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Understanding Screenwriting #17: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, ER, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #17: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, ER, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, His Nibs, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, ER, but first…

Fan Mail: Several interesting issues this time around. Both Andrew and Kevin H. raise the question of judging the script in comparison to the film and how fair that might be. Traditionally, criticism has dealt primarily with the art object (i.e., the final product), but more recently, criticism (particularly of the kind I do) has included an historical element of looking at the process as well as the object. We get exhibitions now in museums that look at the process leading up to the final object, such as a painter’s sketches and small scale versions as well as the final work. There has been a growing awareness that art is a process as much as an object. As someone who writes about screenwriting, which is the beginning of the process of filmmaking, I always take an interest in the earlier steps. I think it is perfectly fair to look at the materials created in the process to see the ways the film did, and did not, end up.

One of the things my research has taught me is that in most cases the films are not better than the scripts, in spite of what directors might tell you. Partly that is because filmmaking is an enormously complex undertaking, with any number of things that can go wrong. Of all the scripts I’ve read and the films made from them, I know of only two where the film was better. One was a Nunnally Johnson script called Casanova Brown, where Nunnally had ended up leaving out the motivation for the heroine, so we just had to take on faith that the hero was doing the right thing. The hero was played by Gary Cooper, so we accept his actions. The other was a film made from a script a student of mine wrote. In the writing she never overcame the problem that one of the minor characters was a cliché. Being an actress herself, she corrected it in her direction of the actor playing the part.

So we can, and I think should, look at the scripts and how they develop. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I have a chapter on Kinsey, which follows the film through three drafts of the script onto the final film. There are those who think it is the best chapter in the book. You can begin to understand how the process works, and get over the idea that the producer, director, or star just waves a magic wand and the film appears. Yeah, it’s more work looking at all this, but it is always more rewarding and informative. So I am going to continue talking about scripts. Both Kevin and Andrew get into some detail of the ways the process works, and we will have to admit sometimes it does not work out as well as we might like.

On the Forrest Gump front, of the options Matt Maul suggests, I think it was the conservatives (and not JUST the conservatives by the way) cheering for what they thought was the message of the film. Although I am not sure they thought of the film as a message picture in that sense. I don’t think they were seeing the irony in a movie that unintentionally presented that point of view. I think the film just fit in their minds with their own point of view.

Pacze Moj asks if there are any subjects that cannot be handled in scripts “according to the basic laws of Hollywood screenwriting.” Probably not, but some you would have to be a genius to make work in a way that Hollywood executives would believe and audiences would accept.

Eric Y, after saying he likes this column’s format (thank you), raises a procedural question as to how long it takes to do the column. That’s hard to say, since it is done over a period of time. I’ll see a movie, TV show, whatever, and I will make some notes on it, then a day or so later I will write up an item. Sometimes I will let several items pile up and write them all in a day. When I get enough, I send them off to Keith, who is the one who comes up with the great photographs that accompany the column. When I was wondering whether I had time to do this column, a friend of mine said, “Come on, Tom, that’s the kind of stuff you do all the time in e-mails to your friends.” She was right. In fact, the item in US#15 on Meet Me in St. Louis started life as something I was adding to my Christmas thank-you e-mails. I have pretty much always looked at films from the standpoint of screenwriting, so this column is just formulizing what I do anyway.

Slumdog Millionaire(2008. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Vikas Swarup. 120 minutes): Angels With Dirty Faces go to Mumbai. On steroids.

It is only fitting that after a lot of huffing and puffing, Slumdog Millionaire ended up being partially released by Warner Brothers. Originally it was co-produced by Warner Independent Pictures, and then Warners closed down WIP. The company was about to sell off the picture for spare parts (i.e., cable and DVD) when Twentieth Century-Fox got interested as a result of people writing about the picture from film festivals. Warners figured they might make a buck or two and they settled on a co-distribution deal with Fox. Warners will make more in absolute dollars with The Dark Knight, but they may make a greater return on their investment with this one.

The reason it is fitting it ends up at Warners is that the screenplay very much fits the traditional 1930s Warner Brothers narrative style. Whereas other film historians have written about the differences in studio looks, themes, et al, in my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I laid out the differences in narrative styles of the major studios. The Warners style is what I called “piling on.” I wrote, “There always seem to be more characters than needed to tell the story, more relationships between the characters, and more plot complications.” There is a LOT of piling on in Slumdog Millionaire.

The basic setup is that Jamal, a poor young man working as a tea server at a phone call center, wins and wins on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Nobody can understand how he can possibly know the answers to all the questions. The police interrogate him, and as he tells his life story we learn in the flashbacks how he happened to know the answers to each question. That would not necessarily hold our attention, but we come to learn he got on the program to impress Latika, a girl he grew up with in the slums. She is now a gangster’s mistress, watched over by Jamal’s brother Salim. Are you beginning to see the similarities with the Warners gangster movies of the thirties?

In addition to the similarities in content, Beaufoy piles on incident after incident after incident as we watch the three grow up. Beaufoy tells the story at a breakneck pace, which appears to have seemed like mere dawdling to director Danny Boyle, who speeds it up even more. As I started watching the film, I thought, “This is horribly over-directed,” but I eventually saw what Beaufoy and Boyle were up to. In a scene late in the picture, the Police Inspector comments that Jamal’s story is “bizarrely plausible.” Well, no it’s not. The coincidences involved in Jamal knowing the answers to THESE questions would be too much if the script and film were not going so fast that we don’t have time to consider the preposterousness of it all. This is a standard way of telling a tall tale: go so fast we do not have time to think. Beaufoy does this very well, which also covers up the fact that the characterizations are very shallow and cliched. But who wants depth in Cinderella?

Dodge City(1939. Original Screenplay by Robert Buckner. 104 minutes): Santa was good to me, take one.

Among the other things under the tree was a boxed set of five Errol Flynn movies, including four of my five favorite Flynn films. This is one of those, the best of all the big Warner Brothers westerns. As such it is a perfect example of that narrative style of Warners in the thirties and forties. Here is a checklist for Dodge City:

Great old-fashioned train. Check.

Stagecoach. Check.

Race between stagecoach and train. Check.

Buffalo. Check.

Stalwart hero (with some Southern sympathies, courtesy of Southern-born Buckner-—see also his Santa Fe Trail). Check.

Two, count ’em two, comic sidekicks for the hero. Check.

Two nasty sidekicks for the villain. Check.

Boot Hill Cemetery. Check.

Ceremony welcoming the railroad. Check.

Cattle drive. Check.

Cattle stampede. Check.

Covered wagon train. Check.

Indians attacking covered wagon train. No.

Dramatic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Sing-off in saloon between Northern and Southern supporters, “Marching Through Georgia” vs. “Dixie” (See Buckner above). Check.

The most overpopulated saloon brawl in film history (until the parody of it in Blazing Saddles). Check.

Worried townspeople appoint hero sheriff (almost an hour into the picture because of all the other activity; see how much quicker Wyatt Earp becomes the marshal in My Darling Clementine). Check.

Crusading newspaper editor. Check.

Comedy scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Murder of crusading newspaper editor. Check.

Assorted jail scenes with comic and nasty sidekicks. Check.

Romantic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Fight between good guys and bad guys in burning railroad car. Check.

Double happy ending: Flynn gets de Havilland and she agrees to go with him to clean up Virginia City (No, Virginia City the following year is not technically a sequel, but still…). Check.

Kitchen sink. No.

O.K., YOU try to get all that into 104 minutes and have it still make sense.

Ride Lonesome(1959. Written by Burt Kennedy. 73 minutes) and Comanche Station(1906. Written by Burt Kennedy. 74 minutes): Santa was good to me, take two.

We are definitely not in the Warner Brothers A-picture business here. Look at these two films and see how little of that checklist is included in them. These are the last two films in the Budd Boetticher Box Set Matt Zoller Seitz and I were drooling over in US#13. They are spare, low-budget, short films, which simply emphasizes how important a good script is when you don’t have a lot of money. Comanche Station has always been my favorite of all of the series, mostly because it was the first one I saw when they were first released. Seeing them together recently on a Saturday afternoon (when else would you watch them?), my reaction was that Kennedy’s script for Ride Lonesome is a little bit better.

Ben Brigade rides alone (the only thing I object to in Ride Lonesome is the title, which makes it sound like a forties singing cowgirl western), without even a single comic sidekick. He is a bounty hunter who tracks down Billy and outwits him, taking him prisoner. Billy insists his brothers, especially Frank, will come to rescue him. We see Billy’s four henchmen ride off to get Frank. We’re not even ten minutes into the film.

Ben and Billy find a stagecoach swing station that has two more bounty hunters there, Sam and Whit. Very different from Ben and each other. Ben is sly, always thinking the angles, Whit seems rather slow. (Ben is Pernell Roberts in his best performance, just before he fell into Bonanza, Whit is James Coburn in his first screen appearance, before he had developed his distinctive walk.) Sam and Whit would love to take Billy off Ben’s hands, since the wanted posters say anyone who brings Billy in gets an amnesty. Sam obviously needs one, although we never really find out why; Kennedy is very sparse on giving us information, which makes us pay attention even harder. And there is also Mrs. Lane, the wife of the station manager, who has gone missing. And there are Indians who are none too friendly. So obviously it is in Ben’s best interest to get Billy to Santa Cruz as soon as possible. Here is Kennedy’s genius: Ben is in no hurry to get there. He’s taking his own sweet time and taking the long way around. Look at how long before we find out why he’s doing that. And look at the nice little scenes Kennedy gives us between gorgeous shots of them riding in the Eastern Sierras. At one point Sam is discussing ALL his options with Whit, and in a short scene we get everything there is to know about the two of them. Some of the scenes are so good, and the actors are so good, Boetticher can shoot them in a single take.

Sam is talkative, Ben is laconic. When Sam goes on and on about Mrs. Lane, Ben replies, “She’s not ugly.” When she says to Ben, “You don’t seem like a man who would hunt for a man for murder,” he replies, “I am.”

Eventually we get to the spot where even Frank has realized that Ben intends to wait for him: the “hang tree,” an almost dead tree in the middle of a meadow where Frank hung Ben’s wife. Ben doesn’t care about Billy; he just wants Frank. Sam is willing to help him, but will Sam then turn on Ben to get Billy? Kennedy gives us a quick shootout with Ben and Frank and then a faceoff between Ben and Sam. And a perfect ending to that relationship. And the hang tree gets burned at the end.

The opening of Comanche Station is even better than the opening of Ride Lonesome. Jeff Cody is riding through the Eastern Sierras. When Indians come upon him, he simply gets off his horse, lays out the blanket he has with a lot of trinkets. The Indians want to trade two horses for his stuff. He turns them down. They take him into their camp and he trades his trinkets and his rifle for a white woman captive, Nancy Lowe. As they ride away, she tells him who she is. His reply, “I should have known.” Who is she? Why is he rescuing her without knowing who she is?

They come across a stage stop and three men, Ben, whom we later learn Jeff testified against at his army court martial, and two guys who look enough alike that we think they’re brothers. Ben, alas, is not quite the fascinating rouge that Sam was, and so the tension between them is not as interesting as that between Ben and Sam in Ride Lonesome. When Nancy finds out her husband has posted a $5,000 reward, she assumes Jeff is out for the money. Of course, but he’s not. Look at how long it takes before we find out what his real motive is, and how it figures in the ending. The stage does not come and so the five of them have to ride to Lordsburg, going past a lot of great scenery, including a small lake with … what the hell, the hang tree from Ride Lonesome. But it was in a meadow and was burned. Obviously a prop tree that Boetticher and his gang carried around with them. After all, we only saw it on fire in the earlier film, not destroyed.

Ben has told Frank and Dobie, the two non-brothers, of his plan to kill Jeff, then kill Nancy, since the husband is willing to pay for her, dead or alive. Ben’s motivation is revenge and money, which makes him less interesting than Sam. But at least we get a nice scene between Frank and Dobie discussing whether or not they will go along with Ben, or just maybe have to get honest jobs.

Jeff of course ends up delivering Nancy to her husband, and Kennedy delivers a real kicker of an ending, picking up on something that I have not mentioned that has been discussed all the way through the film. A terrific little movie, if not quite as fresh as Ride Lonesome.

His Nibs(1921. Written by Arthur Hoerl. 59 minutes): New York vs. Los Angeles.

Richard Koszarski, a professor at Rutgers, has a new book out called Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York From Griffith to Sarnoff. It’s about exactly what the title tells you. As part of the promotion for the book, Koszarski and the UCLA Film & Television Archive are having a series of screenings of surviving films (several of them preserved by the Archive) Koszarski writes about. This is one of the odder ones.

As Koszarski explained it in his introduction to the screening, he thinks what happened was that the Chic Sale, a big star in vaudeville, was hired to appear in a comedy-melodrama called The Smart Aleck. It was shot in Los Angeles but never completed. A year or so later, this film came out with Sale playing several roles, including the proprietor of a small town movie theater. The theater is showing what is obviously The Smart Aleck, although under a different name. We see a lot of the earlier film, with the proprietor saying he cut out the titles. He then narrates and comments on the film. As Koszarski put it, sort of a forerunner of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

What I found interesting is that The Smart Aleck is a much more interesting film, as much as we get to see of it. It’s better scripted, more coherent, more … well, serious. And shot in Los Angeles. According to Koszarski, the framing material was shot in New York. It is lightweight and frivolous. Sale overplays all of his characters, as opposed to underplaying the lead in The Smart Aleck. By 1921 movies had settled in Hollywood, and the backlash in New York had begun (see US#1 for a brief history of that). This film is a beautiful demonstration of that backlash.

How I Met Your Mother (2009. Episode “Benefits” written by Kourtney Lang. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take one.

I have mentioned in comments on several Met episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they had previously set up: horn-dog Barney in love with Robin. Lang comes back to it with a vengeance in this episode. Robin and Ted have broken up romantically but she had moved in as his roommate. They discover they argue more as roommates than they did when they were dating. Robin thinks they should have sex to release the tension. They do, but the gang finds out. Ted and Robin agree to stop, to maintain their friendship. Fat chance. Meanwhile, Barney is more and more upset and pretending he is not. Whenever the talk in the bar turns to Ted and Robin, he goes outside and trashes a TV set. He runs out of sets and finally has to buy a new set to trash. Ted realizes Barney is in love with Robin, but Barney denies it. Since he can’t talk to the gang about it, he goes to Lily’s grade school class on “sharing feelings day.” Finally he goes to the apartment and confronts Robin, but he bungles it, and she does not pick up on what he is trying to say. By dealing with all of this, Lang gives the entire cast, but especially Neil Patrick Harris as Barney, a lot of great material to work with. And there is something at stake.

On the other hand, they have a running gag in this episode about “reading a magazine” as a euphemism for masturbation. O.K., but then somebody actually says that it is a euphemism for masturbation. Would Seinfeld have needed to spell it out? I don’t think so.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “Thank God for Scoliosis,” teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Mark Roberts, story by Eddie Gorodetsky & Jim Patterson. Episode “I Think You Offended Don” written by Lee Aronsohn & Don Foster & Mark Roberts. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take two.

I have mentioned in comments on several Men episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they have available: Jake is hitting puberty. So in these two episodes they eventually do.

In the first, Alan and his receptionist Melissa flirt, kiss, both apologize, kiss again. They are like Ted and Robin in Met. Alan and Charlie have a nice scene talking about Melissa. The next morning Berta the cleaning lady eventually gets into the discussion about Melissa, or as she refers to her, “Tinkerbell with knockers.” Berta recommends against sex between an employer and employee, recalling a fling she had in the seventies with Telly Savalas. She says “Sooner or later you wake up with a broken heart and a lollipop stuck to your keester.”

A brief pause here to consider the glory that is Conchata Ferrell, who plays Berta. She has been a great American character actress for thirty years. She is one of those performers who, when she shows up on screen, the audience smiles and relaxes because we know we will be in good hands for however long she is there. Berta originally was supposed to be just a one-shot part, but the showrunners realized what they had and have kept her on as a regular cast member. She gets more lines in the scene under discussion here than she usually does, and she delivers. Usually she only has a couple of lines per episode, but she knocks those out of the park as well. And here is how seeing somebody do well in a great role like Berta can affect how you see them in real life. I know Conchata slightly, since I work with her husband. And whenever I see her, I am always a little surprised that not every line out of her mouth is one of Berta’s zingers. Even great actors require great writing. Listen to her deliver the “keester” line and you’ll see what I mean.

To return to tonight’s symposium. Jake. As Alan is dealing with Melissa and her truly wacko mother, Charlie takes Jake to dinner at a bar, where Janine, the waitress, takes a shine to … Jake. In a big sister sort of way. She invites Jake and Charlie to her place for a real dinner. After dinner Charlie wants Jake to wait in the car, but Jake is determined to stick around, thinking in his adolescent way (or maybe he just saw The Reader) he may have a chance with Janine. He doesn’t, but he outwits Charlie, a first for Jake. Sniff, sniff, our boy is growing up.

In “I Think…” the writers are also dealing with the fact that Judith is pregnant and Alan and we know it was from her one-night quickie with him. She insists they never had unprotected sex. Charlie thinks Jake is upset at the idea of a baby sister, but he’s not. There is a girl who wants to “hook up” with him at a party. He feels embarrassed that he is not more experienced sexually. Charlie gives him advice (and actually not bad advice to give to a 14-year-old boy in those circumstances: admit you don’t know much and hope to learn from her) and Jake is determined to go to the party. But then he decides not to. Sniff, sniff, maybe our boy is not growing up.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit(2009. Episode “Hothouse” written by Charley Davis. 60 minutes): A small step for one actress, a giant leap for all actresses.

Back in the seventies, when women cops showed up in television shows, they seemed to spend most their time working undercover dressed as hookers. The TV Guide logline for this episode was “Benson poses as a madam.” Wow, undercover women cops have graduated from prostitutes to madams.

Except that is not what the episode is about. Dead girl, 14-years-old, from the Ukraine. Everybody assumes from the bruises that she was a hooker. So Benson goes undercover as a madam and approaches a guy they think brings girls in from the Ukraine. She dresses much better than the women cops in the seventies. They arrest the guy, but the only thing he can tell them is that she was not a hooker, but a math whiz. End of Act One. And Benson’s pseudo-madam is out of the story for good.

Now if we can just stop promoting shows with “Benson poses as a madam”…

CSI (2009. Episode “One to Go” written by Carol Mendelsohn & Naren Shankar. 60 minutes): What, Grisson hasn’t left YET?

In US#13 I complimented the writers on CSI for handling Grissom’s leaving in a relatively realistic way. It may just be that this episode comes so long in real time after the previous one, but it struck me they were dragging it out. Several short scenes with some of the team repeat what we have seen in previous episodes. When they finally solve the case and Grissom is actually leaving, the writers do give him a nice walk through the lab. He’s looking at everybody doing their jobs. And he gets a nice goodbye wink from Catherine.

On the other hand, the writers do not quite have the range yet on Professor Langston and Laurence Fishburne. Perhaps it is obvious because they do on the other characters and the actors who have played them for years. The writers need to work this out as they figure out who Langston is and what Fishburne can do with him. If you look at the early episodes of many great TV series, it takes both the writers and the actors (that’s why it is called a collaborative medium) a while to find the groove. The smart money is on these writers and Fishburne.

ER (2009. Episode “Dream Runner” written by Lisa Zwerling. 60 minutes): Domesticated surrealism.

One of the tricks of writing for a television series is that a series over time sets up its own rules. You know there are certain things you can do in ER that you can’t do in Grey’s Anatomy (like have intelligent characters behave intelligently). And unless the showrunners are willing to or have to make big changes (letting Grissom go and bringing Langston onto CSI) you can’t bend the mold too much. Zwerling does some interesting playing around with the character of Neela in this episode, and does it in a way ER normally doesn’t.

In the first two acts we get the basic situation set up: Neela is still dealing with Anna, a young girl with Sickle Cell Anemia. Meanwhile, a patient who is a “Dream Runner” is brought in. A Dream Runner gets up while he is dreaming and behaves as though his dream was real. In this case the guy jumped out a window.

Then in the third act, we get an alternative version of the same day. The Dream Runner, who died in the pervious version, stays alive in this one. In the fourth act, we get another alternate version, this time with Anna appearing to die. In the fifth act, we get another version where Anna lives. In other words, what we have is sort of a Run, Lola, Run episode, but a lot of the variations are relatively minor, such as Neela passing different people in the stairwell, or either Jerry or Archie riding Archie’s father’s motorcycle. The most interesting of the variations is that in all of them Neela is more forceful about suggesting treatments. She has always been a bit of a wuss, and it is nice to see her man up, but how much of that will continue in “real life” in the series? How much can you change in a series?

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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Film

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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