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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: 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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