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Understanding Screenwriting #19: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s, Captain Blood, In Old Chicago, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #19: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s, Captain Blood, In Old Chicago, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s (stage musical), Definitely, Maybe, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,In Old Chicago, ER, Two and a Half Men, The Closer, Burn Notice, but first…

Fan Mail: A nice collection of comments on US#18.

I will bow to R.A. Porter’s expertise on the explosion in Burn Notice being a shaped charge designed to explode outward. I will not ask where he got that expertise.

Matt Maul and I are certainly on the same wavelength on Ride the High Country, which several critics and historians have called the unofficial last film in the Ranown cycle. I saw it twice in two days when it opened. I hate to tell you though that it may not “hold up pretty well even if you have no idea who Scott and McCrea are.” Several years ago I ran it in my History of Motion Pictures class, and it left the class cold. They had not grown up with Scott and McCrea. I can certainly see why Elmore Leonard liked Richard Boone in The Tall T, since he feels more like an Elmore Leonard character than any of the others.

Steve Santos called for more discussion on the issue of dialogue being “on the nose” and several people complied. So here is at least some of what I think about it. As Steve points out, there is a difference between dialogue on the page and on screen (or on stage for that matter). Dialogue on the page has to carry its weight on its own. In a performance on screen we are also watching the person, so we need to SEE more than what we just hear. That is why I keep hitting (and I will again later in this column) on the issue of reaction shots. What we need to see when someone is talking (if we are not watching the other person’s reaction—look at the famous last scene of Casablanca and notice how much of Bogart’s speech is played on a closeup of Bergman reacting to it) is something more than just what is being said. So if the line is “I like baseball,” what is there is see beyond the basic information? That is why, even though we cannot even see her, Annie Savoy’s “I believe in the church of baseball” is one of the great opening lines in movies. The phrasing of the line tells us that she has a strange mind, as does the rest of the monologue. So much so that by the time we see her, we will follow her anywhere.

This is why I don’t think the dialogue in Gran Torino is as “on the nose” as some of you think. The way Walt expresses himself tells us as much about him as the specifics of what he says. I agree that the talking to himself lines are probably not needed, but some of them are colorful enough to make me want to listen to him. That was not true for me in the Revolutionary Road dialogue.

Dialogue can also be funny, but it is better when it’s not just jokes. I read the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder screenplay for Young Frankenstein and what struck me about it is that there are not that many JOKES. Mostly the dialogue captures the attitudes of the characters. Wilder’s Frankenstein saying goodbye at the train station to Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth does not appear to be that funny a scene in the script, but the scene gives both actors attitudes to play: he’s trying to kiss her, she’s trying not to get her hair mussed. Years later, when Brooks did Spaceballs, he passed around the script and asked people to check off the stuff that worked. They did, and they were mostly jokes, and the picture suffered accordingly.

Dialogue can also tell things in subtle ways. Take Bonasera’s opening monologue in The Godfather. On the surface it is an “on the nose” telling of what happened, but more importantly, it brilliantly establishes character. No, not Bonasera’s character, but Don Corleone’s. Bonasera’s speech tells us that the Don is more powerful than the police and courts of law and that people come to him for their idea of justice. I have always contended that by the end of the speech, you could cut to the chair and have Daffy Duck there and we would believe he is the Godfather.

Todd brought up the problem of exposition in dialogue. Actors hate it, since it gives them very little to play, although the “exposition” in Bonasera’s speech gives Salvatore Corsitto a lot of attitude to play. Exposition is a particular problem in science fiction movies with all their technobabble. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas on the first Star Wars film, “You may be able to type this shit George, but you sure can’t say it.” For a more detailed look at the technobabble problem, see the chapter on the Jurassic Park trilogy in my book Understanding Screenwriting.

Teaching the Young: Get them early.

A few weeks ago my wife and I were getting ready to take our seven year old grandson Noam to the Natural History Museum. While waiting for Grandma to get ready, I was channel surfing on the TV before turning it off. Noam was running around like a seven year old. I stopped on one channel. Wide screen. A British officer and an Arab guide had stopped at a well. The officer was playing with his compass. He and the guide notice something in the far distance. Noam started watching, wondering what it was in the distance. I told him to wait. He asked me to turn up the sound. I told him there was no sound in this scene. The figure in the distance was moving closer. Noam was standing completely still. The figure got closer. Noam said, “Grandpa, I want to watch this movie with you.” The figure got closer. I explain the movie is four hours long.

Tafasrantohiscamelandpulledagunand…

BANG!

…theblackfigureshothimandLawrencelookedathiminhorror.

I turned off the TV set and we went to the museum.

Someday I will sit down with Noam and watch the movie. Or better yet, I will take him to one of the annual showings the American Cinematheque has of a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia.

Minsky’s(2009. Stage musical, book by Bob Martin, original book by Evan Hunter, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. 155 minutes [for now]. Based on the book The Night They Raided Minsky’s by Rowland Barber and the film of the same name written by Arnold Shulman, Sidney Michael, and Norman Lear; 1968, 99 minutes): Another new musical playing Los Angeles before it hits New York.

This started out as a 1960 book by Barber, then was turned into one of the legendary film disasters of the sixties. We have occasionally discussed the issue of how one can critique a screenplay from the final film, since there may be changes as the film is made. Boy, is this ever true with the film of The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Norman Lear, before he became NORMAN LEAR (All in the Family, etc), thought he and the other writers had come up with a good script, and Lear’s judgment about scripts should not be sneezed at. Then, alas, they turned it over to an egomaniacal 27-year-old wunderkind director who had only made one low budget film. They were all hoping he would provide what everybody around the production called the New Look, i.e., not an old MGM musical look but something closer to what Richard Lester had done with The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. The shoot was fraught with tension, since the wunderkind thought he had to intimidate the older professional actors to get their respect. It didn’t work. Then Bert Lahr, playing an old vaudevillian, died late in the production, and some of his shots had to be done with a body double. When the first cut was shown, everybody felt it didn’t work. Rather than stay with the editing process, the wunderkind took off to shoot another film, later badmouthing Minsky’s before it was ever released.

The re-editing fell to an experienced film editor named Ralph Rosenblum, who later worked with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Rosenblum wrote a great book on film editing called When the Shooting Stops … the Cutting Begins (1979), and the first two chapters deal with his trying to save Minsky’s. He presents it as sort of a textbook case of how a film is “saved in the editing room,” as film editors like to call it. Except he never mentions that the film was a total disaster, even after all of his work. In spite of what film editors say, you cannot “save a film in the editing room” if the basic material, i.e., screenplay, is not there.

Charles Strouse worked on the music for the film and always thought there might be a stage musical in the material. Minsky’s has been in development, to use a Hollywood term, for several years. Bob Martin, the writer of the new book, wrote The Drowsy Chaparone, a modest Broadway hit of a few years ago, and the new show has something of a similar attitude of sharp-eyed insider nostalgia for musical theater. The opening number, “Workin’ Hot” is all about creating an opening number, and the first act finale, “Every Number Needs a Button” is about how numbers and acts need, well, you get the point.

The show is professional but not particularly inspired. For a while during the first act, it looks as though the scenes are going to be variations of vaudeville sketches (especially a funny one involving two shrinks and their patients, the two leads who have not met cute yet), but that is not carried through in the show. The main character is Billy Minsky, who is trying to save his burlesque theater, especially from the threat of a local censor. Naturally he falls in love with the censor’s daughter. She eventually comes to realize that show people are real people (OK, some of us may argue that point), but that is not as thoroughly developed in the second act as it could be. That is an area they should be working on.

There are more than a few “The theater is great, who would want to be anywhere else” numbers, but at least they are offset by “I Want a Life,” a song sung by two people caught up in the theater who don’t want to be. “Tap Happy” is a typical tap number, but it is not clear what it is doing in THIS show. The numbers for the showgirls are some pretty good parodies of those kinds of numbers, but, OK, I have been trying to avoid the obvious comparison, they are not as good as the faux show numbers in Sondheim’s Follies. To use the late Ron Haver’s great phrase, if Follies was the opening of the West, Minsky’s is the coming of the settlers.

So far in Los Angeles, there has been no report that the wunderkind director of the film has dropped in to see the show. He went on to make such disasters as Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, Deal of the Century, Jade, and Bug. Amazing how a couple of big hits can keep you working among all those flops. He also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist. He is William Friedkin.

Definitely, Maybe(2008. Screenplay by Adam Brooks. 112 minutes): Where is Richard Curtis when you need him?

My wife and I couldn’t get out to one of the current rom-coms on Valentine’s Day, so it was stay home and watch one of last year’s, which I DVR’d off HBO. Will Hayes is getting divorced and his 10-year-old daughter wants to know how he and her mother met. Wait a minute, isn’t there already a TV series called How I Met Your Mother? Yes, and as often happens, the TV series is better. The characterizations are sharper and it is just plain funnier. Here Will tells the girl, Maya, about three possible contenders, saying he has changed the names to make her (and us) guess which one it was. Will, as written, is a rather uneven character: he is supposed to be interested in politics, but he doesn’t seem obsessive enough to be a political junkie. Brooks spends a lot of time with Will on the 1992 Clinton campaign, but those scenes do not capture any of the texture of the campaign. As with Milk, the documentary (in this case The War Room) is not only better but funnier, as documentaries often are.

Definitely, Maybe does not have the supporting characters either How I Met Your Mother or The War Room have. Emily, the first woman, is rather bland. April seems the most fully fleshed out character, but a lot of that maybe be Isla Fisher managing to make her variations more interesting than they might have been on paper. Summer is blander than you expect anything Rachel Weisz would do, although Weisz does have a nice scene with Kevin Kline, playing a lecherous professor. It suggests what the film could have been. Part of the reason that scene may work is that it does not feature Will, played very blandly by Ryan Reynolds, who so far seems better in supporting roles than starring ones.

One of the production companies involved in the film is Working Title, which has produced most of the good comedies written by Richard Curtis, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. Curtis knows how to do all the things Brooks doesn’t do well here.

Captain Blood (1935. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. 119 minutes) and The Sea Hawk (1940. Screenplay at Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch. 127 minutes) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex(1939. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie, based on the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson. 106 minutes): Olivia de Havilland versus Brenda Marshall versus Bette Davis.

Yes, I am still working my way through the Christmas goodies. The first two of these are classic Errol Flynn swashbucklers in the Flynn box set. Captain Blood is the film that made Flynn a star after his appearing in smaller parts in a few Warners pictures. One thing that impresses me about the script this time around is how perfectly Robinson writes for Flynn. We all know Flynn as a star, with everything that means, but Robinson was pretty much guessing. Look at all the details of wit and charm that Robinson gives Peter Blood. We tend to think of actor-director combinations (Ford and Wayne, Cukor and Hepburn), but an actor, no matter how charismatic, needs a role that will make him or her a star. Jean Harlow was just another blonde until John Lee Mahin and Anita Loos created “Jean Harlow” for her. Sharon Stone was just a jobbing actress until Joe Eszterhas created Catherine Tramell for her in Basic Instinct. If you don’t believe me on the latter, go over to the IMDb and look at all the stuff Stone did before Basic Instinct and see if you remember her in any of it.

The other thing that impressed with Robinson’s script is that he gave Olivia de Havilland a very interesting character to play. She meets Blood when he is on the auction block in the Caribbean. Amused by his smarts, she buys him, but turns him over to her uncle. She and Blood later come to know each other, but when he gets forward with her, she pulls back. Nowadays, we are so used to scripts in which the couples disagree at the beginning simply because it is expected of them. Here you believe the differences between them. It also helps that de Havilland and Flynn have great chemistry together.

Alas, the same is not true of Flynn and Brenda Marshall in The Sea Hawk. By this time everybody at Warners knew what they had with Flynn and were taking advantage of it. The script is weirdly structured, with the biggest sea battle in the opening half-hour. Most films start off with smaller action sequences and build to the larger ones, but The Sea Hawk goes in reverse. Brenda Marshall plays Doña Maria, the niece of an ambassador to Spain, both of whom Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe capture in that sea battle. She comes to appreciate and love Thorpe, but mostly by sitting around Queen Elizabeth’s court. De Havilland’s Arabella is actively involved in the plot. And de Havilland is alive on the screen in the way Marshall is not. Marshall has an angular beauty, but she is very unexpressive, which will kill you in a Warners swashbuckler with Errol Flynn, Claude Raines, Flora Robson as QEI, and with Anton Grot’s great art direction for your eyes and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wonderful score dazzling your ears. You are going to have to ACT to keep up with that. Warners put de Havilland and Flynn together in nine films. The Sea Hawk is the only pairing of Marshall and Flynn.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is the one picture in the boxed set I had never seen. Now I’ve seen it. And I never have to see it again. It is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and you understand why it might have worked on stage. There is a certain drama to the romantic attachment of QEI and the Earl of Essex, but the play and the movie are mostly talk. You can easily see the scene and act breaks. Especially in comparison to the two swashbucklers, the film is inert. Warners has gussied it up with Technicolor, good sets, and gorgeous costumes. The film was nominated for a lot of the “pretty” awards at the Oscars, although the Irish battles, all done on a sound stage, look awful, especially in comparison with The Adventures of Robin Hood the year before. Bette Davis is QEI this time out and Flynn is Essex and they do all right chattering away, but there is not the chemistry Flynn had with de Havilland. De Havilland has a small part in this one, but nothing that gives her a chance to shine.

In Old Chicago (1937. Screenplay by Sonya Levein and Lamar Trotti, based on a story by Niven Busch. 115 minutes in the roadshow version, 95 minutes in the general release version. The current DVD has both): And versus Alice Faye.

In addition to catching up on the year-end movies and the DVDs Santa left me, I spent some of January doing what we academics call a “resume enhancer.” That’s a scholarly article (this one is for a forthcoming book of essays) that you do not get much money for but which looks good on your resume. The article I was doing is called “19th Century-Fox,” and it’s about the historical films Fox did in the thirties and forties. One of the films I focused on was this one.

When Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio, saw the enormous success MGM had with San Francisco in 1936, he figured Fox could do an epic historical disaster film. The part of the saloon singer was conceived for Jean Harlow, with all her wisecracking sassiness. Harlow fell ill and died, and Zanuck decided to go with contract actress Alice Faye, who had not yet become a big star. Unfortunately the part was not rewritten for her. She simply does not do sassy as well as Harlow. Zanuck noted it in the rushes and sent a memo to director Henry King saying he thinks Faye is playing it “too sweet and girlish,” especially given her character’s background. He is right, but there is no indication in the film that King corrected the problem.

And the picture made her a star. Go figure. Sometimes an actor carries a film (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) and sometimes the film carries the actor (Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde). As Zanuck said in a later memo about another film, “We live and learn.”

The film, by the way, is a lot of fun, especially the full 115 roadshow version, which includes a wonderful trial scene, cut from the shorter version. In it a man is accused of registering to vote under several names—this is Chicago, after all—and he manages to wiggle out of it. I suspect that of the two writers, this scene was written by Lamar Trotti, who had a real feel for that kind of Americana.

Oh, and the fire is great too.

ER (2009. Episode “A Long Strange Trip” written by Joe Sachs. 60 minutes): Nice idea, not well enough developed.

An old man who has been mugged staggers into the ambulance entrance of County General. As the doctors take him inside, we see his view of them, in which they are dressed and wearing the hairstyles of the sixties (great wig work by the hair department here). As the episode proceeds, we see him viewing the nurses and the hospital as though it was back in the fifties and sixties, complete with medical equipment of the period (great work by the prop department). He has no I.D. He can’t talk, but he manages to write “T.B.” on a piece of paper and point to another patient. The doctors all think she has cancer, but a T.B. test confirms the old man’s diagnosis. So who is this guy? Eventually Archie Morris figures out he is Dr. Oliver Kostin, who literally wrote the book on emergency medicine. Dr. Morgenstern, who ran the ER early in the series, shows up. He is Kostin’s proxy, since Kostin is suffering from dementia and has walked away from his nursing home. Morgenstern tells the doctors and nurses everything that Kostin did, including changing the ER from a walk-in clinic to the ER we know and love. He also set up the 911 system and established the paramedics and the use of hospital ambulances and probably created sliced bread as well. He dies in the ER, with the cast all around him.

Now that should have been a lot more moving than it actually was on screen. Unfortunately, Kostin’s story was only one of three or four, so not enough time was devoted to it. Given that this is the final season, and the show has had “one-off” episodes in the past, they could have made the entire episode about him. We do not know Kostin, since he was never a part of the cast of the show. Rance Howard, who plays him, is a familiar face, but not a strong enough presence to overcome how little Sachs gives him to do. The “flashback” views he has in his dementia are mildly interesting, but a lot more could be done with them, especially given all the footage the series has from the last fifteen years.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “I’d Like to Start with the Cat” teleplay by Don Foster & Mark Roberts & Susan Beavers, story by Chuck Lorre. 30 minutes): Also old-fashioned.

In writing about Monk (in US#18), I described it as “old-fashioned,” in the sense of being slower and less flashy as well as focusing on character. The same is true of this episode. Charlie is still dating Chelsea, whom he has been seeing off and on for a couple of seasons. She complains he doesn’t know anything about her. He goes to his therapist and we have a fairly lengthy scene between them. Dr. Freeman, a recurring character, is the incomparable Jane Lynch. I have been told by people who pay more attention to this sort of thing than I do that she actually stood up in one episode years ago. However, as her work was described by one of the showrunners on one of the DVD special features, Lynch comes in, sits down, and just does it. She and Sheen have great chemistry, which the writers write for, and I am perfectly happy watching them go it, just as I was with Rowlands and Shalhoub on Monk. And if that scene was not enough, Charlie brings in Chelsea for couples counseling with Dr. Freeman. Another great scene. Simple.

The Closer (2009. Episode “Power of Attorney” written by Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes): Law & Order.

This is more of a Law & Order script than a conventional Closer episode. Twist, twist, twist. A woman is raped and murder. The cops find the suspect hiding in a tree. The suspect has priors for sexual charges, but was not convicted. A witness cannot pick him out of a lineup. The suspect’s attorney, whom the suspect has on speed dial, will arrange a plea bargain in which the suspect gives up his partner. Since the cops have no physical evidence on the suspect, the district attorney agrees. The suspect gives up his partner … the attorney. But the attorney has seen all the evidence in the case against the suspect and knows they have no evidence against him either.

Ingenious, but it means we do not get much of the character humor that is part of this series. The secondary characters only get occasional lines, but very few reactions, which I had written was one of the strengths of the show in US#6.

Burn Notice (2009. Episode “Bad Breaks” written by Michael Horowitz. 60 minutes): The heart of the show.

This is one of the best of the recent Burn Notice episodes because it does well what this show does best. Yes, we still have Michael trying to track down who put out the hit on him, but that really only involves scenes at the beginning and end with government agent Jason Bly. Yes, we have the standard other plot of Michael agreeing to help out somebody. In this case, it is a friend of his mom’s who is feeling hinky about a guy she met on the Internet. As the friend is telling Michael the questions Prescott, the guy, has been asking her, he shows up. In her bank. With a bunch of guys with guns. To rob it.

So what we have here is Michael in Dog Day Afternoon meets Inside Man. Michael uses ALL, and I mean ALL, of his skills and experience to outwit the robbers. In many episodes, he only uses one of two tricks. Here he is messing up their tools, and their guns; giving them the wrong medications; managing to get Sam and Fiona to set up what turn out to be several diversions. I would go into more details, but the episode was moving at such a breakneck pace my notetaking couldn’t keep up. As far as I am concerned, the more tricks the better.

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: 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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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.

Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.

A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.

Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.

There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror

We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.

Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.

Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.

Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Our Time Doggedly, Elliptically Considers the Costs of Partnership

The film elides politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

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Our Time
Photo: Monument Releasing

Filmed in low, awesomely wide angles, the series of vignette-like scenes that make up the lengthy opening sequence of Carlos Reygardas’s Our Time are a sociological survey in miniature, observing the nature of the interactions between people of the opposite sex at various ages. Young girls fuss with a broken beaded necklace as boys, sticks in hand, go marauding through a shallow, muddy lake surrounded by distant mountains. “Let’s attack the girls,” one of them says, as they disrupt a gossip session among pre-teen girls on a large innertube. With a slipstream rhythm, the action pivots to older teens experimenting with alcohol and drugs and maneuvering sexual attraction and frustration. After a while, we arrive at the grown-ups, a set of urbane, cosmopolitan ranchers who haven’t left any of this behind.

The backdrop of this sequence, which lasts from bright daytime to well past dusk, recalls the simultaneously transcendent and frightening opening of Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, depicting a child alone in the wild. In his first collaboration with a new cinematographer (Diego García, who shot Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendour), Our Time retains some of the director’s penchant for specialized lenses—like fisheye—and prismatic lens flare, but their effect is muted relative to the sometimes outrageous transcendentalism of his previous work. Reygadas’s latest unfolds more in the mold of recent work by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, relentlessly probing the more stubborn and outdated aspects of modern masculinity.

Reygadas himself plays Juan, a renowned poet and the owner of a ranch outside Mexico City, and the filmmaker’s wife, Natalia López, stars as Juan’s spouse, Esther, who manages the ranch. (Their children, Rut and Eleazar Reygadas, play Juan and Esther’s two younger children, with Yago Martínez in the role of their teenage son.) The family is rarely alone, and they retain domestic help and numerous cowboys to manage the bulls and horses on their property. At the party that opens the film, Esther connects with an American horse trainer named Phil (Phil Burgers) and begins an affair that gradually undoes her marriage. Our Time is, by all accounts, a pretty faithful biographical account of Reygadas and López’s recent marital troubles.

The conflict between Juan and Esther, which elevates from a gentle simmer to physical outbursts over the course of the film, isn’t merely about lust; it’s also about semantics and self-presentation. The couple have long had an open marriage—an allusion to Juan’s ex-wife suggests this decision was an effort to avoid past mistakes—so Juan’s feeling of betrayal is less about Esther sleeping with Phil than it is about her concealing the act, along with her continued communication with him. In his roles as writer and director, Reygadas crafts Juan as a self-styled progressive and empath. Unlike the patriarch in Post Tenebras Lux, who ran headlong into class warfare, Juan is exceedingly companionable with his hired help and open-hearted toward his children. Though class markers are everywhere in Our Time, from Juan’s clean chaps to his conversations with relatives of his workers (one requests that Juan “sponsor” him with the purchase of a new race car), the film elides these politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

As politics drop out of his purview, Reygadas integrates nature—typically an external force of rapture and terror in his work—into his study of human behavior. Often, he does this in the most prosaic of ways, twice transitioning from arguments to instances of wild bulls picking violent fights. At the same time, the ranch is a haven in Juan’s very image, and he treats moments like these as violations of his peaceful dominion. Reygadas explores Esther’s psychology in more interesting ways, sending her to a timpani performance (by Mexican percussionist Gabriela Jiménez), which is shot with such urgency that it feels like a heavy metal concert, conjuring Esther’s turmoil as she texts with Phil in a symphony hall that would be pitch black if not for the slight glow of her phone.

With limited evidence that their affair is continuing, Juan’s fixation on Esther’s interest in Phil yields a handful of lengthy discourses on Juan’s fears for their future. His words are eminently judicious, but they wear Esther down, until she reacts to him with physical sickness and increasing desperation. Their distance yields Reygadas’s boldest narrative tactic, which is to effectively turn our time into an epistolary three-way romance for an entire act of the film. Juan, Phil, and Esther all dispassionately say their piece in voiceover monologues reciting letters and emails they’ve written to one another (one is recited over a bravura shot captured from the landing gear of a plane). In odd instances, a few of these communiques are read by one of Juan and Esther’s children, a suggestion that they understand what is happening or are perhaps fated to make the same mistakes as their parents.

Our Time’s foundation as a sort of Knaussgardian, auto-fictional overshare may account for both its curiously absent politics and what for Reygadas as unusually vibrant, dimensional characters. (Phil, an inane lunk trying to reconcile conflicting orders about whether or not to have sex with Esther, doesn’t achieve such depth.) Though the film suffers in its later scenes, as Reygadas turns Juan’s anxieties into actions and assures us that this auteurist self-portrait is appropriately self-excoriating, Our Time is remarkably balanced in considering both sides of its central marriage. As Juan’s mixed emotions unfurl in lucid, bountiful words, López reveals in simple gestures and shifts of position how Juan’s behavior has robbed Esther of her independence. Though artistically tame by Reygadas’s standards, Our Time doggedly pursues ugly truths about how partnership necessarily requires the sacrifice of one’s agency.

Cast: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Phil Burgers, Eleazar Reygadas, Rut Reygadas, Yago Martinez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 177 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Blue Note: Beyond the Notes Trumpets the Freedom of Jazz

The documentary proves that the history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself.

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Blue Note: Beyond the Notes
Photo: Eagle Rock Entertainment

The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.

Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.

The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)

Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.

Director: Sophie Huber Screenwriter: Sophie Huber Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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