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Understanding Screenwriting #13: Four Christmases, Australia, Ugly Betty, Boston Legal, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #13: Four Christmases, Australia, Ugly Betty, Boston Legal, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Four Christmases, Australia, Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Boston Legal, CSI, and the Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set, but first…

Fan Mail: “Tom” took exception to my comments in US#12 about Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo. He thinks it’s “not bad,” since the character is supposed to be cold and mysterious. He’s got a point, but I think Novak, whom I love it a lot of other films, is more blank than mysterious. A lot of the problem is that the script gives her very little to play and Hitchcock seems happy with that. I have often suggested to my writing students (and to many others) that instead of pulling a Brian De Palma and remaking Vertigo endlessly from the man’s point of view, how about doing a rip-off from the woman’s point of view? What does she think about all this? She’s having fun running around pretending to be the wife, knowing there’s a guy looking out for her, but what does she do when she finds out it’s part of a murder plot? Does she get revenge on the husband? Does she get revenge on the Jimmy Stewart character? So far nobody has taken me up on the challenge of doing that script, probably because, to use John Sayles’s wonderful phrase, you could make the movie, but you couldn’t get it made. What would happen is that, somewhere in the development process, some male executive, producer, or director would insist it be told from the man’s point of view.

Tom also says that we “all know” that it takes more than just a good script and a good actor to get a good performance. No, we don’t all know that. I was struck during the release of Scorsese’s Casino that it appeared that not a single American interviewer asked him about Sharon Stone’s performance, which the critics generally agreed was the best thing in the film. Did the interviewers not think to ask him, or did they ask him and not like what he had to say? When the film was released in English, there was a cover story in Sight & Sound with the cover proclaiming “Martin Scorsese on Sharon Stone and Casino.” I read the interview, and when the interviewer asked about Stone, Scorsese said, “De Niro really helped her through those scenes. He’s very generous with her and you can see how he’s always helping,” adding she worked out the costume details herself. (Sight & Sound, January 1996, page 10). He does not have anything else to say about her. In other words, Scorsese essentially admits he had nothing to do with the best performance in the picture. Other examples from other directors provided upon request.

Four Christmases(2008. Screenplay by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, Story by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson. 88 minutes): No, it’s not Lubitsch. But it’s funny.

The critics hated, hated, HATED this movie. And it was number one at the box office two weeks in a row. With good reason.

A couple ends up having to visit his dad, her mom, his mom, and her dad over one Christmas day. The idea struck me as having potential when I saw the trailer, but then the critics hated it, so I put off seeing it for a couple of weeks, during which it made a pile of money. So I went in with the question: why do the critics hate this movie? The first obvious answer is that the couple, Brad and Kate, are yuppies, i.e., not unlike many film critics. And while the couple is relatively sympathetic, they are also made fun of, particularly their self-absorption. If they had been nothing but charming and the families were as bizarre as they are, the critics would probably have loved it.

The first family they visit is Brad’s dad, a macho geezer with Brad’s two brothers who are worse then dad is. The brothers are constantly beating up on Brad, and when Kate gets him to stand up to them, they beat him up some more.

The second family is Kate’s mom and aunts and sisters, who embarrass Kate by bringing out the pictures of her when she was young and fat. She’s never told Brad about that, and he is not only interested, which makes things worse, but is rather flattered to be surrounded by all these women, a real change from his upbringing. Then the womenfolk drag the couple off to the fundamentalist church for Christmas services. Certainly this should be the kind of satirical jibe that yuppie film critics would love. Ah, no. Yes, the emotional excess of the church is funny, but a lot of the humor comes from Brad and Kate being drafted to play Joseph and Mary at the last minute in the church pageant. Brad’s a lawyer, i.e., a performer, and he is determined to save the show, which only makes him look more ridiculous.

Now if you were being strict about structure, the next house would be Kate’s dad. It’s not. It’s Brad’s mom, who is now shacking up with … one of Brad’s childhood friends, who assures Brad that he “never had sexual feelings about your mom until I was thirty.” Brad is not reassured. The way the film is set up, you think there is going to be no overlapping of characters from sequence to sequence. Not so. One of Brad’s brothers shows up here, and he and his pregnant wife, both of whom seemed like white trash at the dad’s house, beat Kate and Brad at a … wait for it … word association game.

Finally we get to Kate’s dad’s house, where his wife has welcomed his first wife and the fundamentalist minister and Kate’s sister. We are getting more into character now and Brad and Kate are evaluating their relationship. Their semi-final clinch is an earned heart-warming moment, but the topper at the end of the movie brings us back to the humor we started with.
Not a single review I have read noticed that each of the households (by the way, guys, nice writing for the production designers and set decorators) has an Oscar-winning actor in it. None of the Oscar-winners are heavily challenged, but all the actors bring a precision to their work, since they know they are not going to be on screen that long. The movie moves briskly and if you are really turned off by one of the families, you know there will be another one along shortly.

A directing note. The director, Seth Gordon, has shot the brother-and-his-wife-word-association game in essentially one long take, and it is the sharpest thing in the picture. We see the actors develop the comic rhythm of the scene, with no interruptions. Tamra Davis, a former student of mine, told me that when she directed the Adam Sandler film Billy Madison she learned that a large part of directing comedy is putting your talents at the service of the actors. If the audience cannot see or hear what the actors are doing, they are not going to laugh.

Lubitsch knew that.

Australia(2008. Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann & Stuart Beattie & Ronald Harwood & Richard Flanagan, story by Baz Luhrmann. 165 minutes): So-so script, execrable direction.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was called in as the last of three writers to work with Luhrmann on the script. Flanagan is quoted in an article in the November/December issue of Creative Screenwriting about the process: “Baz is great in that once you have an idea he loves chasing it to the endpoint. Once we got a good idea he was happy to plow up the rest of the movie to make it work, so the more good ideas we had, the more work we created for ourselves.” Let’s just say this field has been plowed over a few too many times.

The script starts with Nullah, an Aborigine boy, telling us in voiceover the first time he sees “Mrs. Boss,” Lady Sarah Ashley, who has come from England to get her husband back. Fine, except that we then go back to England to see her deciding to come. And we get a meet-cute with the Drover when he is in the middle of a bar fight. The Drover drives her to her husband’s ranch, Faraway Downs, and we get, twenty minutes into the picture, a repeat of the opening scene. We do not need it twice.

Sarah’s husband has been killed and she decides to take his cattle herd to Darwin to sell to the army. She knows nothing about running cattle, so the Drover heads up the cattle drive, along with Sarah, her husband’s drunken accountant, Nullah, and some others. Several reviewers have complained that the movie goes on too long after the cattle drive, as if you could not have a large trek early in the picture. That’s not the problem. After all, in Lawrence of Arabia the trek to Aqaba starts at 53 minutes into the picture, ends 53 minutes later, and the picture goes on another 110 minutes. But the attack on Aqaba makes it necessary for Lawrence to then go to Cairo to tell the British, which in turns sets up Lawrence’s future raids on the Turks. The problem in Australia is that the end of the cattle drive halts the film’s momentum. Almost every plot question brought up so far (can they get the cattle there? Will Faraway Downs be saved? Will Sarah and the Drover realize they are made for each other?) is answered at the end of the drive. The script then has to start all over again, and the remaining hour or so of the film is taken up with several plots lines, none of which have the momentum of the cattle drive. At many different points in the last hour, the music could swell up and we would accept the film is over. Then as we get closer to the end of the film, the scenes are dragged out at an interminable length. There are quicker ways to get the characters together and give them a happy ending.

Stuart Beattie, the earliest writer with Luhrmann on the film, said in the same Creative Screenwriting article that he and Luhrmann studied, among other epic romances, Casablanca, Giant, and Gone with the Wind. They learned badly from Gone with the Wind, which also has the flaw of going on way too long in its last 45 minutes, and they learned nothing from the speed and character development of Casablanca. But they truly missed learning from Giant, especially in the older film’s handling of the Mexican American characters. The Aboriginal material in Australia feels very tacked on, and was handled much better in Rabbit-Proof Fence.

The film could scrape by if Luhrmann’s direction were not so awful. He is not cutting quite as frantically as he was in Moulin Rouge!, but his twitchy style almost ruins the meet-cute at the beginning. It does ruin the arrival of the Faraway Downs herd into Darwin, since he kills his best joke of one high-society lady seeing a calf wandering down the street by cutting away to several other people before cutting back to the rest of the herd going by. Luhrmann has to be the most humorless director since Peter Jackson.

Luhrmann’s direction of the actors wanders all over the map. Hugh Jackman as the Drover and Brandon Walters are wonderful (and Jackman has a good, if not great hat). On the other hand, Nicole Kidman, one of the great actresses of our time, is a mess here. Luhrmann has let her get away with being overly fidgety in her first scenes, so much so you just want to not look her. It takes a lot for me not to want to look at Nicole Kidman. She settles down a bit later, but never really finds the character. Jack Thompson, one of Australia’s first team, overacts badly as the drunken accountant. He is suffering from a problem many actors have: he read the script. He discovered his character gets killed off early in the film and became determined to do as much as he could in the screen time he has. You have seen other actors do this, I am sure. Directors have to keep an eye out to avoid that.

Like Seth Gordon did with his Oscar-winners in Four Christmases.

Ugly Betty(2008. Episode “Bad Amanda” written by Chris Black. 30 minutes): Developing relationships.

Betty is getting tired of Amanda, the be-yotch at the office, being her unwanted roommate. So sweet little Betty is unhappy when Daniel likes her idea for an article for their online edition about living in New York City without a lot of money, but insists that Betty and Amanda do it together. Normally we are more sympathetic to Betty than anyone else, but Daniel is right this time. Amanda knows how to cage free stuff, such as taking dresses out for a spin and then returning them. Amanda picks up a couple of guys at a gallery opening who take them to dinner at a fancy restaurant. And leave them with the bill. But Betty has learned a thing or two from Amanda and persuades the restaurant owner that Mode will be doing a spread on the restaurant, and the owner comps them. What Black is doing is developing the relationship between Betty and Amanda, going beyond their usual scenes (Amanda snips at Betty, Betty looks hurt). By the end of the episode, Betty is not too upset when Daniel suggests that she and Amanda do a regular column on the subject. However, Betty does not bother to tell Amanda this and lets her suffer through the second job she got.

He does the same thing with Wilhelmina and Christina, who is carrying a baby for Willie. Usually their scenes have been Willie barking at Christina, but Black has given them a nice heart-to-heart about the baby.

There have also been some other episodes earlier in the season that have done similar things with the other characters, including Marc. So far the writers have done well at deepening the relationships.

30 Rock(2008. Episode “Reunion” written by Matt Hubbard. 30 minutes): A high school reunion episode? What a cliché. Not.

For writers of television sitcoms, there are certain standard episodes you go to when you cannot think of anything else. The surprise birthday party. The talent show. The trip to Hawaii (usually at the beginning of the third or fourth season). And of course the high school reunion.

Usually a reunion show has the main character discovering his or her old love has gotten fat or bald or both. Or that the people who bullied him or her have turned into falling down drunks. Or, if the writers are really adventurous, the main character comes away happy he or she is not in high school any more, although with the focus by advertisers on the younger demographic, you won’t see a lot of those any more.

In this episode, Liz is afraid to go to her reunion because everybody bullied her in high school. Guess again, Liz. THEY think SHE bullied them, and they really don’t want her and her snippy sarcasm around, even if it has made her rich writing for television. Not your usual reunion show. And to make it even better, not a big-name guest star in sight. Now that Oprah, Jennifer and Steve have kickstarted the ratings for 30 Rock, it can get back to doing what it does best.

Boston Legal (2008. Episodes “Made in China/Last Call,” teleplay by David E. Kelley, story by Susan Dickes & David E. Kelley & Lauren Mackenzie. 120 minutes): Farewell to Alan and Denny and Shirley and Jerry and Katey.

In the “Thanksgiving” episode I mentioned briefly in US#12, it was also brought up that Crane, Poole, and Schmidt was financially failing. This comes home to roost in the first of these two series finale episodes when the firm is bought by a Chinese company, which would just as soon have Alan and Denny leave. Alan, making one of his wonderful summations, tells the Chinese he will beat them in court because his case is more winnable and the jury will like him. The Chinese agree to keep them. At their weekly balcony meeting, Denny suggests that he and Alan get married, so Alan can inherit Denny’s money and start a legal aid firm Alan is thinking about. Alan agrees, complete with references to “jumping the shark” and finding a new network, “one that cares.” Kelley again munching on the hand that feeds him, as he and the writers did a few episodes previously when Carl in a case about ageism mentioned that there was only one show on television that featured actors over fifty. He started to say Boston Legal, then said, “But that would break the wall,” as though there were any wall left by how.

In the second episode, Shirley and Carl’s wedding plans get disrupted by a priest and a rabbi who get into an argument. Alan and Denny are hit with an injunction against their marriage by the gay and lesbian group who thinks they are making a mockery of gay marriage, since they are relentlessly heterosexual. Alan goes before the Supreme Court to argue for Denny’s right to an experimental drug, but he and Kelley cannot help but whack the current court over the head a few times before they actually argue the case. Denny and Alan have planned to go off fishing and get married at the lodge. When Justice Scalia mentions from the bench that he is about to go on vacation, you know exactly where this is going. Denny and Alan have invited Carl and Shirley, along with the judge who dismissed the complaint, to join them and make it a double wedding. Yes, Scalia shows up and he marries the two couples. I have heard no indication of what, if anything, the real Scalia thought about all this. Maybe he was happy being portrayed in a positive light.

Denny and Alan are back on the balcony—-no, wait a minute. It’s two of the Chinese lawyers, talking about how crazy Denny and Alan are.

Which explains why Jerry and Katey did not decide to make it a triple wedding. We need the scene of Jerry walking her home and kissing. Kelley is at least showing some restraint, and setting up the final scene:

By the time we cut back to the balcony, Alan and Denny are there. And they have their wedding dance. Sweet and funny, and a great sendoff to a show that has given at least some of us as much pleasure as any other David E. Kelley series.

Even if, in the real world, the firm would have insisted Denny retire years ago. But this is television, which gave us Jed Bartlett as President of the United States for most of the time where, in reality, we had to make do with George W. Bush.

CSI (2008. Episode “19 Down,” written by Naren Shankar & Carol Mendelsohn. 60 minutes): Transition game.

We know that Grissom has been building up to leaving. The writers handle his statement to the team in an understated way. He is passing out the daily assignments, then adds that he is leaving. And that’s the teaser for this episode.

The writers then follow up with scenes with Grissom and members of the team individually, most of whom are surprised. Catherine is not. She’s seen it coming. I’ve always thought she was the smartest one of the bunch. These scenes are spread out during the case they are working on, the way they might be in real life.

The case involves a serial killer they had put away years ago, and the only way Grissom can talk to him is sign up for a course given by a college professor. Dr. Raymond Langston has set up teleconferencing calls between his class and the killer in prison. Grissom hasn’t told Langston he is a CSI, so Langston’s a little put out when he finds out. We do find out that Langston is also a medical doctor but got away from it when he was at a hospital where an “Angel of Death” nurse killed several patients. Langston had seen the evidence, but couldn’t crack the case. Grissom and Langston work together, and eventually they find the killer’s outside assistant. Unfortunately, he’s been murdered, which lead Captain Brass to say to Grissom, “I guess you won’t be leaving any time soon.” There is no indication in this episode that Langston will take over, especially since it is established earlier that Catherine will run the unit.

The writers, on this episode and the entire show, are certainly taking their time easing Grissom out, but it at least feels like a more realistic progression than we often get on series television. Sometimes television is Denny Crane and Jed Bartlett, sometimes it’s real.

The Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set(2008. Films: The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station): Required viewing.

I was delighted to see Matt Zoller Seitz’s smart essay on this box set. He is dead on right when he writes “They are marvels of economy and elegance-—a tutorial in classical narrative cinema.” That’s true not only of Boetticher’s direction, but also of the screenplays. Just as the direction does not have a single wasted shot, the screenplays do not have a single wasted scene or line of dialogue. And Charles Lang Jr. (he is not, by the way, the cinematographer of the same name) and especially Burt Kennedy create a wonderful galley of characters for a wonderful gallery of character actors to play. Kennedy wrote some other interesting westerns in the later sixties, but none were as good as these.

I would write more about this, but I have not seen several of these films in years. I am trusting that Santa Claus herself will do as I asked and give me the set for Christmas. Happy Holidays!

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

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




A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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