pat in the opening scenes a little too uncomfortably nuts for us to want to watch. Yes, there is certain sixties element of the diagnosed crazies are more honest than the rest of us, but it is not lethal to the film. Russell, who also directed, does not help these scenes by shooting a lot of them with a handheld camera. It may play better if you see it on a smaller screen, but we saw it in one of the larger auditoriums of the Landmark Theatre in West L.A., and the camera movement almost gave us motion sickness. I’ve always found it ironic that the Landmark, which plays as many art films as big Hollywood pictures, has so many extra large screens that do not do small films shot with handheld cameras any favors. And don’t get me started on the stadium seating in the multiplex that has an older clientele. Sometimes watching us geezers try to climb the stairs is more fun than the movie.

Meanwhile, back in the movie, Pat has been introduced to Tiffany, the sister of the wife of his good friend. She’s not officially nuts, thank God, but she is a little funny in the head. Her cop husband was killed in an accident, and she reacted badly to it. As in she slept with everybody she worked with and was fired. She is just as unable to shut her mouth as Pat is. She is played in a spectacular change of pace by Jennifer Lawrence, and she and the writing of Tiffany hit a better balance than Pat does. One element that makes a good character is that when they are on screen, you are dying to see what they do. That’s not true with Pat in the opening scenes, but it is true of Tiffany. She wants to enter a dance contest and needs a partner. Pat does not want to, but Tiffany says she can get a letter from him to Nikki. So they rehearse, and we get a little drive to the film. Pat is not attracted to her because she’s a little wacko and he is still convinced he’ll get Nikki back. That’s okay with her because she’s focusing on dancing rather than screwing. Well, you can see where that’s going, but getting there is half the fun.

There is no way they are going to win the dance contest, but they do not have to. Pat Sr. is a part-time bookie trying to make enough to open a restaurant, and he ends up making a two-bet parley. Pat S. has lost money to another guy, who offers him double or nothing if a) the Philadelphia Eagles win a game that will put them in the playoffs, and b) Pat and Tiffany get a least a five out of a top score of ten in the competition. They get just a five, which leads to cheering by their friends, much to the bafflement of the other competitors. Meanwhile, guess who showed up at the competition? Yup, Nikki, who sort of believes the letter Pat has sent about how he is getting his life together. Tiffany has seen her. After the competition Pat goes over to talk to Nikki and Tiffany runs out of the room. We do not hear what Pat says to Nikki, and Russell misses a great opportunity to have Nikki show us a variety of reactions to what he says. Pat goes after Tiffany, they kiss, yada, yada, yada. Yes, it is a conventional happy ending, but it is a hard-earned one. On the other hand, Pat and Tiffany’s life together is probably going to be a mess, although the final scene nicely suggests maybe not.

Middle of Nowhere (2011. Written by Ava DuVernay. 97 minutes.)

Middle of Nowhere

Bogart with a gun: We have talked on a number of occasions about those films that were big hits on the festival circuit but withered when exposed to the real world. This is another one of those. In the opening scene Derrick and Ruby are talking. They are married and he is in prison for eight years, four if he can get off with good behavior. He is encouraging her not to drop out of medical school, which she wants to do to support him emotionally, since she can’t make the 200 mile trip to his prison by bus every week with the demands of medical school. Well, Derrick is right. Guess who the main character in the film is? Yup, Ruby. So right away we have a heroine who is smart enough to get into medical school, but stupid enough to drop out so she can see her convict husband every week. I would have thought she could study on the bus or catch up on her sleep.
It gets worse. Everyone who criticizes Ruby about everything else in her life is usually right. Why should we feel a connection with a woman who is so wrong-headed? In 1998 Kate Winslet appeared in the film Hideous Kinky as the Gold Medal example of a character being so totally unsympathetic she turned off the audience. Winslet plays a young mother who suddenly takes her kids off to Morocco without knowing either the language or anyone there. Every single thing she does is worse, and more dangerous for her children, than the last. When the credits began to roll over the last shot, a good half of the audience got up and ran for the door. They didn’t want to be in the same room with that character any longer than they had to. Well, to be fair, nobody ran up the aisles at the end of Middle of Nowhere, since we at least got the sense that Ruby was trying.

The film gets going after Derrick has been in the slammer for four years and is hoping to get out soon. Mostly we watch Ruby mope. DuVernay’s characters are nearly one-note, if that. DuVernay does not give them much to do, and very little in terms of reactions to what is going on. Humphrey Bogart once said that if a man is pointing a gun at you in the scene, you do not have to act scared. You can play other emotions; good advice for writers and directors as well as actors. DeVernay also directs, but at such a slow pace we get great gaps between line readings. DuVernay won the directing award this year at Sundance for this film, which makes me wonder, among other things, how bad the direction of the other films was. If the dialogue were great, we could appreciate it in those pauses, but it is very flat, with no texture. I happened to see this film the afternoon before I saw Silver Linings Playbook, and Russell’s dialogue sparkles in comparison.

In the middle of her waiting around, Ruby is hit on by the driver of her usual bus. She’s sort of non-committal about it. You would think that an attractive woman like this would have had enough experience with guys hitting on her in the four years that she would have developed an all-purpose response. When Derrick has his parole hearing, Ruby and we learn that he has some sort of sexual encounter (the whole script is rather vague on a lot of crucial details) with a female guard. OK, I believe this could be enough to push Ruby into the arms of the bus driver, but the film is not convincing. We do not see Ruby struggle with this, nor do we get much of a reaction after she goes to bed with Brian, the driver. Like Russell and the scene with Nikki, DuVernay is missing a lot of opportunities here. Ruby ends up dropping both Derrick and Brian and getting on with her life.

Oh, did I forget to mention that with the exception of Derrick’s lawyer, all the other characters are black? Well, they are, but just as we do not get much texture in the characters and dialogue, we don’t get much texture of the black community. Ruby finds Brian at a club he suggested in Leimert Park, a hub of black cultural life in Los Angeles. On film it’s an ordinary club, which gives you no idea how vibrant a place Leimert Park is in real life. I’d love to see a movie set in the real Leimert Park. This one is not it.

Covert Affairs (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Covert Affairs

It was a very good year: This third season of the show has been their best yet. It started off with a bang in “Hang on to Yourself,” written by Matt Corman and Chris Ord. The bang was a car blowing up Jai Wilcox, the agent who was the son of Henry Wilcox, who used to run this division of the C.I.A.. Annie, Auggie and the others try to track down what Jai was working on, finding in his apartment indications of 50 active operations, but no paperwork on any of them. Annie, meanwhile, was reassigned to Lena Smith, a senior operative who has had several highly successful big missions. Annie eventually gets involved with Simon Fisher, the son of a former KGB agent. Simon is now a venture capitalist. Annie has a fling with him, and before you complain about Annie have flings with a lot of people, let me just say five words to you: David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell. Even Covert Affairs hasn’t gone that far…at least this season. Annie eventually tells Arthur she thinks she can turn Simon, but Simon says no when she tries. Then he proposes. So Annie is caught between a rock and a hard place. Lena tells Annie that it was Simon who had her followed, and takes her off his case. But they get together again. He invites her to go to Cuba with him, which she does. Annie and Simon are hanging out with Simon’s Russian handler, Hector, who is supposed to kill Simon, but Simon kills him instead and takes off for Russia, while Annie returns to D.C. Simon shows up in D.C. and sees Annie at her house. Lena comes in and shoots Simon…and then shoots Annie. Lena has been setting up Annie all along to take the suspicion off her. Annie survives (she is the star after all), and against C.I.A. orders, Joan sends Annie to Russia, where she kills Lena. And that’s just the first half of the season.

The Russians throw Annie in jail for killing Lena and Annie seems destined to rot there. Auggie tries to come up with a plan to rescue Annie, but Arthur and Joan point out all the impossibilities. So whom does Auggie get? Eyal, the Mossad agent Annie has worked with. He shows up in her prison cell, saying “Sorry to drop in unannounced. Hope you didn’t have plans for today.” That’s the kind of James Bond line Sam Mendes would have trouble with. We believe it, since we know that Eyal is resourceful. He’s also, in the person of Oded Fehr, a hunk and a half, so they make a beautiful couple. But how trustworthy is he? If he is getting you out of a Russian prison, do you really care at that point? The Mossad want the C.I.A.’s help in tracking down an asset that has gone missing. The asset collects information on Kalhid Asanri, a Saudi oilman who has friends high up in the U.S. Government. So Annie, Arthur and Joan are on tricky ground here. Do they help the Mossad, our ally, or do they stall them to protect someone of influence? Annie eventually convinces Arthur that the information Eyal is providing is good. And the Americans hit Kalhid’s compound in a drone strike, but Kalhid escapes. And it turns out not only was Eyal’s information doctored, but he is no longer with Mossad. In the first half of the season, Annie’s loyalties were fairly firmly with the C.I.A., but with a soft spot for Simon, whom she admitted she loved when she was debriefed after returning from Russia. Now it is trickier. Eyal saved her from prison, they have worked together before, but he used her to trick the Americans into a drone strike. This second half of the season is more suspenseful than the show has been and has sustained that suspense over a longer run of episodes. Annie is not only in physical danger (constantly, since this is series television), but in professional danger as well. In the final episode of the season, “Lady Stardust,” written by Corman and Ord, Annie gets a call from Kahlid saying he has taken Eyal hostage. Kahlid wants the list of the C.I.A. assets working for him. Annie is torn, and we think she may give them up, but she works out another plan, which rescues Eyal in the middle of Amsterdam. Somehow Covert Affairs gets to as many exotic locations as the Bond movies do, but on a much more limited budget. The production values on Covert Affairs are not a patch on the Bonds, which actually keeps the series a little more grounded. Arthur wants Annie to kill Kahlid, but Eyal keeps him alive, tells him it was his father that ordered the hit on his girl friend and sends him back to deal with his father. Eyal tells Annie he is going to live on a boat in Greece, but I suspect we have not seen the last of him. Meanwhile Arthur has found out that Jai’s dad, Henry, even though he is prison, set up the drone strike on Kahlid’s compound and probably let Kahlid know he should leave before it happens. Henry was just tying up loose ends; the terrorist they did get in the strike was somebody Henry had claimed to kill years before.

Meanwhile, we have learned that Joan is going to meetings. Yes, those kinds of meetings, but the showrunners do not show any of her alcoholic excesses, nor do we spend time in the meetings. Smart move; keep the show focused. In the first half of the season, Auggie and his girlfriend Parker broke up, which he did not deal with well. For most of the last few episodes, he is telling Annie they have to talk. Once the shooting stops they set a date for the talk, but he shows up at her place two days early. And kisses her. Aww. Well, we also suspected these two could be more than friends. Simon’s dead, and Eyal may or may not be on a boat somewhere, so why not?

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: Ophelia Wants, and Fails, to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon

Transforming Ophelia’s abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of Hamlet.




Photo: IFC Films

Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein of the same name, Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of the troubled Danish prince’s would-be betrothed. Here, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) is a tomboy forced into court-life femininity, her tragedy rewritten as a triumph, but it’s hard to say that she comes out, in the end, either as a more full-blooded character or as a girl-power icon.

Given Hamlet’s sustained cultural influence, Ophelia might be described as the original “refrigerator woman,” the girlfriend or wife whose shocking death serves to motivate the male main character to action. In Shakespeare’s play, the vengeance-obsessed Hamlet callously drives her to suicide, first by spurning her as part of his insanity charade, and then by accidentally murdering her father, Polonius. Gone mad due to her lover’s too-perfect performance of madness, Ophelia drowns herself in a river, her death exacerbating both Hamlet’s anguish and his simmering feud with her brother, Laertes.

In the film, Ophelia recounts her side of the story in voiceover: how she, the common-born daughter of an advisor to the Danish crown, was taken in by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and raised as one of her handmaidens; how she became privy to Gertrude’s affair with the king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, glowering throughout from within a villainously matted Severus Snape wig); and how she fell in love with Hamlet (George MacKay), the crown prince with the awful bowl cut. But first, the film opens with a fake-out, the camera skimming along the water of a river until it lands on Ophelia’s floating body, surrounded by water lilies and other vegetation in a vision of tragic, all-natural femininity. It turns out that she’s alive, and that floating peacefully in the river is just a habit of hers, which has the unintentional effect of fooling us into thinking the film’s about to end every time Ophelia slinks into the water.

Ophelia looks and feels like a syndicated ‘90s television special, with its blandly lit sets, skeletal romance between the girlish Ophelia and its bro-ish version of Hamlet, and haphazard imagining of 15th-century speech and customs. The film can never quite decide whether it should be exploding or paying homage to Shakespeare’s text. What we see isn’t simply the events of the play from Ophelia’s perspective, but it also isn’t something radically new. Unintentional humor results: In the well-known scene from the play in which Hamlet first maniacally spurns Ophelia, they whisper secret messages to each other between simplified Shakespearean lines—margin notes as dialogue. Rather than an alternate take on the play, such moments simply shoehorn new material into the old. Other lines clumsily rewrite the play’s sexism by turning Hamlet’s verbal abuse into lovers’ code: When Hamlet advises Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s just telling her to hide out from the coming violence.

McCarthy’s film concocts an original plot involving a medicine woman in the woods outside the castle who’s a dead ringer for the queen (and is also played by Watts), which ultimately places Ophelia in the Danish grand hall as the bloody climax from Hamlet plays out. In this moment, Ophelia, who’s been known to everyone in the court since childhood, improbably passes as a male page because her shock of red hair is a few inches shorter. It might be argued that resonant whispers and unlikely misrecognitions are a part of the Shakespeare toolbox, but Ophelia otherwise makes few pretentions to replicating the tropes of the Elizabethan stage. Early in the film there’s some woeful faux-Shakespearean banter between Hamlet and Ophelia, but the filmmakers quickly abandon a dialogue-driven approach in favor of a plot-heavy structure of court intrigue and scandalous revelations.

Ophelia, in fact, ends the film at a nunnery, a twist which completes the process of transforming Hamlet’s abusive words—symbols in the original play of the blurry line between cruelty and its simulation—into the signs of true love. In the end, Ophelia’s no longer defined by her victimhood, but transforming her abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of English literature’s most well-known drama.

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George McKay, Tom Felton, Dominic Mefham Director: Claire McCarthy Screenwriter: Semi Chellas Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up

The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.




Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.

Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.

In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.

Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.

The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.

Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family

The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.




Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?

At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.

The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.

Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.

One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident

Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.




The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.

It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.

As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.

While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.

Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón

Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.



Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.

Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.

Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.

If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.

Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.

Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.

More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.

And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”

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Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects

Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.




Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.

The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.

Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.

By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.

Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.



Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown

3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac

Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac

The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg

Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti

Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same

By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.




Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.

The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.

It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.

Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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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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