Fan Mail: One note before you even ask. Yes, I have seen Zero Dark Thirty, but I am collecting information (not via torture, I assure you) about it from various sources that I want to have before I write about it. Rest assured it will dealt with in #106.
On the fan mail front, it was just another day at the office with David E. and me agreeing yet again on something, this time Tony Kushner. Yawn.
Django Unchained (2012. Written by Quentin Tarantino. 165 minutes.)
Lotsa stuff, including our ideas of history, blowed up real good: You may remember from US#32 that I liked Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) a lot. As I said in that column “Like many American screenwriters, who are after all part of the American storytelling tradition, he wants to tell a tale. And as much or more than any other American screenwriter, he wants to tell off-the-wall, wildly entertaining stories.” One thing I liked about Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino was not just ripping off other movies. In his own freewheeling way, he was taking on history as much as other movies, and he was focusing on characters. He was also finally accepting the fact that violence can hurt people, not only those who are victims of it, but those who perpetrate it. All of those elements are back in Django Unchained, and in a year in which many big-budget movies played it as safe as they could, it is nice to see a movie that plays it anything but safe.
The subject in Inglourious Basterds was killing Nazis during World War II, and here it is pre-Civil War slavery in the South. Nazis are dead and buried, but the issue of racism is still a very live wire in America, which has caused splits among the audiences for the film. Some viewers, both black and white, love it and some hate it. Some both love it and hate it. The split may come from treating the storyline as very, very dark comedy, with the usual violence found in Tarantino’s scripts. The predominantly white audience I saw the film with seemed to like it, and like the white audiences forty years ago for black exploitation films, they were rooting for the black underdog getting revenge against The Man. As for the complaints that you cannot treat a serious subject as dark comedy, come on folks, it is nearly fifty years since Dr. Strangelove (1964). Some people complained about Strangelove in the same tone they now complain about Django.
Tarantino very quickly establishes the world in which we are going to live in for 165 minutes. A couple of hunters of runaway slaves are leading a group of captured slaves through the desert (my beloved Alabama Hills) and the woods when they come across Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist driving a wagon with a large tooth on it (see, what did I tell you in US#99). Within a few minutes the slavehunters are dead or dying, and Schultz has freed Django because he needs him to identify the Brittle Brothers. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and soon pairs up with Django. We are in the South and the West, and the spaghetti-western music tells us that there is going to be a lot of blood spilled before our adventures are done. Tarantino’s homage to Italian westerns is one of the few remaining references to old movies that appear in this film, and it is really unneeded because the film is compelling enough without it. There is the additional irony that rather than filming in Spain, where the Italians filmed, Tarantino has filmed in American locations like the Alabama Hills, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and Louisiana.
King Schultz is one of the greatest characters Tarantino has created. He is German, a former dentist, and speaks better and more elaborate English than anybody else in the film. Tarantino has created him for Christoph Waltz, who is even better here than he was as Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Unfortunately, while Tarantino is great at dialogue (duh), he does not provide a lot of dialogue or especially reaction shots for Django. I mentioned in my item on Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino gave Shosanna a great reaction, but then cut the shot short. Here he does not give Jamie Foxx enough to say or do to stand up to Waltz’s performance, and I think it hurts the film. Maybe another draft of the script was called for just simply to work out reactions, although I have heard that the script was constantly undergoing revisions as they filmed it.
After some bounty-hunting action (more than they really need after two major sequences), Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda. That name got a laugh from a couple of people in the audience I saw it with who obviously remembered the comic strip witch, but you find out later why Tarantino has given her that name. Broomhilda was sold to another plantation and that gives Tarantino the opportunity to show us how brutal slavery really was. We are not in The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone with the Wind (1939) territory here, and I say, “About bloody time.” And this being Tarantino, it is very bloody and very brutal, unnerving in exactly the way it is supposed to be. And yet Tarantino does bring in humor as a counterpoint. After Django and Schultz kill three men working as overseers at a plantation for the bounty, the plantation owner and his friends go out to try to track down and kill them. And to protect their identity they wear bags over their heads. One of the men’s wives spent all day cutting eyeholes…that aren’t quite big enough. In a scene where Birth of a Nation meets Blazing Saddles, the men complain about the bags. It is a very funny scene…and almost did not make it into the film. In the editing process, Tarantino thought about dropping it because the film was running long. Amy Pascal, the head of Sony Pictures, which is co-releasing the film, told him that was the one scene that made her want to be involved with the film. They had a preview with the scene and it played better than anything else in the picture. Thanks Amy.
Our guys track Broomhilda to the lavish plantation Candieland, run by Calvin Candie. Candie is the other great character in the film, and like Schultz he is a talker. He is played, in his first out-and-out villain role, by Leonardio DiCaprio, and the scenes between Waltz and DiCaprio are the best in the picture, so much so that in the remaining half hour after they are over, the film loses some of its energy. There are two big bloody shootouts, but Tarantino could have made do with one. But then he wouldn’t be Tarantino, would he?
Amour (2012. Written by Michael Haneke. 127 minutes.)
…and marriage: My wife and I were very hesitant about seeing this one, even with all its critical acclaim and awards. It is a simple story of Anne and Georges, a French couple in their eighties. She has a series of strokes that weaken her, and he takes care of her because he loves her, as the title of the film suggests. My wife and I are in our early seventies, and she has had a variety of medical problems over the last few years (nothing as bad as what Anne goes through, thank God) that have required a certain amount of time and attention on my part. So we were afraid it might hit too close to home as a look at what we might be facing in the future. That did not turn out to be the problem with the film.
Before Anne’s first mini-stroke, we get a little sense of what their life is like. Very little. This appears to be a couple who have had a very long marriage, since their daughter Eva is in her late forties-early fifties (OK, she’s played by Isabelle Huppert, who will turn 60 next year, but still can pass for a lot younger). We see them at a concert where Alexandre Tharaud, one of Ann’s students, is giving a concert. (Tharaud, a real pianist, is playing himself, sort of.) Alexandre later visits them at their home. And their daughter visits them, talking about her husband, whom we do see briefly, and her kids, whom we do not see. That’s about it for their lives. They appear to have no other friends. They appear to have no particular interests. OK, I can understand an older couple into classical music (it is not clear if Georges is a teacher as well) not having either a computer or a television set, but they seem to have nothing else in their lives, not even the kind of inside jokes and behavioral connections a couple together that long would develop. OK, Haneke’s films are never laugh riots, but not having details dehumanizes the characters. Haneke’s sole interest is in her illnesses and Georges taking care of her. We get that in excruciating and repetitive detail. Yes, he loves her, and he occasionally gets grumpy, but that alone is not enough for us to get as deeply involved in them.
The film ends with a typical Haneke touch. We know that she has died. But we have no idea what happened to Georges. Did he jump out the window? He has a delusion that he walks out the door with a healthy Ann, but does that mean he just walked out? Is he lying dead in a gutter somewhere? Sometime Haneke may make a film which answers all the questions it brings up, but this one stays in the tradition of Caché (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009).
Banjo on My Knee (1936. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson based on the novel by Harry Hamilton. 95 minutes.)
One minor Nunnally: In 1968-69, when I was doing my oral history interview with Nunnally Johnson, there were a number of his early films that I did not ask about. This was one of them. I had not only never seen it, I had never heard of it. This was long before there was the Internet Movie Database and assorted other sources both on- and off-line. And it never showed up on television, at least until recently, when it showed up on both Fox Movie Channel and TCM. There are reasons why it’s not well known.
The storyline is a lot more haphazard than usual in a Nunnally Johnson work. We begin with a wedding among the boat people along the river, a slightly more hygienic crowd than you get in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Ernie Holley is marrying Pearl, much to the delight of his father Newt. Newt has lost several of his kids to the river, and is eager for Ernie and Pearl to give him grandchildren. But it looks as though Ernie kills one of the locals at the wedding and he takes off. And twenty minutes later he is back, having sailed the world. He finds out he did not kill the man (who floated upriver instead of down when Ernie knocked him into the water) so that ends that plot. He wants to go off again and find a nice place for him and Pearl to live, but she’s so upset she leaves. And then he leaves again. They have adventures on their own and eventually wind up together in New Orleans. While the film is early in Johnson’s career, he had already done several films with stronger narrative drives, such as The House of Rothschild (1934), which straightened out a messy play.
I suspect what drew Nunnally to the material was the down home Southern humor, which appealed to the native Georgian. You see the same humor in Jesse James (1939), Tobacco Road (1941), and even in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The wedding has an earthy tone to it, particularly with Walter Brennan as Newt playing his “contraption,” a one-man band. You also get Buddy Ebsen as one of the locals doing a dance number or two. The film is sort of unofficially a musical, with a variety of numbers, including “St. Louis Blues” sung by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. But you also get some of Johnson’s ability to be sympathetic to a variety of characters. When Pearl ends up in New Orleans, she is courted by Chick Bean, a semi-suave singer played by “Antonio Martin,” whom we later knew as Tony Martin. When Chick proposes to Pearl, it is not in a florid, romantic way, but with a simple listing of what his good qualities are and why that should be enough. While she is thinking it over, Ernie shows up and in a nice close-up, Chick realizes with a look that he does not have a chance. A little more sophisticated than the rustic humor of the boat scenes.
Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the play The Light of Heart by Emlyn Williams. 85 minutes.)
A second minor Nunnally: This one I did ask Nunnally about, but got a strange reaction. I mentioned in my question that it was based on the Emlyn Williams play. That took Nunnally aback. He had not remembered that was the source for it, but had just had dinner with Williams a year before. Johnson had forgotten the source was Williams, and Williams did not bring it up. Johnson said to me, “So, I suppose it’s just another proof that the author doesn’t care of the screenwriter.” But then he added, “God, I should have said something. We got along famously.”
There was another writer on the project before Nunnally came on it. This was the last screenplay that F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on when he died. My notes on what I found in the Fox files are not as complete as I now would have liked them to be, and I am not sure if I saw the stage play there. I did read Fitzgerald’s script, and it’s rather depressing. I suspect the play, given its title, is one of those pieces of the time that finds drunks mostly funny, which certainly dates the film. The Lost Weekend came along three years later and started to change all that. In the story Madden Thomas (he has a different name in the play and Fitzgerald’s screenplay, but I am sticking to the names in the film) is a classical actor who has ruined his career through alcoholism. He is taken care of by his daughter Kathi, who has a club foot. She falls in love with Robert, a composer, but does not want to leave her father. A producer arranges a production of King Lear, but Madden gets drunk on opening night after learning Kathi is leaving with Robert. Mrs. Lothian, an older woman who has long loved Madden, proposes marriage to him, since she is now well off and can take care of him. Fitzgerald, who certainly knew the dark side of alcoholism, makes his script rather grim.
It is also not that well written. Fitzgerald opens on a long scene where Madden is one of twelve department store Santas. Madden starts giving away the display toys, having become convinced in his drunken stupor that he really is Santa. Chaos ensues at the store and Madden is fired. (Some of the extended details here are from Aaron Latham’s 1971 book F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.) Nunnally’s opening is simpler: We open on a skinny, scraggly Santa, cigar in mouth, ringing a bell outside the store. Madden gets out of a cab beautifully costumed. He looks the other Santa up and down and says, “I have never seen anything so revolting.” Then Madden goes into a bar and loads up his hot water bottle with doubles of Alabama Fog Cutters, which he sips while talking to the kids. Soon he is obviously drunk and thrown out of the store. As I wrote in my biography of Nunnally, “Fitzgerald’s…writing is tired and heavy, while Johnson’s script has the smoothness and grace one normally associates with Fitzgerald’s prose.”
I wrote that without having seen the film, since this is another one that never shows up on television. Fox now has a Fox Archives DVD unit, which releases barebones DVDs of some of the titles they don’t have much faith in. I got it for my birthday this year and finally got around to seeing it. I had asked Nunnally how he came to write it, and he said it was probably because they were trying to find stories for Monty Woolley, a specialist in playing older curmudgeons. Nunnally usually did not write for stars, but he had some success with Woolley. Their first picture together was the 1942 The Pied Piper, in which Woolley’s character leads a growing group of children out of France ahead of the Nazi invasion. It is a mild charmer. Life Begins at Eight-Thirty was their second collaboration, and their third was the 1943 Holy Matrimony, the best of the three, also now available from Fox Cinema Archives. With Life Begins at Eight-Thirty there is no real feeling in the film as to why anybody wanted to make it. You know why people wanted to make Jesse James and The Grapes of Wrath, but Life Begins at Eight-Thirty is merely a nice professional job that never grabs you by the throat. Johnson has, as usual, written a couple of great parts for the actors. Woolley gives one of his richer and subtler performances as Madden, and Ida Lupino brings more than you might expect to Kathi. This is not one of her tough Warner Brothers dames.
Casablanca (1943. Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, and uncredited, Casey Robinson, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. 102 minutes.)
Moving parts: In US#103 I did a brief item on the 1944 Warners film The Conspirators, which I pointed out was a mediocre rip-off of the studio’s Casablanca. When Casablanca showed up, as it very often does on TCM, I hesitated a bit before I watched it. It has been years since I saw it on the small screen, since every time I have run it in class, I ran either the 16mm print we had or the DVD when that became available. It looks so impressive on a big screen. But I went ahead and watched it, and the writing is even more impressive on the small screen.
I made the point about The Conspirators that its moving parts did not all work together and that those in Casablanca did. That’s in spite of the fact that the production of Casablanca was even more chaotic than most major studio productions. But Howard Koch, who followed the Epstein twins on the script, notes in his memoir As Time Goes By, that at one point in the middle of production the director, Michael Curtiz, wanted some script changes. Koch writes, “Despite the multiplicity of writers working in relays—usually fatal to any dramatic work—I felt that a certain unity had been achieved that could easily be destroyed by tampering with the emerging script.”
The legend is that the original play was terrible and nobody would produce it on Broadway, which is not quite the truth. The play was picked up by the producing team of Carly Warton and Martin Gabel. The team finally passed on it because Warton had trouble with the fact that Lois, the American woman who was the forerunner of Ilsa, clearly sleeps with Rick to get the letters of transit. She felt American audiences would not accept this. So the writers’ agent sold it to Warner Brothers, where Hal Wallis was smart enough to realize that while audiences would not buy an American woman doing that, they would accept a European woman. So Lois early on became Ilsa.
I have not read the play, but in a package of material the late Ron Haver of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art put together for a screening of the film, there is the studio reader’s report on the play. It is clear that the plot, for all Koch’s insistence that nobody knew what the story was, was pretty much followed in the script as it developed. After all, both well-known playwrights Robert Sherwood and Ben Hecht had told the play’s potential producers that it needed no major changes. The screenwriters, probably Koch, carefully re-wrote the second scene where Ilsa comes to Rick for the letters so that the studio could make the case to the censors they did not sleep together. We never see them in bed, we never get any indication they were ever undressed, there is no cut away from kissing to curtains blowing in the wind. But adults in the audience probably figured out she was boffing his brains out to get the letters. Whoever wrote the scene did a very nice job.
We do know that it was Koch who added the political details about Rick’s past. In the play he was just a lawyer in Paris. Koch wanted the flashback to be about Rick’s running guns and fighting in Spain, but Curtiz and Wallis wanted it to be about Paris. So Wallis got Robinson to write the Paris sequence, and it is a beautiful example of not telling us too much. Rick and Ilsa have fallen in love, but decided it will only be a short-lived romance, so they don’t ask each other about the other’s past. If he asks and she tells him about Victor, the movie is over at that point. The next time you watch the film, look at how short the Paris sequence is. Vivid, but short. But that’s true of most of the film’s scenes. I mentioned in writing about The Conspirators that Peter Lorre’s scene with Bogart is shorter than the screen time he has in the latter film, but it sticks in the mind. The same is true of all of the secondary characters. I have no idea how many of them are in the play, but it is typical Warner Brothers screenwriting style to pile on the number of characters. Look at the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood for another example. The Epsteins were noted for their wit, and that probably extends to the characterization in addition to the great dialogue. But Koch contributed to the dialogue as well. Bogart was not happy with the part of Rick, since he felt he sulked too much. To liven things up, Koch was the one who changed “Of all the cafes in all the world, she walks into my café” to the infinitely superior, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine!”
The Epsteins started the script, then went off to write Prelude to War (1942), the first of the Frank Capra’s Why We Fight propaganda films for the government. Koch continued writing, then the Epsteins returned. The ending of the play has Rick getting the drop on Rinaldi (Renault in the film) and forcing Ilsa to go with Victor. Then he turns himself into Rinaldi and Strasser, his “self-respect redeemed,” as the Warner Brothers reader Stephen Karnot puts it. Many different endings were considered, and the Epsteins came up with the one used in to film. And Michael Curtiz almost killed it. After it was shot, Wallis called up the Epsteins and said their ending didn’t work. They had had doubts about it, but strongly defended it to Wallis. Wallis ran what Curtiz had shot for them, and they noticed the flaw immediately. After Rick shoots Strasser, Renault says to the arriving police, “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.” Claude Rains had read the line straight through, and Curtiz, not a whiz with the English language, had let him. The Epsteins pointed out there needs to be a pause between the two sentences as Renault thinks about it. (I am not sure if the pause is in the shooting script: it is in the published version, but I seem to recall seeing somewhere—how about that for thorough research?—a copy of the last page in which there is no pause.) Wallis ordered Curtiz to shoot two additional shots of close-ups that could be cut in. The next time you see the film you will notice there is virtually nothing in the background of those two shots and the cut to the medium shot of Renault saying the second line is a bit awkward. But that ending is perfect example of all the moving parts working together.
Restless (2012. Written by William Boyd, based on his novel. 180 minutes.)
Who do you want to watch?: A woman in her thirties is—what the hell?—it’s Lady Mary of Downton Abbey. Except she’s wearing bell bottoms, a paisley blouse, and her hair very straight. OK, the actress is Michelle Dockery, and if you thought she could only do heritage drama, guess again—unless you think of a film made for television set in the ‘70s is now heritage. She is Ruth Gilmartin and she is off to visit her Mum, Sally. Except Sally is toting a shotgun and thinks somebody is out to get her. And she’s played by Charlotte Rampling, Lucia Atherton of The Night Porter (1974) her ownself. Not your typical Mum. She gives Ruth her memoirs, which reveal that Sally is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian woman who worked for British Intelligence during World War II. As we begin to go into the flashbacks of Eva’s story, I said to my wife, “I’m perfectly willing to forgo whatever the plot is going to be just to watch Dockery and Rampling go at each other.” But instead we get Haley Atwell as the younger Eva, and while I am sure Ms. Atwell is kind to widows and orphans, in terms of screen presence she cannot hold a candle to Dockery and Rampling. I am not the only one who felt that way. Matt Roush, the critic for TV Guide, wrote in the December 3-9 issue, “I often got antsy to return to the ‘70s, where the well-matched Dockery and Rampling make an uncommonly tart team…” The World War II storyline is interesting enough with shootouts and chases, but the character work is what makes the script for this British television work. You will not be surprised to learn that Boyd has signed up to write the next couple of Bond movies, since they are focusing now on character. Maybe they will kill off Ralph Fiennes as M in the next one and have him replaced by Charlotte Rampling.
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.
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.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here aht the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
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.2.5
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
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.3
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
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.3
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
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.1
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.3
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
Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life
The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.1.5
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
Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances
The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.2.5
If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.
Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.
A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.
Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.
There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror
We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.1.5
The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.
Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.
Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.
Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.
Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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