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Understanding Screenwriting #15: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #15: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, Meet Me In St. Louis, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Them!, and Jumper, but first…

Fan Mail: Matt Zoller Seitz, I figured you were kidding about the suggestion of using the Lubitsch line on the DVD box, but I could not resist replying. You are right about the difficulty of getting the right tone across in writing. That’s why we all need great actors to read our lines properly.

For Matt Maul, the story of Wise not being told that Klaatu was a Christ figure is from the same Creative Screenwriting article I mentioned. Edmund North had it in his notes, but never bothered to tell Wise. Well, he really didn’t need to know, did he? And if he had known, he might have made it more obvious. Although giving him the human name Carpenter makes it fairly obvious. And Matt, your line that “Given that Klaatu’s warnings are still basically backed up by his ability to destroy the earth, his admonishments comes across as ’stop hurting the planet or we’ll blow it up’” captures the problem with the film more succinctly than I did.

Bedtime Stories (2008. Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy, story by Matt Lopez. 95 minutes): Also not Lubitsch, but also funny.

The first thing you have to know is that I have never been an Adam Sandler fan. For that matter, I have never been much of a fan of any of the man-child comedians. Harry Langdon always struck me as creepy, Jerry Lewis as bizarre, and Will Ferrell as infantile. The only time I liked Sandler was in Punch-Drunk Love, which was an Adam Sandler movie for those who didn’t like Adam Sandler movies. But the trailer for Bedtime Stories, which was probably the best trailer for all the Christmas releases, showed promise. Sandler seemed to be a little more reserved than normal, and the basic idea (a man tells his niece and nephew stories, which sort of come true) seemed to have possibilities. So I took my seven-year old grandson. Noam already loves Keaton and Airplane!, so I figured it was worth a shot.

What the trailer does not tell you is that there is a rather complex main plot, especially for a family film. Lopez and Herlihy set it up with surprising speed and without losing the kids in the audience. Sandler’s Skeeter has been cheated out of taking over his father’s motel, now a hotel. He wants to get the hotel back.

His sister insists he babysit her son and daughter while she goes off to Arizona to look for a job, since the school she is principal of is closing. Since Skeeter is the antithesis of a school principal, all he can do is tell them stories (and look how the writers have already set up that he and not his sister is the one who tells stories). The first one is a thinly disguised version, set in the Middle Ages, of his situation at the hotel. The additions the kids make to the story sort of come true, and Skeeter is now determined to make the storytelling help his quest for the hotel. So we have a purpose to telling the stories. As the film progresses, we go from recognizing the real elements in the stories to recognizing the story elements in real life. Not everything comes true in the way we expect. Birnam Wood does not literally come to Dunsinane, but sort of.

So, through the magic of CGI, we get the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome, and outer space, and for once the CGI is used to, a) tell the story, and b) tell the jokes. A character made up of snot in the outer space story not only gives us laughs in that story, but then connects with action in the main story. The script is surprisingly focused, with very little that is extraneous, not often true of comedies. Remember the sister’s school? It’s not just a setup.

The characterization is also focused, which keeps the actors from going all over the place. Sandler is restrained, but not too restrained. And who should show up in two extended cameos but Rob Schneider. If there is any actor I like less than Sandler it is Schneider, but he’s actually good here. (Don’t let that get around; it will spoil his reputation.) If you have a good script, you can reduce the temptation for the actors to improvise, always a good thing. Because of the variety of stories and time periods, the casting is crucial to the film, since they need actors who can play several different variations on their characters. At first you may think Guy Pearce of Memento is wasted in what seems to be a standard prissy villain role, but stick around until he unleashes, how shall I put this without giving too much away, his inner Hugh Jackman. The female teacher Skeeter gets involved with is played by Keri Russell and it is at least a little more than the standard girlfriend part. She gets a lot to do, and a lot to react to off from Skeeter’s character.

Bedtime Stories is an entertaining comedy, but not a great one. There are a lot of small laughs, but no belly laughs. When I ran my DVD of Keaton’s The Navigator for Noam, he was laughing so hard we had to pause for him to go to the bathroom so he would not pee in his pants. The same thing when we looked at Airplane! He liked Bedtime Stories, but he stayed in his seat the entire film.

Last Chance Harvey (2008. Screenplay by Joel Hopkins. 92 minutes): O.K. it’s not … surprise … Curtis, Linklater, Krizan, Delpy, and Hawke, but it’s charming.

Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman had a couple of scenes together in Stranger Than Fiction and seemed to hit it off professionally, so Thompson was on the lookout for a script they could do together. She mentioned this to Hopkins and he came up with this. That’s the way Thompson has been telling. On the December 28th Charlie Rose show, Hoffman said the script may have been written for them, or it may have been written before and then adjusted for them. He had at least one other version as well. I’d buy Thompson’s version, since Hoffman used to insist that his performance as Stanley Motss in Wag the Dog was not a Robert Evans imitation.

However it happened, the script is a star vehicle for the two of them. I mentioned in US#11 that my wife and I were taken with the trailer, at least partly because of the on-screen chemistry between Hoffman and Thompson. The script does write to their strengths, but it is a little too much in their comfort zone. It is fun to see Thompson play a woman who isn’t quite sure she is going to make a romantic attachment, as she did in Peter’s Friends and Sense and Sensibility. It is also fun to see Hoffman play a guy who can’t quite connect, as he did in The Graduate and Tootsie. But they both have been doing that for a long time. They do it well, which is the reason to see the film, but couldn’t Hopkins have gone around a couple of unexpected corners? I am sure both stars could corner well. And it suggests the scenes are not as strong as they might be when the wordless montages show more chemistry between them than the dialogue scenes.

Hoffman is Harvey, who has come to London for his estranged daughter’s wedding. She wants her stepfather to give her away instead. And he learns he’s lost his job. He and Kate meet, twice actually before they really meet, a nice touch, and walk around London getting to know each other. Ah, just like Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s Before Sunrise. Sort of, but more like Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s sequel, Before Sunset. In the latter film, Jesse and Celine are meeting ten years after they have had the fling in the first film, so the characters are older and wiser. So are Harvey and Kate, but Linklater et al dig deeper into the characters. Delpy and Hawke had been thinking about the characters for the intervening ten years and it shows.

If you know the geography of London, Harvey and Kate have to have been wearing hiking boots to get from here to there in a couple of scenes. Part of what Hopkins is trying to do is to make London seem as romantic as Paris generally is in movies. But Richard Curtis did that already, especially in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Both films feature extended scenes on the South Bank, but Curtis got there first.

Hopkins also shortchanges the secondary characters, always a potential error in star vehicles. See below for how to avoid the problem. For all the time they spend walking around London, the wedding reception is still going on when Kate convinces Harvey to go back to it. He takes her along. Now think about everything you could do when the shlub of a father suddenly shows up with a woman who looks like Emma Thompson. Sorry, none of that happens. Harvey has a quick line that his ex-wife is giving Kate the eye, but nothing more is done with it. Like the film, the scene is charming, but more could have been done with both.

Valkyrie(2008. Written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander. 120 minutes): No, it’s not Shakespeare, or even Nunnally Johnson, but it’s entertaining.

In 1950 Johnson wrote The Desert Fox, a film about German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Johnson’s script did not deal with Rommel’s fight against the British in North Africa, but his involvement in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler. Johnson said in the oral history interview I did with him that he thought the material was Shakespearean, “It is just so good, still so good. It was on a very high level, and I don’t pretend that I got anywhere near the level that it deserved.” He came close, and although the DVD is usually filed in stores in the Action section, it is more of a character study.

Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s Valkyrie is not so much a character study as it is a suspense and action picture. And they have a big star to deal with as well. The picture opens with a scene in the North African desert where we are introduced to our star character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Some version of the scene was in the script from the beginning, but according to Christopher McQuarrie, the scene kept changing as the film went through production. In view of all the discussion on various blogs and websites about Tom Cruise playing a German with an eyepatch, some of the details of the scene may well have been written in the later revisions to get the audience used to him. The scene starts with von Stauffenberg’s voiceover in German before mutating into English, and the action is set up specifically to show his injuries, especially to his eye. The scene, like the brief opening scene with Cruise at LAX in Collateral, reassures us that we are in the theater where the Tom Cruise movie is playing.

That is important because we then get one of the earlier attempts on Hitler’s life, with von Stauffenberg nowhere to be seen, but with at least one of the top British supporting cast, Kenneth Branagh as Major-General von Tresckow. McQuarrie and Alexander do a good job of balancing off the von Stauffenberg scenes with other scenes that tell the plot. Cruise is well cast because it is necessary that von Stauffenberg be completely charismatic and nobody can deliver that like Cruise. His is the star part, he knows it and McQuarrie and Alexander know it. And the supporting Brits know it too and can play variations that bounce off Cruise. Particularly from the mid-eighties on, Cruise has been very smart about surrounding himself with classy older actors, e.g. Newman in The Color of Money and Hoffman in Rain Man. We also get scenes with von Stauffenberg’s wife, but these are very generic. The wife is played by Carice von Houten, and the star of Black Book is wasted.

As you would expect from a script that Christopher McQuarrie, the author of The Usual Suspects, was involved with, there are some ingenious twists and turns. (No, Hitler does not turn out to be Keyser Söze.) Even if you know the plot is the July 20th plot, you will probably be so caught up in the story that when von Stauffenberg goes to a meeting with Hitler on the 15th you will have forgotten. That attempt does not work out, but it shows us the process, so that shortly thereafter we do not need to see all the lead-in on the 20th. And the attempt on the 20th comes about an hour and ten minutes into the film. You would expect it to come later, with a quick wrap-up afterwards. But here is the inventive part of the script: the attempt fails, which only makes things worse. We, and von Stauffenberg, do not know for a long time whether Hitler has been killed. The rest of the plan goes into effect, but with not all of those Brit supporting actors going along. This ratchets-up the suspense and the action as the plot unravels. The script and the picture, in effect, deliver more than promised, always a good thing.

Waltz with Bashir(2008. Written by Ari Folman. 90 minutes): Where’s Ward Kimball when you need him?

In an interview with Ella Taylor in the LA Weekly Ari Folman, the writer/director of Waltz With Bashir, tells the genesis of the film. A friend of his told him of nightmares he had been having about his experiences in the Israeli army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Folman, who had been there as well, realized he had no memories of the events. Folman began talking and taping others about their memories and working with a therapist to bring out his own memories. Then Folman decided to turn all this into a documentary. People often think the “writing” of a documentary is just the narration, but as I pointed out in writing about The Order of Myths (US#2), there is much more to it. The most crucial writing element in documentaries is finding the structure. Here it is Folman’s search not only for his own memories, but through the others, finding out what happened when the Israeli army stood by and let the Christian Phalangists massacre Palestinian refugees. So far, so good.

Then Folman decided to focus on the surreal aspects of his and the others’ dreams. Wait a minute, can you make a surrealist documentary? Does not surrealism seem to be at odds with the very idea of documentary as reality? Yes but. As anyone who has lived through any of the last seventy years or so knows, reality in the world we live in is almost surreal by definition. And even further back, Luis Buñuel (of course, who else would you expect?) proved you could make a surrealistic documentary with his 1933 Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread). It is all in how you put together the realistic details. So, so far, still so good.

Then Folman decided he wanted to make it an animated documentary. Wait a minute, can you make an animated documentary? Does not animation seem to be at odds with, well, you get the idea. But animation has been used in documentaries from the beginning. There are slightly animated maps in the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in 1922, and Walt Disney did some great propaganda animation for the Frank Capra World War II series Why We Fight. But a documentary that is totally animated? Well, yes, Disney again, with his 1943 Victory Through Air Power, where he uses animation to give us concepts and ideas that you cannot literally show, such as the size of 1943’s aircraft by showing the Wright Brothers plane recreating its original flight on the wing of an airborne B-19.

Yeah, fine, but still … a surrealist, animated documentary? Disney again, although most of the credit goes to one of his genius animators, Ward Kimball. Kimball got the call from Disney to do the Tomorrowland films for the fifties television series Disneyland. For the 1957 episode “Mars and Beyond,” Kimball’s team talked to scientists about what life on Mars might be like. Then the team went across the street from the studio, got drunk on stingers, came back to the studio, drew up the weirdest things they could conjure out of what the scientists said. Then they went home, slept it off, and came back a couple of days later and animated the sequence. Voila, a surrealist animated documentary. (The backstory is from a visit Kimball made to my documentary class at LACC in the seventies.)

So how does Folman and Waltz With Bashir stack up against Kimball and “Mars and Beyond”? Not well, unfortunately. The first problem is that Folman and his animator Yoni Goldman have animated the interviews. Folman is insistent that his process is not the same as Rotoscoping, since the animation team does trace over the live action interview material, but uses that material as a guide. Either way, we lose an enormous amount of the facial expression of emotions that we would get in live action. The idea may have been to give us a little distance from the speakers, but there is too much distance. Think of some of the documentaries you have seen where interviews and emotions are at the heart of the story, such as Roger & Me or Paris is Burning. Norma Desmond was partially right; they had faces, along with the dialogue.

Too much time is taken up with the interviews, and the recreations of the action the men talk about get visually repetitive as well. Since one of Folman’s ideas was that animation can deal with the surreal elements of the dreams and the events, it is especially disheartening that the dreams are not MORE surreal. Granted he does not have the Disney studio structure behind him, but he and Goldman could have been more visually inventive.

The final structural choice is an odd one. At the very end, Folman cuts to live action television footage of the actual victims of the massacre. Since he has brought us into the world in a completely animated way, it is a disconnect to go to live action. I think his idea was probably to remind us that this all was real, but it has the effect of making us suspect Folman did not trust his own film.

Meet Me in St. Louis(1944. Screenplay by Irving Brecher & Fred Finklehoffe, based on the stories by Sally Benson. 113 minutes): Why are all Christmas movies deranged?

Turner Classic Movies ran this one on Christmas Eve, I suppose because it’s the one where Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” While the film is not as bizarre as Capra’s film noir Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, it is strange enough.

The cute, adorable daughter, Tootie (played by Margaret O’Brien, of whom her occasional co-star Lionel Barrymore is reported to have said, “If that child had been born in the Middle Ages, she would have been burned as a witch”) is obsessed with death. She is constantly planning to kill off her dolls and give them elaborate funerals. I suppose that may come from the fact that her mother is played by Mary Astor, who only a few years before was Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon.

That’s weird enough, but the plot, which the writers take almost half of the film to get around to, is that the father has an offer of a job in New York. He wants to move, but the family is resistant. Resistant is hardly the word; they are closer to psychotic about the idea of leaving St. Louis. Now I am a Midwesterner by birth and have, as you may have read here, certain reservations about the East Coast, but the wife and children here seem to be determined to avoid anything that would in any way expose them to a wider world. I suspect that this film was the hit it was in 1944 and 45 because people felt that way at the end of World War II. They just wanted to go/stay home and be left alone.

Fort Apache (1948. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the story “Massacre” by James Warner Belllah. 127 minutes) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, based on the story “War Party” by James Warner Bellah. 103 minutes): As a jobbing film historian and western fan, I feel obligated to check in occasionally with the Ford cavalry trilogy.

These first two films of the trilogy popped up on cable recently and I was struck yet again by how sloppy Ford let scripts be when he did not have a strong producer like Samuel Goldwyn or Darryl Zanuck to guide the scriptwriting process. In the case of Fort Apache, Ford had Nugent, a first-time screenwriter who had been a film critic for The New York Times, put in so much comedy “relief” that critic James Agee noted “there is enough Irish comedy to make me wish Cromwell had done a more thorough job.” Ford thought that comedy was one of his strong suits, but it wasn’t. The drunken sergeants scenes stop the picture in all the wrong ways. At least on DVD or DVR you can fast forward through them.

The drunken sergeant is reduced to one in Yellow Ribbon and is not as obnoxious. The problem with this script is the last half hour, which is incoherent on a dramatic level. Captain Nathan Brittles is due to retire, and he goes out on one last scouting party. He returns and says goodbye to his troop. They give him a watch, a nice emotional scene. Fine, “the end” as the troop rides off without him? Not quite. After Brittles has the drunken sergeant put in the brig for being out of uniform (Brittles has given him his civilian retirement suit), Brittles says goodbye to the women at the fort. O.K., “the end” … not yet. The Indians are getting ready to drive the white men out and who shows up at the troop’s location? Brittles, still in uniform, claiming that his new watch says he is still on active duty until midnight. Brittles talks to the Indian chief to try to convince him to stop the attack. The chief says he can’t since the young braves want to go to war. Brittles runs off the Indians’ horses, stopping the attack. Now it is past midnight and he is a civilian. He is riding off into the west. “The end?” Not a chance. Sgt. Tyree comes after him to tell him his request to become a civilian scout for the Army, which has not mentioned before, has come through. So Brittles returns to the fort where, it being a John Ford movie, there is a dance going on. And then Brittles goes out to the grave of his wife to talk to her. Finally, “the end.” How could you do all that in a more coherent way?

Them! (1954. Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, adaptation by Russell S. Hughes of a story by George Worthington Yates. 94 minutes) and Jumper(2007. Screenplay by David S. Goyer and Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on a novel by Steven Gould. 88 minutes): A highly informative double feature.

After writing about The Day the Earth Stood Still in the last column (US#14), the differences between fifties’ sci-fi and current sci-fi was floating around in my head. Them! popped up on Turner Classic Movies, so I gave it a look. Like the earlier Earth Stood Still, it begins in an almost documentary fashion. Two New Mexico Highway Patrolmen discover a little girl in shock, the remains of her parents’ trailer, and a roadside store that has been ransacked. Lots of questions are set up, and we don’t see the GIANT ANTS until almost half an hour into the picture. There is not only one scientist, but his attractive daughter is also a scientist. They give us a more or less buy-the-premise-buy-the-bit explanation: the rules of the world of the film are established and then stuck to. The writers have beautifully taken advantage of the desert locations and, more famously, the storm drains of Los Angeles. They have also given us some interesting characters, particularly a civilian pilot being held in a psych ward and a drunk who may or may not have seen something.

The same day I saw Them! I later caught Jumper on HBO. No restraint here. David Rice discovers he is a “jumper,” meaning he can jump from place to place. As in from New York to England. He discovers this ability when he is a teenage boy and runs away from home. So what does he do with his gift? He jumps into banks and steals money. He jumps to London, seduces a girl, then jumps out of the room. In other words, he behaves like a stupid teenager. Even after he has gotten older. Is that the best the novelist and three screenwriters could come up with him to do?

He eventually goes back to his home town and reconnects with the girl he had a crush on. He remembers she wanted to travel, so he asks her to go to Rome with him (on a plane, not through his jumping). How does she react to this proposition? She goes with him without a second thought. Wouldn’t you have a second thought if a geek from high school suddenly showed up and offered to take you to Rome? The daughter-scientist in Them! does do a certain amount of screaming, but she does seem to have some intelligence and character. This girl has neither.

So off they go to Rome and into the Colosseum. The Colosseum is used moderately well, but the rest of the picture jumps all over the world, given us postcard views, but never using the locations as well as Them! uses the few it has. The director, Doug Liman, is one of those indie directors (Swingers and Go) who have moved into big studio films. He did a knockout job on The Bourne Identity, and he seems to assume here that if he jumped around a lot in that film, he can do it here. The difference is that Bourne Identity had a great story and a great character. David is just a typical teenager, even in his twenties, and the rules of the jumpers’ world are constantly changing. Unlike the “rules” about the ants in Them!, David is being chased by one “Paladin,” and sometimes, depending on what they need for the scene, several, who are determined to kill him. If David’s life is a teen fantasy, then the Paladins are the equivalent of the grownups. Since David is doing a lot that is illegal, I was rooting for the Paladins to kill him.

Did I mention this is simply conceived as fantasy/nightmare for teen boys? David’s mom has left the family years before, and he has to deal with a difficult father. If only his mom had not run off. Boo-hoo. But when David and the girl are arrested by the Italian police, who suddenly comes through the door but Mom, telling him to ditch the girl and jump out of the situation. We later learn that Mom is a Paladin and left so she wouldn’t have to kill her own son. Now THAT would have been an interesting movie.

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

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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

2.5

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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.

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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.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman

In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.

Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”

Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.

The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.

Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story

Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.

As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.

As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.

Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.

Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.

The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.

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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Photo: Netflix

Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.

Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.

The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.

The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.

Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.

These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.

Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.

Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.

There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.

These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.

Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair

Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.

Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.

Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.

The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.

Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels

The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.

Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.

Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.

Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).

Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.

Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.

So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.

Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.

So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.

Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.

From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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