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Understanding Screenwriting #21: Sunshine Cleaning, Everlasting Moments, The Mask of Dimitrios, ER, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #21: Sunshine Cleaning, Everlasting Moments, The Mask of Dimitrios, ER, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Sunshine Cleaning, Everlasting Moments, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, Horton Foote, Teaching the Young: Take Two, The Mask of Dimitrios, Burn Notice, Castle, ER.

Sunshine Cleaning(2008. Written by Megan Holley. 102 minutes): Not Little Miss Sunshine.

Yes, it has “sunshine” in the title. Yes, it has Alan Arkin as a crusty grandpa. Yes, it has a light colored van. Yes, it is set the Southwest. Yes, the poster is similar. But does Little Miss Sunshine start with a man bringing a shotgun shell into a sporting goods store, asking to look at a shotgun and blowing his head off with it? No. Sunshine Cleaning is a darker film (in spite of what you may think from the trailer), further along the continuum of dramedy to drama than to comedy.

While the trailer and promotion focus on the company set up by Rose and Norah to clean up crime scenes and the hijinks involved in that, the film’s focus is on the relationship of the two sisters. Rose is the oldest and most responsible, Norah the younger and flakiest. But Holley is pitching all kinds of interesting changeups. It is, to our surprise, Norah who feels the need to connect emotionally with a daughter of one of the victims. We don’t find out why until late in the film, but the scenes between her and the daughter Lynn have an edgy uncertainty. Compare the scene where we think Norah may be coming on to Lynn to the scene in the recent “Story of Lucy and Jessie” episode of Desperate Housewives where we think Susan may be coming on to a teacher she works with. In the Housewives scene we know where we are all the time; in Sunshine we are never quite sure, which is much more realistic.

Holley has written great characters for Amy Adams (Rose) and Emily Blunt (Norah) to play, and director Christine Jeffs is smart enough to simply observe the two of them, individually and together. Adams particularly disappears into the character and makes every moment alive. Look at her in the scene where she is explaining to some old high school classmates what she does for a living and how Rose seems to be understanding for the first time the good that she is doing. Another actress might have just assumed Rose had already thought about that, but Adams makes the realization happen NOW, which is what acting is all about.

The structure of the film is the development of the relationship between the sisters, and the one less than believable moment is the ending, when another character does something we would not expect them to do. Holley, in focusing on the sisters, has not developed the other character enough to make the action completely convincing. That may leave you somewhat disappointed by the ending. I don’t think you will be disappointed by the heart, in both senses, of the movie.

Just so long as you keep in mind that it is NOT Little Miss Sunshine.

Everlasting Moments(2008. Screenplay by Niklas Rådström, story by Jan Troell & Agneta Ulfstäder-Troell. 131 minutes): Pictures, still and moving.

The story comes from tales Agneta Ulfstäder-Troell’s mother told her about her grandmother. Maria Larsson is the wife of a rather brutish husband in Sweden in the early 1900s. She learns how to use a still camera she won in a lottery (and be sure to get there at the beginning of the film to hear the wonderful throwaway line of how the camera led to the marriage). The camera provides a relief from her husband and ultimately seven children. Simple enough, but the script gives us not only the story of the marriage (the husband has his virtues as well as his flaws), but a look at life in Sweden of the time. We get details about work, the role of the lower classes, political action, and how World War I affected Sweden. The script brings us slowly into the life of Maria and Sigge, as the husband is called, and it takes a bit before she begins to explore with the camera. But the camera does not automatically change everything in her life, as it probably would in an American version of the story. Her life goes on, and somewhat to our surprise, so does the marriage. The film is a highly textured look at the characters and their lives. To take only one example, look at the details used to show the relationship between Maria and the owner of a photography studio.

The downside is that it begins to run out of steam in the last hour, where there is very little additional development of the story and characters. Like many films based on true stories, it loses its focus in an effort to get everything in. There are a couple of subplots, including one that goes unresolved for the audience involving Maria’s eldest daughter, who grew up to be Ulfstäder-Troell’s mother, that take us away from the main story. For family reasons I can understand why they are there, but they are part of the reason the film is longer than it needs to be.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008. Written by Kevin Rafferty (O.K., there is no official writer credit on the film, but stick with me on this one). 105 minutes): Structure and character.

Kevin Rafferty, the great documentarian of Atomic Café and Blood in the Face, is the producer, cinematographer, production designer, sound man, and editor of this film. Since the “writing” of a documentary involves the selection of the subject (in this case a legendary, at least in the Ivy League, 1968 football game in which underdog Harvard manages to come up with a tie in the last minute or so of play) as well as the way it is put together, Rafferty as producer and editor gets the de facto writer’s credit on the film. The film of the game provides a relatively easy basic structure, as Rafferty admits in an interview with The New York Times: “I’ve never had a movie jump together so quickly and joyfully. The movie almost cut itself. I’ve spent years cutting a movie and this was the fastest movie I ever cut.” The tricky part was intercutting the interview material he got from many of the participants in the game, since they go off onto other issues, either consciously or not.

Rafferty, a Harvard man, does cheat a little in the beginning when he introduces several of the players, pointing out that the Harvard players seemed to be mostly blue-collar. Well, the team was the underdog, but Harvard is hardly the heart of blue-collar America. Rafferty does let the Yale men seem to be a little more upper class, and one of the more entertaining interviewees, J.P. Goldsmith, does admit that the Yale men were somewhat isolated in New Haven. That’s an understatement. I’m a Yale graduate (class of ’63, boola, boola) and when I was there, a few years before the game in the film, Yale was an incredibly provincial place.

The characters, oh sorry, the people, Rafferty selected will show you why. They are all white and male, as the Ivies were at the time, although Harvard had Radcliffe right down the street. When I was accepted at Yale, I was their 1959 idea of affirmative action: I was a straight, white, Episcopalian male, but I was middle class and from the Middle West. There were virtually no people of color in my class (and Rafferty was not able to interview the one black player on the Harvard team), and of course no women. One of the Yale players admits to having dated a young woman named Meryl Streep, but listen to how she is talked about, which will tell you all you need to know about the sexual provincialism of the Ivy League at the time. The players do talk about the politics at the time, which were more varied than you might expect from the Ivies, but not as varied as the rest of the world. And from several of the players you get a sense of the entitlement they felt. Listen particularly to Yale player Mike Bouscaren talk about the plays he was involved, or thinks he was involved in. It’s enough to want you to send your kids to a good solid community college.

Horton Foote (1916-2009): An appreciation.

Horton Foote, playwright, screenwriter, and television writer, died March 4th at the age of 92. As screenwriting fans, you may best remember him as the author of the great 1962 Oscar-winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. There are those who think Foote’s adaptation improved on the novel. Foote won an Oscar again for his 1983 original screenplay Tender Mercies, a title that could have applied to almost anything Foote wrote. I have never seen as many uses of the word “gentle” as I have in the obits for Foote.

For all his fame as a screenwriter, his experiences with Hollywood were sometimes awful. His play The Chase was adapted by Lillian Hellman (can you think of any writer less suited to adapting Foote?; no one ever use the word “gentle” about Hellman) into one of the legendary flops of the sixties. Hurry Sundown the following year (1967) was slaughtered under Otto Preminger’s hamfisted direction.

Foote is best known and best served as a playwright. But even there the commercial Broadway theater did not do well by him, since his plays were generally not “big,” i.e. melodramatic, enough for the commercial theatre. He had greater success Off-Broadway and in regional theatre, although he finally won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his play The Young Man From Atlanta.

Most his television work were plays and stories he adapted for Public Television in the eighties and nineties, but to me some of his most important and influential work was done for the so-called Golden Age of live television in the fifties. He had already had three plays produced on Broadway when his theatrical partner Vincent Donehue asked him to work on … The Gabby Hayes Show. It was a children’s show that ran from 1950 to 1956 with the cantankerous B-western sidekick as the host. Foote wrote historical stories for the show and Donehue directed. It was produced by the about-be-legendary Fred Coe. Fortunately Coe moved Foote and Donehue up with him when he moved into the hour-long live dramas. Foote’s “gentle” stories were perfectly suited for the limitations of live television. Because the shows were done mostly in New York in the early fifties, there were considerable space limitations for sets and casts. Foote’s classic 1953 teleplay “A Trip to Bountiful” takes place mostly on a bus, which is represented by a couple of seats. Foote said later that live television “was more like theater in those days,” meaning that you did not need elaborate realistic sets. It’s a tossup whether the longer stage version and the 1985 film were better. The stage play was one of the first, if not the first, adapted from an original television play for the stage, helping convince people good writing could come out of television. Yes, that was a LONG time ago.

A month after “A Trip to Bountiful” first aired, Foote’s teleplay “A Young Lady of Property” appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse. It deals with a young woman who is afraid her father, who is going to remarry, will sell the family house. A typical Foote touch has the dramatic face-off between the girl and the fiance off-camera, and we learn about it only from the girl telling her aunt about it. Talk about restraint. And talk about a smart producer: Coe thought it the face-off should be on camera, but figured that Foote knew what he was doing and let him do it his way. Foote later said Coe was “marvelous to work with, very supportive” of the writers.

When I was interviewing writers for my 1992 book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, I especially wanted to interview Foote, since I remembered his teleplays from my childhood. The quotes above from Foote come from that December 1990 phone interview. It was one of the worst interviews I have ever done. And it was all my fault. When I started doing oral history interviews at UCLA in the late sixties, I quickly developed two rules: 1) do your homework before the interview, and 2) ask your question and shut up. It was not adhering to the first rule that got me into trouble with Foote. I had found a couple of his teleplays, but I could not run down the published edition of his major teleplays. None of the local libraries or bookstores had it. The main UCLA Library was supposed to have the collection, but it had somehow been misplaced. I had to prepare my questions without it.

So when I starting asking him the questions, he kept referring to his introductory essay in the book, which covered everything I was asking. I could tell he thought that if I was not THE village idiot I was certainly his first cousin. I still managed to recover a bit until I used the phrase “a regional writer.” All trace of Foote’s gentleness disappeared, replaced by the toughness he needed to survive as a writer in television, film and theater. Because he wrote about his native Texas and the south, he had been slapped with the “regional writer” label early in his career. He hated it, and rightly so. After all, the New York critics never referred to his contemporary Paddy Chayefsky as a regional writer, and what could have been more regional than “Marty”? The interview ended shortly after that. Sorry, Horton. I tried to make it up to him by dealing with the “regional writer” issue in the book, for whatever good it might do.

It might have done some good. None of the obits that I saw referred to him as a regional writer. I am sure that was less me and more that people have come to realize the region Foote wrote about was America, and the regional (yes) theaters that keep his works in the repertoire know that. Check out his movies, and if and when they show up in New York, check out the plays of a truly ALL-American writer.

Teaching the Young: Get them early, take two.

Readers will remember that a month ago my seven-year-old grandson Noam got caught up in the well scene in Lawrence of Arabia and wanted to watch the movie with me. I figured that would be a couple of years off. Never underestimate the power of a seven-year-old.

A couple of weeks ago we got a call from my daughter Audrey, offering us the chance to spend some “quality time” with our grandson. As usual that meant she had to work, her husband had to work, and their 16-year-old daughter had rehearsal. Audrey had given Noam the option of having a babysitter on that Saturday or going to Grandma and Grandpa’s. He opted for the grandparents and said he wanted to see a movie with me. Audrey suggested one of my Buster Keaton stash, but he said, “No, I want to see Lawrence of Arabia.” Ah, ha.

So he came up and we started. He was not that crazy about the overture or the titles, but began to get at least somewhat into it. He did not care for all of Robert Bolt’s great dialogue and political and character nuances. He had trouble telling the British and the Turks apart, since they all dressed in khaki. He loved the action scenes (he grew up on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, after all), and he loved Maurice Jarre’s music. He did not sit still that much, and was really up and dancing to Jarre’s music.

By the end of the film he was tired of it, and asked me during the scene in Allenby’s office, where Allenby, Feisal, and Dryden dismiss Lawrence, if there were any more battle scenes. When I said no, he went into the other room and continued playing the computer game he started during the intermission.

Afterwards, he said he thought the movie was “good,” but he was disappointed there were no castles or statues in it. He and his parents had been in Jordan a few years ago and seen Petra, the hidden temple seen in the final sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Noam was expecting something like that. He was not alone. In Michael Wilson’s original screenplay there was a scene set in Petra, because David Lean had been there and wanted to shoot it. The sequence included some of the same kind of self-glorification Lawrence shows in the sequence on top of the train. Lean was not able to shoot at Petra because of a combination of technical problems and producer Sam Spiegel’s insistence on moving the second half of the production from Jordan to Spain. Noam did not get all of the nuances of the film, but he understood at least some of what it was about.

It’s a start.

The Mask of Dimitrios(1944. Screenplay by Frank Gruber, based on the novel by Eric Ambler. 95 minutes): Astaire and Rogers.

This is one of those minor classics it took me until now to catch up with, and boy was I glad I did. The story is a little tricky for a studio film of the period. As Leslie Halliwell puts it in his Film Guide, it is “Remarkable for its time in that the story is not distorted to fit romantic stars: character actors bear the entire burden.” A shady character named Dimitrios is killed and his body washes up on the shores of Turkey. Colonel Haki (yes, the same Turkish policeman who shows up in Ambler’s Journey Into Fear, but not played here by Orson Welles, which may be just as well) tells the Dutch author Leyden about his attempts to capture Dimitrios over the last twenty years. Leyden goes looking for more information about Dimitrios and we get several flashbacks of Dimitrios’s adventures. You can see Frank Gruber’s problem: what’s the star part? Well, Leyden is just asking questions and getting bullied by friends and associates of Dimitrios. Dimitrios appears as the star in the flashbacks, but as much time is spent on the scenes with Leyden. So the obvious choice is to just make it a character actor’s holiday.

Leyden is played by Peter Lorre, and since he does not have to whimper around Humphrey Bogart, he can come into his own. It is one of the richest performances he ever gave in an American film, with all kinds of textures. Leyden is employed, bullied, and harassed by Mr. Peters, who is played by Lorre’s occasional film partner, Sydney Greenstreet. Gruber has given them four or five great scenes together, and watching the pair get the most out of them is like watching Astaire and Rogers dance; if you are like me, you will giggle with pure delight. Lorre is the more flexible actor, but Greenstreet plays his voice like a Stradivarius, and both seem giddy knowing that Bogart is not going to break in and stop their fun. Jean Negulesco is the director, and his reputation was that he never talked to the actors, but let them do what they wanted. Sometimes that is a wise move with actors like these.

Dimitrios is the first film role of Zachary Scott, and Gruber establishes him as a sleek cad, which Scott played better than anybody else, including George Sanders. Not to give too much away, but keep in mind this film was made in 1944, the same year as Laura. Undoubtedly it was a time when many people hoped that people they thought were dead would turn out to still be alive. Because the ending is all character actors all the time, it is more suspenseful than most movies of the period, since you have no idea who will shoot who and who will survive.

It is not yet out on DVD, but Turner Classic Movies ran it recently so keep an eye out for it.

Burn Notice(2009. Episode “Lesser Evil” written by Matt Nix. 60 minutes): Transition time.

This was the half-season finale of Burn Notice, and Nix, the series creator, pulled a fast one on us. Since the beginning of the show, Michael has been trying to find out who burned him. This half season he and we thought we were getting closer, since the mysterious Carla seemed to be promising him the information. Of course, she also sent Victor to try to kill him, but what’s a little attempted murder between friends?

In a twist early on in the episode, Victor becomes Michael’s “client” as Michael tries to protect him from Carla, since Victor has promised info that will help them deal with her. A number of car chases ensue, since the producers have saved up a lot of money this season for a number of big action scenes they whipped up for this episode. Victor tells him Carla is no longer with “the company” and is doing “black ops” on her own, which we all pretty much know. She has been trying to hustle Michael into working for her the way she hustled Victor. But Victor also suggests that it was not one person in the company that burned Michael, but simply the way the machine works. This would be an anti-climax except we are still in the middle of the chases and shootouts and are more concerned about them.

Then Fi and Sam manage to kill Carla and a helicopter arrives with a character only identified as “Management,” who reveals to Michael that far from leaving him on his own with the burn notice, they did it to protect him from enemies he made in his spy days. Lots and lots of enemies. Management offers to continue to protect Michael, but he refuses the offer by jumping out of the helicopter and swimming to shore.

O.K., what this means for the series is that the writers no longer have to deal with who burned Michael, which is good, since how much more can you dance around that issue? It also opens up a whole can of new bad guys for Michael to have to deal with. How many enemies did he make in his spy days? As many as the writers need to keep the show going for several years. And since Management is played the always-welcome John Mahoney, we probably have not seen the last of him, either.

Castle(2009. Episode “Flowers for Your Grave” written by Andrew W. Marlowe. 60 minutes): Murder She Wrote meets Moonlighting.

Burn Notice stops, this one starts. Life goes on.

Richard Castle is a mystery novelist and he is questioned about a murder that uses a scene similar to one of his novels. He is questioned by Detective Kate Beckett. He’s cute. She’s cute. He smirks, since Nathan Fillion who plays him gives good smirk. She rolls her eyes, since Stana Katic gives good eye roll. Needless to say, he gets involved in the case and equally needless to say, by the end of the hour they have solved it. She wants nothing more to do with him, but his friend the mayor has let her boss know that Castle is going to be hanging out with her to study her as a model of the heroine of his next series of books. Series started.

Marlowe does give us the kind of grace notes you hope for in a genre piece like this. Castle has a teenage daughter who seems more mature than he does, and his freewheeling mother is living with them. Not much is done with the mother this time out, but since she is played by the great Susan Sullivan, there should be some fun with her later on. In a gimmick in the pilot that probably will not be repeated that often, Castle’s poker buddies are real-life mystery novelists James Patterson and Steven J. Cannell, who offer him advice on the case. And one other touch that I really, really loved. Castle is wrong. Just once, in this episode, but it was nice to see the smirk go missing for a couple of minutes.

ER (2009. Episode “Old Times” written by John Wells. 60 minutes): Old times indeed.

This is why we go to the theater. This is why we watch movies. This is why we watch television. We watch actors act out stories that move us and tells us about the world we live in, past and present, real and fictional. And creating those stories is not as easy as John Wells makes it seem here.

One problem the writers of ER have had the last few months has been balancing the ongoing stories, the single episode stories, and the coming end of the series. In US#19 I discussed this in regards to the “A Long Strange Trip” episode, and it was a problem in the March 5th “What We Do” episode, which tried to balance a documentary unit in the ER with ongoing stories. The series pulled that off better in the “Ambush” episode that opened the fourth season.

This episode’s teaser has a young woman on the Chicago subway, carrying a baby. We follow her off the train and into the ER, establishing the usual chaos of the ER, which we know now the way we did not when the series started. The fact that the baby is black and she is white helps us believe her story that she found the baby. The fact she leaves the ER almost immediately makes us doubt her story. The baby has a seizure, and over the episode we watch the doctors stabilize the baby and Banfield bond with it. About the only expected thing in the episode is that we pretty much guess early on that this is going to be the baby Banfield adopts before the end of the series.

Act One: At Northwestern Hospital Carter is about to be released when Dr. Kurtag sweeps in announces they may have a kidney for him. Here’s the first surprise. Kurtag is played, with all the arrogance of every surgeon you ever met, by Christian Clemenson. Clemenson just got off Boston Legal playing Jerry Espenson, and Kurtag could not be further from Espenson. Part of the joy of watching a theatrical repertory company is seeing the actors play a variety of parts. Television especially is our national repertory theater and seeing a variety of performances from a single actor is part of the pleasure it gives us.

We cut to Washington University Medical Center in Seattle. Thank God there is not a crossover with, eewww, Grey’s Anatomy. We follow a woman walking into a waiting room, where we discover she is Carol Hathaway, whom we last saw nine years ago. Wells makes no big deal out of it, which makes it the more moving. She is still a nurse and checking with a variety of people who are here from other hospitals awaiting possible organs for transplant. Neela and Sam are awaiting a heart for the 36-year-old mother we have seen in previous episodes. Hathaway tells everyone there may be a delay. Billy, a 16-year-old boy on a bicycle, was hit and is brain dead, but his grandmother, the only family member they can find, held his hand and felt a squeeze. The doctors know this reflex is common, but the grandmother is convinced the boy will survive. And who walks in but Dr. Doug Ross, Hathaway’s husband, whom we have also not seen for nine years. Again, no big deal. He explains in more detail, then Hathaway goes off to try to convince Nora, the grandmother. A simple scene, and since Wells, who also directed, knows that he has Juliana Margulies as Hathaway and Susan Sarandon as Nora (well, you write great parts, you get great actors) he does not have to overdramatize the scene, either in the writing or the directing. As Christine Jeffs on Sunshine Cleaning knows and Jean Negulesco in his whole career knew, Wells knows if you have good material, you can let the actors carry the scene. Hathaway comes back to the waiting room and asks Neela and Sam if they could take a kidney that will become available back to Northwestern, since they are going to Chicago. We know who the kidney is for, even if Neela and Sam do not. Nora insists her daughter has to be there to decide the fate of the boy.

Act Two: We get Hathaway and Ross talking, reminding us of how charming he can be, and then he finds out that Neela and Sam are from County. Now how would you write that scene? Wells handles it with great simplicity. Ross mentions that he was there. He asks about people we know have gone, such as Weaver and Lewis. We and Ross lived through a lot with them, which Wells is reminding us in an off-hand way. Back in Chicago a woman is brought in for vomiting, and who is her devoted husband Paul but Ernest Borgnine, who won the Oscar 54 years ago for the film version of Marty. Borgnine has done a lot of crap in his career since, but in his early nineties he still has the chops. Wells does not give him big scenes here, but we may see him later. At Northwestern who shows up in Carter’s room but Benton, who terrorized Carter when Carter first came to County. Now they are like two old veterans, which the actors are, catching up. In Seattle, Ross talks to Nora about Billy, asking about him. At one point he asks, “Generous?” We see from Hathaway’s reaction she knows he’s sprung the trap. I had to watch Sarandon’s reactions twice to realize that Nora knows, at least subconsciously. Ross asks again for permission, Nora shakes her head, then almost imperceptibly nods, then nods again, all the while dealing with her grief. Now you know why Wells got Sarandon to do the part, and why Sarandon did it. Sarandon takes you into the woman’s heart, without a lot of speeches. Wells has been at this a long time and worked with a lot of great actors, and as is true of most great screenwriters, he understands what actors can bring to the moment and how to write to let them do that.

Act Three: Nora watches as Billy is brought through on a gurney. Look at how little Sarandon does and how much she gets out of it. After a bit back in Chicago, we see Neela and Sam getting into an elevator, each with her own cooler. That’s all you need for that scene. After another Banfield and the baby scene, we pick up Neela and Sam at the airport. Their plane has had to return, but the clerk (Wells’s attention to detail: look at her reaction to learning there is a heart in the cooler) manages to get them to hitch a ride on a private jet with … a reggae group. Now imagine all the scenes Wells could write with Neela and Sam, ganja, music, etc. He does not give us any of them because that is not what the story is about. And it’s often better to let the audience imagine something like that. At Northwestern Benton asks Carter if he has let his parents or his wife know, and Carter tells him no. We may or may not remember Carter’s African adventures, but we do remember his wife. He does have a picture of her, leading to Benton’s great line, “You married a sister?” Sam arrives with the kidney, and Neela arrives with the heart, going past the woman’s daughter.

Act Four: At Northwestern, Benton stays with Carter through the surgery, irritating Kurtag by insisting they all go through the pre-surgery checklist. The checklist turns up a missing item, which they get before the surgery starts, and which they need, of course. Just like cop show are supposed to reassure us that justice will prevail, doctor shows are supposed to reassure us that good doctors will prevent mistakes. And lawyer shows, at least David E. Kelly’s, show us that none of that is true. At County there are problems with the heart, but Neela insists the patient has a better chance with it than without. She persuades an older, white, male doctor she is right. Remember the problems that Neela has had asserting herself? They’re gone. And then there are problems with the heart and Neela has to use the paddles. After a scene with Banfield and the baby’s mother, who came back to check on her, Neela comes in and asks the daughter if she would like to see her mom. At Northwestern Benton is there when Carter wakes up and shows him the bag of 800ccs of urine to prove his new kidney is now working. Carter has Benton speed dial his wife, and Carter tells her he has “some really good news.” In Seattle, Ross and Hathaway are asleep when Hathaway gets a call from the hospital. Chicago has called and the heart is working fine. She tells Ross that the heart went to a 36-year-old mom. Even if you are looking at the clock, you are now awaiting the big reveal: Ross and Hathaway realizing the kidney has gone to John Carter, whom they started working with fifteen years ago. Have you learned nothing from the way Wells has written this episode? Hathaway adds, “And the kidney went to some doctor.” They cuddle and we fade out.

Life does go on. People connect, lose touch, connect again. Films and television shows connect, sometimes lose touch, sometimes connect again. That’s why we can’t not watch.

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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Film

Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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

2.5

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.

The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.

As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.

Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.

The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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

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

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

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

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

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


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

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


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

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


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

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


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

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

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

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

3

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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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