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Understanding Screenwriting #11: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #11: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, 30 Rock, Some Quick Sweeps Updates, and Trailers, but first:

Fan Mail: I can appreciate theoldboy’s disappointment that I did not deal with the opening monologue in Crash. I often have a similar reaction after I send off a column to Keith and suddenly think, hey, why I didn’t I mention that.

I think Max Winter’s take on Sidney in Rachel Getting Married is a very interesting one, and I know there are a lot of people who feel as theoldboy does that the energy of the actors and the music make that film more entertaining than a lot of what is around. So far it has not been all that great a year for films and we have to take our pleasures where we can find them.

Changeling(2008. Written by J. Michael Straczynski. 141 minutes): The flaw in Eastwood’s iris.

One quality that has kept Clint Eastwood a major star, director and producer for over forty years is that he has a great eye for screenplays, not only to star in, but to produce and direct. And even more important for screenwriters is that he tends not to spend a lot of time in “developing” scripts. The original draft of a script is on white pages, and revisions are on different colored pages. Most “final” scripts look like rainbows on LSD. Frances Fisher, who was in Unforgiven, has said that it was the only film she ever worked on where all the script pages were white. You can see what that can get you with Unforgiven and Mystic River, just to name two of his best.

That’s the upside. The downside is that sometimes the scripts should have been developed more. Both Bird and Flags of Our Fathers could have been better focused. The Bridges of Madison County and Million Dollar Baby both go on much longer after their climaxes than they should. The latter problem affects Changeling, as in the long, long scene of the killer being hanged. Do we really need to see this at this late point in the film?

The screenplay’s author, J. Michael Straczynski, told Jason Davis in the September/October issue of Creative Screenwriting that the script first went to Ron Howard and his company. Straczynski and Howard worked on revisions, but when Eastwood came on board to direct, he wanted to see the writer’s first draft. Eastwood looked at the other drafts, but went with the first one, since he felt “the voice was clearest in the first draft.” That is usually true, and it is often the author’s voice that gets “developed” out of the script. The trick is to keep the author’s voice while improving the script. I have seen this happen with my screenwriting students and have to fight against it. It can be very tricky to improve the script without destroying what made it interesting in the first place. It takes executives and producers with restrained egos to do it right. You see the problem.

The story of Christine Collins is a true story, and Straczynski, a former journalist, compiled three file folder boxes of historical accounts, trial transcripts, and other material. Like many authors of novels, nonfiction, and screenplays, Straczynski tended to put as much of his research as he could into the film. In the second half, as Collins tries to find out what happened to her son, the film bogs down in commission hearings and trials, all of which are true, but get exhausting to watch. Those scenes could have been handled quicker.

The script also gets repetitive, especially with Collins. Her son Walter disappears and she bombards the police, repeatedly asking “Where’s my son?” When they bring her a boy they think is her son, she insists he is not, repeatedly stating, “He’s not my son.” OK, we get it, move on. The odd thing about these repetitive scenes with Collins is that instead of wanting to see the scenes with our star (Angelina Jolie plays Collins), we are relieved when she is not on screen asking about her son.

Straczynski has not focused the character of Collins as sharply as he might. We cannot tell exactly when this ordinary woman moves into being an implacable force. For all the power Jolie brings to the part, and it is considerable, it never quite comes together.

I hope you have not decided from all of the above to give the film a miss because there are things it does very well. The reconstruction of Southern California in the late 20s and early 30s is superb, as is the feel for the corruption of the police department at the time.

Straczynski has written some great scenes, not only for Jolie but the others. He said in the Creative Screenwriting interview that the one area he could not find any documentation on was what happened to Collins in the psychiatric ward. He based his scenes on what he was able to find out about treatments of the time. Since he is not tied down to the “facts” (i.e. transcripts, reports), he can use his artistic license, which he does well. Two of the film’s best scenes are in the ward. First is a nice little scene in which Carol Dexter, a prostitute, explains how the system works. This leads to a great scene in which Collins tries to outwit the shrink, using what Dexter has told her. Straczynski, Jolie, and Denis O’Hare as the doctor bring their A game to that scene, and Eastwood is smart enough as a director to just set back and let them go.

There are two great scenes in which young boys talk about what happened at the “ranch” where a serial killer took young boys. The first one is focused on the police officer interviewing the boy and realizing the horror of what the boy is telling him. The other, near the end of the picture, focuses almost completely on the other boy telling of his escape from the ranch. The scene leads to as much of a happy ending as this grueling film can provide.

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008. Written by Philippe Claudel. 115 minutes): Some movies move forward. Some movies move backward. This one does both.

We do not know much about Juliette when we first meet her, waiting at the airport. Her face has an emotionless expression. Her much more cheerful and open younger sister Lea picks her up. There are obviously things they are not talking about. As often happens, what people are reluctant to talk about it with their family gets discussed outside the family. We learn from other scenes that Juliette has been in prison. For fifteen years. For murdering her son. Don’t worry, that last is not a spoiler. We learn it half an hour into the film, and the revelation at the end if why she killed him. We work backwards, as it were, to that revelation.

We are working forward as Juliette begins her new life, and Lea and her husband adjust to having her around. At first Luc, the husband, is reluctant to have Juliette babysit their children and one can understand why. Eventually he suggests she babysit. Stated that way, it sounds obvious, but it is not. The film is a very subtle look at the changing relationships of Juliette, Lea, Luc, and their friends, most of whom do not know where Juliette has been. In one of the most suspenseful scenes in a film this year, a dinner at a country house turns into a guessing game as to where Juliette has been. The payoff is terrific.

Claudel, a French novelist and screenwriter, has written some great roles for the actors to play, and in his first directorial job, he does not fall into the trap Charlie Kaufman did with Synecdoche, New York (see US#10). The scenes, and the film, move. I knew I was in good hands when the opening shot on the great Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette was not held too long. Thomas said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times there was “tension on the set,” since she kept telling Claudel she could do the role with less dialogue. He was smart enough to listen to her.

The one downside is the ending. I am not sure I agree with David Denby in the November 10th New Yorker when he says it is a “cheat.” It has been prepared for, but Claudel has gotten us so deeply into the characters both intellectually and emotionally that the ending does not take us a far as the film has. It also leaves open a gaping plot hole. I won’t of course tell you what it is, but let’s just say that if Grissom and his gang of CSIs were on the original case, the outcome would have been different.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno(2008. Written by Kevin Smith. 101 minutes): Not really.

The idea had potential: two slackers, male and female, who have been friends since grade school decide to make a porn video in order to earn money and pay their bills. They have been platonic friends, but decide to do a sex scene in the film, during which they discover they are in love. So far, OK, but the details of the making of the porno are not particularly well handled, and the characterization of the participants is limited. Miri is set up to be just as foul-mouthed as Zack and most guys in Kevin Smith’s movies. Fine, but she is something of a step down from the similar Becky character in Smith’s Clerks II. And that film suggested the two guys from the first Clerks were at least showing hints of growing up. The romance between Zack and Miri is supposed to serve the same function here, but if anything it seems more adolescent rather than less. What inventiveness the first part of the film has fades away as it becomes more conventional and even sentimental by the ending.

If you do see it, however, you should stay through the credits, because there is a great payoff in the middle of the credits as to what the porno led to. Smith would have had a better movie if he had told the story the payoff suggests rather than the one he did.

A word on language. Part of why we go to a Kevin Smith movie is that the characters are all foul-mouthed, and you never know what they are going to say. I suppose making Becky and Miri just as foul-mouthed is a triumph for feminism, but this is the first Kevin Smith film where I really felt the language was excessive, or at least unneeded. That may sound odd, given that the characters are making a porno, but the language seems more generic gross language than the language that would come out during the making of a porno.

ER (1994. Episode “Pilot” written by Michael Crichton. 120 minutes): Michael Crichton died on November 4th. While he will be remembered for his novels and screenplays, one of his more lasting legacies is the television series ER.

Crichton went to medical school before he became a writer, and in 1974 he wrote a screenplay titled EW (for Emergency Ward). Nobody wanted to buy it. As Crichton later told Janine Pourroy for her book Behind the Scenes at ER, “I wanted to write something that was based in reality. Something that would have a fast pace and treat medicine in a realistic way. The screenplay was very unusual. It was very focused on the doctors, not the patients—the patients came and went. People yelled paragraphs of drug dosages at each other. It was very technical, almost a quasi-documentary.” He is right. His script resembles Frederick Wiseman’s 1970 Direct Cinema documentary Hospital, not only in content, but in structure. While there were a number of fiction films of the period that borrowed the Direct Cinema filmmaking style (M*A*S*H, The Candidate), very few borrowed the structure.

Crichton put the script in a drawer, where it stayed for fifteen years. In the late 80s, it came to Steven Spielberg, who expressed an interest in doing a medical drama. As Crichton and Spielberg talked, the director asked Crichton what else he was working on. Crichton said his newest novel was going to be about the cloning of dinosaurs from … well, that was the end of Spielberg’s interest in EW. A few years later Tony Thomopolous of Spielberg’s Amblin’ company found the script and suggested it might make a better television series than a film. Thomopolous put Crichton together with the former showrunner of China Beach, John Wells. By now several series, starting with Hill Street Blues in the 80s, had brought that multi-story, multi-character Direct Cinema structure to television. (For a more detailed look at how that happened, see my 1992 book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.) There were still concerns about what was now titled ER.

The two-hour pilot of ER establishes the tone and rhythm of the series. In the first act, we start with Dr. Mark Greene asleep. He is awakened by Lydia, an ER nurse, since the incoming patient is Dr. Doug Ross, the playboy pediatrician, coming in to sober up. The quiet of the morning gives way to action as victims of a building collapse are brought in. We see that Ross is a top-flight doctor, even when a patient vomits on him. At the end of the first act, Greene and Ross are asking Carol Hathaway, the head nurse, if there are any more patients. Hathaway, who has wandered through several scenes, tells them no and quietly walks off.

In the second act, we learn that Greene’s wife wants him to interview at a plusher hospital. This is one of few recurring storylines in the pilot. He goes for the interview later and near the end of the pilot decides to stay in the ER. I suspect that in Crichton’s film version we get him telling his wife, but here it is left up in the air. In the ER, John Carter shows up. He is a third year medical student starting a rotation. In a “normal” script, we would have started with him, so he could have “introduced” us to the ER. Here he comes in after we have a sense of the action of the ER. The doctor he is assigned to, Peter Benton, gives him a quick tour, which makes more sense to us since we have already seen some of the places. Later Carter has to try his stitches on Frank, a cop who shot himself in the leg while trying to hit his wife. There was no way anyone, on the show or just viewing it, would know that Frank would return several years later to work the main desk at Admitting.

Shortly before an hour into the show, we have what is so far the longest scene as Dr. Lewis talks to a man who suspects, rightly, that he has cancer. He asks Lewis to level with him, which she does. His reaction is to think of all the things he wants to do with his wife. Since character has never been Crichton’s strong suit (see my book Understanding Screenwriting for a discussion of Crichton’s writing on the three Jurassic Park movies), I suspect this may have been written, or at least rewritten by John Wells. Crichton gets the sole credit on the screenplay, but the scene feels less like him and more like Wells.

Shortly after the hour mark, at the end of Act Four, a new patient is brought into the ER. The doctors and nurses are in shock. The patient is Carol Hathaway, who tried to commit suicide. Ross seems the most stunned. We learned earlier that Hathaway and Ross flirt, although she is now engaged and as she says to Ross, “You had your chance.” Crichton has upped the ante because this is a patient we know, at least slightly, and her suicide attempt has shaken the major characters we have been following. In the original screenplay for the film, Hathaway died, but that was rewritten so at the end of the pilot we do not know whether she lives or dies. She went on in the series to rekindle her affair with Ross and go off with him to live happily ever after.

In Act Five they are treating Hathway and trying to figure out why she did it, and we get additional patients. One element in the pilot episode that does not appear to be continued into the series is that the doctors and nurses are constantly pulling sheets over patients to show they have died. In the series, patients die, but usually with really impressive death scenes.

In Act Six, Benton has a patient he thinks needs surgery. Since all the surgeons are away at a conference (possible, but unlikely) he decides to operate, at least until Dr. Morgenstern, the head of the ER, can get there. This, in spite of the fact that in Act One, a surgeon has told Benton he is not ready for surgery. The operation, which turns out well, was obviously intended to be the climax of the film.

What Crichton laid out, and what Wells and the other writers on the series carried through, was a complex structure that allowed for a variety of characters and stories to be told, either in single episodes or over several seasons. Since it was an ensemble show, cast changes, including the death of Mark Greene, were relatively easily worked into the show.

ER (2008. Episode “Heal Thyself” written by David Zabel. 60 minutes): Speaking of Mark Greene…

As I noticed in writing about Dr. Banfield’s arrival in “Another Thursday at County” (US#8), she seemed to have a passing familiarity with County General, especially one of the examination rooms. This week we learn what that was all about.

Banfield and her husband discuss something he brought up at a party last night, and she is not happy about it. We don’t know what. Out running, Banfield comes across the site of an accident, where a little girl has fallen into the lake. We begin to get flashbacks of Banfield, her husband, and their son (so it appears my guess in US#8 that the father was one of the show’s doctors was wrong; but is the son in the photograph the same one in the show?). How do we know they are flashbacks? Yes, Angela Bassett has on a long-haired wig, but she also looks younger and more at ease. How do actors do that? It’s a mystery.

As Banfield in the present accompanies the child and her father in the ambulance, we get more flashbacks of a seizure Banfield’s son had and her reluctance to take him to the hospital. She finally agrees, and at the end of Act Two they arrive at County General. The door of the ambulance is opened by Mark Greene.

Both in the past and the present we are in Trauma One, the room Banfield reacted to. In the past, Banfield gives Greene a hard time, and she eventually realizes her son has leukemia. The son dies, but in the present the girl lives. The past and present are seen in the same scene; at one point Banfield in the present looks at Banfield in the past. The cutting between the past and present has gotten quicker, as have the medical discussions. Crichton’s idea that there would be a lot of technical stuff the audiences would not necessarily understand is still alive and well on ER.

In the last of the flashbacks, Greene sees Banfield out by the river and reassures her that there was nothing she could have done that would have saved her son. Having Greene deliver the message should probably work better than it does. If you are going to bring Greene back from the dead, it had better be to have an impact on Banfield now. We do not really see that in this episode. It is nice to see Anthony Edwards (Greene) again, but he is not doing anything we did not seem him do for eight years before on the show. The same is true with the brief cameos of Dr. Weaver and Dr. Romano.

30 R(2008. “The One With the Cast of Night Court” written by Jack Burditt. 30 minutes): November 13th seemed to be a “bringing back the dead, or at least canceled, night” on NBC.

In addition to Greene returning to ER, 30 Rock pulled a twofer. Liz and Jenna’s friend from Chicago, Claire, showed up and was played by former-Friend Jennifer Aniston, hence the episode title in the “The One…” form used by Friends. The show was smart enough not to make Claire a Rachel clone, but rather a total whack-job, determined to seduce Jack in as many different situations as possible. Great choice of character and Aniston, who looked like she was having the time of her life, knocked it out of the park. Brad who? See, I told you they should have been promoting the writing rather than the guest stars.

The other canceled show that was referenced was Night Court. Kenneth, the page, was upset that the show had been canceled before the wedding between Harry and Christine got married, so Tracy arranged for some of the cast to come and enact the scene. Not quite as high flying as the Claire scenes, but meta-enough.

Ah yes, one other small point. Let me extend my personal thanks to all the American voters who made it possible that Tina Fey will not have to be moonlighting as Sarah Palin and can devote her full time and talent to this show.

Some Quick Sweeps Updates: On Two and a Half Men, Alan had a brief affair with his ex-wife, but sanity prevailed and they broke up again. She got back with Herb, her second husband, and she is now pregnant. Doing the math, it is clear to everybody but Herb that the child is probably Alan’s.

On CSI we finally got an episode in which we see Grissom suffering from Sara’s leaving, “Leave Out All the Rest.” It came while the CSI’s were investigating a murder involving torture, S&M, and other good things. So Grissom naturally went to talk to Lady Heather, his friendly neighborhood dominatrix. She recognized the murder was just a pretext. At least the issue was being actively dealt with by the show, rather than just lingering on close-ups of Grissom looking depressed. On the down side, the new CSI, Riley, was introduced in her first episode as having a sense of humor, which subsequently went missing in the following episodes. A little levity might not be out of the questions, team.

On Boston Legal David E. Kelley and Amanda Jones came up with a new take on an abortion episode, Roe, in spite of Denny’s insistence that audiences would be turning it off. The episode, broadcast on November 10th, does not seem to have caused any outrage.

And CBS, not having the courage of Kevin Smith’s convictions, has canceled The Ex-List.

Trailers: I have written about movie trailers a couple of times in relation to specific films, but this is more general.

On one of the Mad Men episodes, they ran several trailers for the upcoming remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, presumably because Jon Hamm has a supporting role in the film. I am sure many Mad Men fans loved the quiet subtlety of the original, but the trailers make the new one look like a remake of Independence Day. I doubt if the Mad Men audience is the desired demographic for that.

On the other hand, on another episode of Mad Men, there was a trailer for Revolutionary Road, which may have been too close to Mad Men in setting and tone. But it may well appeal to that demographic.

With most trailers, my general reaction is “no way.” Only occasionally do I see one that immediately makes me want to see the film. One such, in theaters now, is for Last Chance Harvey. It sets up the situation quickly: Harvey has gone to London for his daughter’s wedding, but she wants her stepfather to give her away. Harvey gets a call that he’s been fired. He meets a woman to share his troubles with. I assume from the one review I have seen so far that it is not the whole story. The trailer also suggests the script is providing a couple of great roles for its two stars, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who appear to have great chemistry. I turned to my wife at the end of the trailer and said, “Shall I go out now and get tickets?”

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

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

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




Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

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



Photo: Music Box Films

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

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

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

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

3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

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

Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

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

The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

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

Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

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

Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

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

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

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




Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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




Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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