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Understanding Screenwriting #20: Moscow, Belgium, He’s Just Not That Into You, The International, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #20: Moscow, Belgium, He’s Just Not That Into You, The International, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Moscow, Belgium; He’s Just Not That Into You; The International, Taken; Taking Chance; Ugly Betty; The Closer; and Damages, but first…

Fan Mail: Thanks for the nice comments about my grandson and Lawrence.

Hokahey mentioned teaching a unit on American Film History to 8th graders. He/she might be interested in the “Education” chapter in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing. The chapter deals with reactions from my LACC students to the films shown in class. I also include some comments from Nancy Lathrop Rutherford, a former student of mine who taught middle school for a while (she’s moved up to high school and it has relaxed her to no end) and weighs in with comments from her students. She was always surprised that the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t play better to middle schoolers because, as she put it, “Quasimodo IS every seventh grader.”

Moscow, Belgium (2007. Screenplay by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs. 102 minutes): Love, Belgium style.

Boy and girl meet cute, argue, have problems, get together in the end. Structurally it sounds like a typical American rom-com. It’s not. First of all, the woman, Matty, is 41. Not a Jennifer Aniston 40-that-looks-26, but a real 41. Her hair is unkempt, there are lines in her face, and there is no sign of “work” or Botox. And she is grumpy as hell when we first meet her. Then in a store parking lot she backs into a large truck and she and the 29-year-old truck driver, Johnny, don’t just disagree charmingly to let us know they are made for each other. They really rake each other over the coals. He starts backpedaling as soon as she suggests calling the cops. Which we begin to understand when the two women cops arrive and obviously know Johnny. So much for the cute meet.

Most of the rave reviews for this film have focused on Barbara Sarafian, who plays Matty. Understandably so, since she is dazzling: earthy, funny, sexy, and very real. The writers have created that character for Sarafian to play and she is smart enough as an actress to take off with it. And I LOVE it that Matty does not have a neurotic bone in her body, unlike a lot of women in American rom-coms. She doesn’t whine or pout the way Nora Ephron’s heroines do. If she thinks you are full of shit, and there are several people she thinks that of, she’ll tell you outright. You may or may not want to know her in real life, but you can’t not watch her on film.

The writers also create three great characters for her to play off of. One is Johnny, who in an American movie would be virtually flawless. He’s not, and he makes more than one stupid choice over the course of the film. Another is Matty’s almost-ex husband, who is having real second thoughts about having left her for a 22-year-old student of his. How often we see the romanticized version of that May-September romance. Here we see its failure, without ever seeing the student. Werner, the husband, is so well written we also feel like we know the student by the end of the film. The third great foil is Matty’s 17-year-old daughter, and we can see where she gets HER no-bullshit attitude from.

Late in the picture Matty, the daughter and the daughter’s friend (look at how few lines it takes to define the friend,) go out to a bar. Johnny is there and makes a fool of himself singing karaoke to Matty. From all the Frank Capra movies on, we know that him making a fool of himself in public will cause her to melt into his arms. Not a chance here. And remember those few lines that defined the friend? They lead to a terrific punch line in the scene. And you thought the original lines were just a bit of characterization.

So what we have is a Belgian comedy that is sharply written, funny, and real.

The bad news is, it’s not that well directed. The director is one of those “the jerky-cam is the way to shown the truth” types, although the camera does not bounce around as much as it has in many recent films. The problem is that he does not set up his camera where we want to be. In many shots the camera is at an angle so we only get some of Sarafian and the other actors’ faces, so we miss some of their wonderful performances. But, as in SO MANY films, the script and the performances save the director’s butt.

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009. Screenplay by Abby Kohn & Mark Silverstein, based on the book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. 129 minutes): Love, American Style.

The good news here is that this film is better directed than Moscow, Belgium. The director keeps his camera on the charming cast, and John Bailey, the great cinematographer, lights the cast so we can see them and watch them all glow.

Yeah, you guessed it. The script is not as good as that of Moscow, Belgium. As you may know, this film all began one day in the writing room of the series Sex and the City when Greg Behrendt uttered THE phrase. Everybody picked up on it, it became an episode of Sex and the City and later a book with the phrase as its title. You may remember from US#1 that I pointed out in talking about the film version of Sex and the City that some things work better in shorter form. That’s still true.

The film gets off to a bad start by trying to make us believe that a man just not being that into a woman is a universal condition by showing us many groups of women around the world dealing with it. It’s only mildly funny because it’s just not true. As I have mentioned on a couple of occasions, documentaries on certain subjects are often funnier than the fictional version, and that’s because they are truer. What this film does is assume that the condition of men reacting this way is not only universal but the single most important element in the lives of the characters. This makes the film rather schematic, especially in the scenes where the writers keep trying desperately to find other ways to express the title’s bit of wisdom. The film’s approach makes the characters seem shallow, without much connection to the real world. This is especially true of Gigi, who has the largest part. She seems stupider and stupider as the film goes along.

The story is one of those multi-characters comedies that no one other than Richard Curtis should even try. In Love, Actually Curtis has a larger cast of characters than this current film, but he gives them all characters to play so the actors do not just stand around looking gorgeous. Curtis also makes the connections that we are constantly discovering between the characters surprising and enlightening, and related to the real world. Here the reaction is simply, do we know this person knew that person? And if they do know them, how does that fill out the story? Too often, the answer here is “not much?” And we do not learn much about the world in which they live. Three of the women work in what appears to be some kind of creative office, but we never get a clue as to what they do in the office, other than gossip about men. Matty in Moscow, Belgium has a real job and deals with real people while doing that job.

He’s Just Not That Into You does avoid a few stereotypes. There is a trio of three gay male best friends for Mary instead of one. While I miss seeing either Jennifer Hudson or Queen Latifah, none of the women (all white) have a sassy black female friend. And the character of Anna comes across as the female equivalent of the guys, since she has relationships with men that she seems to be just not that into. This is not seen as triumph for feminism. She avoids entangling alliances with men because she wants to be a singer. We see her singing in a club at the end, but we do not hear her. If we heard her and she was bad, then she would seem just as delusional as some of the other women. If she were good, then it would call into question the behavior of all the other women in the film.

As my wife said as we left the theater, “I’m glad I’m not out in the dating world these days.” Amen to that, dear.

The International (2009. Written by Eric Warren Singer. 118 minutes): Running and shooting, take one.

The International is like one of those “September 10th” movies that got released after 9/11. Its attitude about big international banks-—that they are run by smart, evil men who are smarter than the rest of us and cannot be brought down by anything-—pretty much collapsed in the public mind along with financial systems. We now know those running the banks were greedy idiots who would have trouble organizing a piss-up at a beer drinking contest. So the film’s fictional bank and its leaders are not particularly convincing at this time. And the coda that the bank survived and continued its ways is even less convincing. Yes, I do know the film’s bank is based on a real bank and a scandal involving it in the early nineties, but times have changed, as Bernie Madoff told me the other day at the hotel where he’s doorman.

The story involves Salinger, an Interpol agent, and Whitman, a New York deputy District Attorney, trying to find out what the bank, The International, is doing buying up military armaments. The bank’s plot is complicated, which means we get a lot more exposition that we should have had on the mechanics of the deals, and I am not sure I still have it entirely clear. This might work if we had interesting characters to follow, but both Salinger and Whitman are very one-note characters. Salinger is an obsessive wreck and Clive Owen plays him mostly with a thousand yard stare. (It did not help that I saw the trailer of the next Owen film, Duplicity, before The International; he seems much livelier in that.) Whitman is Naomi Watts, who can be wonderful when they give her a role to play, but she does not have a natural movie star’s ability just to be interesting on-screen. There is no chemistry between Salinger and Whitman and none between Owen and Watts. Which leaves a big hole in the middle of the picture.

If Singer had filled the hole up with an interesting gallery of supporting characters, we might have bought it, but they are all standard issue, except for Wexler, an ex-STASI officer now working for the bank. He and Salinger have an interesting scene in which they discuss how far you can go against your ideals to accomplish what you set out to do. It helps that Wexler is played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who had to live with the STASI in East Germany in his earlier years, and knows what is going on in this guy’s mind. But the scene does not go much of anywhere, and does not pay off at the end, where Salinger is let off the hook by an assassin-ex-machina.

Singer does come up with at least one interesting action scene, which is the shootout at the Guggenheim Museum. The use of the locale is amusing, but the twist in the middle (two characters who should not be collaborating have to) is even better. The final shootout in the film, on the other hand, has one of those plot holes that are there simply to set up the scene: why doesn’t the bad guy use his cellphone to call any or all of his security people who are in the neighborhood?

Taken(2009. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. 91 minutes): Running and shooting, take two.

Notice that this one is 27 minutes shorter than The International. Whereas The International is jumping around between many countries, as befits its title, this one takes place in two cities, Los Angeles and Paris. And the plot is a lot easier to follow: ex-spy’s daughter is kidnapped by white slave traders and he tracks them down and kills them. No frills, stripped for action. Well, not exactly. Besson and Kamen take a fair amount of time to set up that Bryan Mills is feeling guilty about not being there for his daughter during his spy days, and they also take a little time to reveal that he was a spy. And when he hears his daughter being abducted over the phone, they stay on his face as he reacts to what is going on rather than showing it. The International opens with a closeup on Salinger’s face, but we do not know what he is looking at or what his reaction to it is. When Bryan swings into action, we are already feeling his pain. We want him to kick ass. It helps that Liam Neeson has the kind of star presence that sells the part. His sheer physicality helps, although he has had some “work” done on his eyes that have left him a little less expressive than he has been in the past.

The plotting has enough holes you could drive several trucks through, but it is determined to be such a guilty pleasure that you just chuckle as the improbabilities fly by. Could his former co-workers in The Company really give him a voice identification on the voice on the phone in a matter of minutes? Just like we no longer think the banks are omniscient, we know the C.I.A. isn’t. Could he really keep beating up and killing all those people without the French police paying any attention? Isn’t it convenient that he arrives in the right places at just the right times? But hey, it’s a fast, B-picture on an A budget.

And it has so far outgrossed The International. Sometimes short and simple (and even simple-minded) is better.

Taking Chance(2008. Screenplay by Ross Katz and Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, based on a journal by Lt.Col. Michael Stoble USMC [ret.]. 77 minutes): Short, simple, and definitely not simple-minded.

One thing that movies do very well, because they take place over time, is show a process. In a documentary like Nanook of the North we see Nanook build an igloo. Taking Chance is sort of a docudrama, and we follow the process of Marine Chance Phelps’s body from his death in Iraq (done only by sound over black film) through its preparation at the mortuary site at Dover to its delivery to the family and burial in Wyoming. The film shows the great care that is taken by everyone involved. We get caught up in the details that, unless you are involved in the work, you probably did not know.

The film is based on a journal by Marine Lt. Col. Strobl, who was the accompanying officer. Strobl worked in the Pentagon, crunching numbers and feeling guilty he had not volunteered for duty in Iraq. This was his first time accompanying a body and what made his journal resonate with people who read it was his observation of the reactions of everybody he met. Everyone is determined to honor Chance in whatever way they can, which gives the film variety and surprise. If Strobl ran into anyone who was disrespectful or political, it is not in the film. Ordinarily one would want some people to be against the war as a counterpoint, but at 77 minutes, you don’t need it. The film becomes a tone poem on loss.

The character of Strobl is not probed in any depth, but we watch his reactions to the other people’s reactions. Do I have to hit your over the head again about reactions being the lifeblood of film? Kevin Bacon, who was directed by Clint Eastwood in Mystic River, has adopted Eastwood’s minimalist acting style here and it is perfect for the part.

My Breakfast with Claus: Just a couple of screenwriting historians sittin’ around talking.

Claus Tieber was in Los Angeles recently and we had breakfast the one morning the research libraries were closed. I met Claus by e-mail several years ago when he contacted me to say he was working on a history of American screenwriting. Now, you would think that since I wrote the 1988 book that people still refer to as the best in the field, FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I might take exception to someone poaching on my territory. Not at all. If you had asked me in 1988 if I thought that twenty years later my book would still be considered “definitive,” I would have dismissed the idea. FrameWork was intended as a summing up of what we knew at that point, and I was sure people would come along and make it obsolete.

It didn’t happen. A year and a half after the book came out, an English author, Ian Hamilton, brought out Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951. If you open up both his and my books to the footnotes, you will be amazed, amazed I tell you, to see that he has “found” exactly the same quotes from exactly the same sources I did. Two years ago, Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Marc Norman came out with the heavily hyped What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting. A lot of his “research” was from the stuff Hamilton got from me. I was looking forward to Norman’s book, but it was filled with errors, sloppily written, and with questionable focus-—does a book on screenwriting really need more pages on Faulkner’s Hollywood mistress than on most screenwriters? It was so bad in so many different ways that I was unable to write a review of it that would not have seemed completely self-serving.

When Claus and I first e-mailed back and forth (he teaches film in Vienna), he said he was going through FrameWork and figuring out how he could get beyond what I was doing. That was an encouraging sign. We met several times when he came to Los Angeles to do research, and sure enough, he began to find things I had not. He was even finding things that contradicted what I said. Because his grant money ran out, he could only go up to the seventies, and he focused on case studies of films and studios rather than an overall view. His book, Schreiben F?r Hollywood: Das Drehbuch in Studiosystem, was published last year in German. As I can’t read German, I have not read it yet, but I am helping him try to get an English translation and publication in this country.

Claus was in town researching two projects. The first is screenwriting in the silent film, and what he has already discovered is that the supposed Classical Hollywood Style in screenwriting (hero, villain, single conflict, etc) was only a minor part of screenwriting in the silent years. I will not give away anything more than that on the subject, but I await his book on it. His second project is a look at blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, many of whose papers are at UCLA. He did not have any bombs to drop on Wilson over breakfast, but if they are to be found, Claus is the guy to find them. When, not if, his first book is published in English, I will let you all know. It is great to have somebody first rate working in the fields with me. Anybody else want to join us?

Ugly Betty (2009. Episode”There’s No Place Like Mode,” written by Shiela Lawrence. 60 minutes): Fashion Week!

After weeks in which we hardly saw the innards of Mode while we dealt with all the soap opera details of Daniel and Molly, Willie and Conner, Papi and Helena, and who knows who all else, it was great to get back to the satire of the fashion business. Except some of it may not be satire.

Daniel has Betty write a press release for an avant-garde (do people still use that term?) designer Mode is presenting for Fashion Week. After Betty and her new boyfriend, “sports guy” Matt, visit the designer, Heinrich, Betty and Christina (exactly how many years has she been pregnant with Willie’s baby from the frozen sperm?) write up a parody press release. Yes, it accidentally gets sent out, but Heinrich thinks it is fresh, and so Betty is assigned to produce his “show” at fashion week. His “costumes” are angels with wings made out of broken glass, the height of the absurdity of high fashion. Matt takes Betty to visit his sports world, which consists of a team’s locker room, giving us lots of great reaction shots of Betty. Matt tells her that he feels he doesn’t write about sports, but about the real life of the men in sports. O.K., but he is suggesting Betty do the same with fashion. Hasn’t he paid any attention at all to the absurdities around Mode?

The day of the show comes up. Justin has given his ticket to Helena, Papi’s nurse and now girlfriend (ethics, shmethics), so that she and Hilda, who is unnerved at her dad having a romance, can get to know each other and bond. They do, just as Christina goes into labor (see, somebody remembered her pregnancy) and can’t get out the back door. So, with nurse Helena’s help, and shielded by the monstrous angel wings of Heinrich’s outfits, she gives birth, and the hydraulic lift lifts up Willie and her baby to the cheers of everyone. Over the top, yes, but this is Ugly Betty, after all. And Lawrence neatly works it all out.

In the end Betty decides that she really wants to stay in fashion, since “Fashion is art.” See what I mean about maybe it not being satire? My thought was run, Betty, run, but if Lawrence and the other writers can maintain the balance of this episode, they may be able to make it work.

The Closer(2009. Episode “Fate Line,” written by Steven Kane. Episode “Double Bind,” written by Steven Kane & Ken Martin & Leo Geter. Both episodes 60 minutes): Back to form.

In US#19 I complained a bit that the “Power of Attorney” episode was so plot heavy that we missed a lot of the reactions from Brenda’s team that liven up the show. In “Fate Line” Kane has returned to the squad, but added in a new character, Fritz’s sister, who is in town for the wedding. Oh, yeah, Claire, the sister, thinks she’s psychic and wants to help Brenda with her case. Some of the team such as Lt. Tao think Claire is on to something, while others such as Lt. Flynn think she is wacko. The reactions of everybody on the squad to Claire add a lot. As usual with screen psychics, she is right, although not always in the way she or we think.

Claire is back in the season finale, “Double Bind.” This time she is more involved in the wedding, which, since this is a cable show, is a small affair. The reception is not much larger, with only a few extras to augment the recurring cast. The reception is most of what the videographer, who has helped on the case, gets when he asks each of the members of the squad to give their best wishes on camera to the couple. Not up to the level of the writing in “Fate Line.”

Damages(2009. Various writers. 60 minute episodes): Goodbye Patty.

I talked about my reservations about both the first and the new season of Damages in US#16. I have followed most of the episodes so far, but have finally decided to give up on it. I am simply not finding it that compelling, in a variety of ways.

Patty is not as compelling in this season as she was in the first. Then she seemed like an arch-schemer; now she’s just a lawyer doing her job.

Ellen’s conniving with the F.B.I. is not compelling because it’s repetitious.

Walter Kendrick is a standard big businessman villain and not as compelling as Arthur Frobisher.

Claire Maddox is not compelling as a foil to Patty.

The plot is not compelling, since it is an environmental law case of the kind The Practice would have dealt with in a couple of weeks, in between mad cow disease and sleepovers.

It is always nice to see Glenn Close, Marcia Gay Harden, and the rest of the actors, but the writers need to give them more to work with.

Yes, I will be dealing with the Dr. Drew Baird storylines on 30 Rock if and when they finally get around to running the third of the three episodes.

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

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

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

1.5

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Ophelia
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maiden
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

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

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Transit
Photo: Music Box Films

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

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

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

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


3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

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


Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

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


The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

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


Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

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


Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

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

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

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

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Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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

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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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