Coming Up In This Column: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, The Dam Busters, In Plain Sight, Glee, The End of the Television Season, but first…
Fan Mail: First of all, thanks to those who mentioned in their comments on US#25 that they liked the column even if they disagreed with it. As I said near the beginning of the run of the column, I like to start discussions.
A couple of readers took me to task for not understanding Sugar. “Wrongshore” listed a number of reasons he felt Sugar had left the farm team, so it was clear to him as it was not to me. I agreed with him that every one of the reasons he mentioned might be the reasons, but I just did not think the film did the work that Wrongshore did in figuring out what the reasons were. “Anonymous” mentioned that a Chinese woman and a Thai woman at a Q&A in San Francisco both felt the film was their lives. I’m glad they did, but there are a number of films that cover the immigrant experience better. I have mentioned El Norte in writing about a couple of films and it is still one of the best. A more obscure one that I just love (and showed again a couple of weeks ago in my History of Documentary Film class at LACC) is Mai’s America, about a teenaged Vietnamese girl who comes to the U.S. as an exchange student. My foreign students feel that film is their life. I think it’s available on DVD, or you could just come and take my class the next time I show it.
I agree with “Max Winter” that State of Play is not as rushed as we were all afraid it might have been, what with condensing a mini-series into a feature. Credit the three screenwriters with knowing what they needed to have. “Anonymous” thought the miniseries was great, which means I will have to check it out some time. Meanwhile, here’s some stuff I have checked out lately.
Ghosts of Gilfriends Past (2009. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. 100 minutes): Sometimes it’s the writers.
To see or not to see? The trailers for this one looked moderately amusing, and I like Jennifer Garner enough to put up with Matthew McConaughey. There were at least a couple of good lines in the trailer. Then the reviews were generally poor. And a clip on one of the talk shows suggested nobody knew how to cut the cake-falling scene. But then I learned that the writers were two of the four writers on Four Christmases, which you will remember from US#13 that I liked a whole lot more than the critics.
Well, this one has its moments, but is not quite up to that one. The structure of Four Christmases, which probably came from the other two writers (they get credit for the story and are the first credited on the screenplay, which usually means they worked on it first), was more inventive than this one. While the earlier film worked several variations on the family-holiday genre, this one at first seems to be a wedding film, although that turns out to be less true than you might think. Then there is the obvious romantic comedy element: Connor Mead, a womanizer, will realize the error of his ways and end up with Jenny, the girl he has had an off-and-on crush on since they were kids. So we pretty much know the road we are taking in a way we did not in Four Christmases. As anyone can tell from the trailer, that road is a variation on A Christmas Carol (and Charlie Dickens needs to get a new agent—he is not mentioned anywhere in the credits). So Lucas and Moore have three sets of constraints to work with.
Which they do reasonably effectively. Conner’s anti-love attitude is as much a disruption at the wedding as Kym’s was in Rachel Getting Married, and his change of heart rectifies the problems he causes earlier. One problem is that the writers keep harping on Conner’s horn-dog attitudes, which you do not need to do if you have cast Matthew McConaughey. If you have Clint Eastwood walk into the film as a tough cop, you don’t need to keep telling us he’s tough. After McConaughey was cast, they should have gone through the script and condensed it a lot. On the other hand, Lucas and Moore write several other interesting characters for the wedding, including the bride’s father, an old (older in the script than he can possibly be in Robert Forster’s performance) Army man. The bride’s mother, is not given a lot to do, other than a nice early scene with Conner. I like that Lucas and Moore have continued what they started in Four Christmases in creating some nice roles for more mature actors. Men of a certain age such as myself still think Anne Archer, who plays the mother, is a fox.
Jenny is a good fit for Jennifer Garner, since it enables her to use her considerable charm. Jenny is also smart. Let me say that again. She is also smart. I don’t know if this is in the script, or just a great detail from the set decorator, but she has an uneven stack of books on the floor by her bed. Like she actually reads them. She is a doctor and we believe she is, unlike Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary. From very early in the picture, Jenny has Conner’s number and on several occasions takes him down a peg. Not quite up to Hildy and Walter in His Girl Friday, but the thinking is the same.
The writers have written a nice version of Marley’s Ghost for Michael Douglas to play, and the first ghost that visits Conner is Allison Vandermeersh, the 16-year-old he lost his virginity to. Emma Stone is terrific, even if she does overdo it. At one point she shows Conner a lineup of all the women he has ever had, and several of them tell him how long they were his girlfriends. Some for a very short time. This is a domesticated version of the great harem sequence in Fellini’s 8 ½ and funny, if not quite as magical. The ghost of the present is Melanie, Conner’s assistant, whom we just thought was a minor character in the opening scene, but she gets more to do in the center of the film. The ghost of things yet to come is a blonde in a diaphanous gown who never says a word, a nice change of pace from all the talk in the other scenes. She does get one great bit of business near the end of the film. In the morning after, Lucas and Moore throw in one direct steal from A Christmas Carol that produced the best laugh in the film for me. By then we are into Conner’s story more than the Carol connection, but pay attention to the little kid shoveling snow.
Not only do Lucas and Moore make Jenny smart, they give her another potential boyfriend, whom the bride (who is not written as a conventional bridezilla, just a woman who wants her wedding to be perfect) has invited as a possible hookup for Jenny. He is Brad, he is a doctor, and he is wonderful. In many ways we would be happier if Jenny went with him (how much you feel that way may depend on what you think of McConaughey). I don’t know when he was cast, but it may not be an accident that he looks more than a little like Barack Obama. When Jenny and Connor finally get together, I kept wondering what happened to Brad. The writers did not let me down: he gets paired off quickly with someone you would not expect.
Oh, and the editing of the cake scene. It is much better in the film than it was in the trailer or the film clip. Leave film editing to the professionals.
Angels & Demons (2009. Screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. 138 minutes): Sometimes it’s not the writers.
To see or not to see, take two. You may remember (US#2) that I really did not like The DaVinci Code. So what am I doing seeing the sequel? In a theater, no less First of all, it’s May and the BIG summer movies are coming out one a week, and I was in the mood for a big noisy movie. Since I have no taste for or intention to see stuff like Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator or the upcoming Transformers, that sort of leaves Angels & Demons. The trailer has its interesting moments, including a relatively light one in which Tom Hanks’s Professor Langdon reacts to some problems the Vatican guys are giving him with, “Hey, you fellows called me.” A perfect line for Hanks. Then it seemed as though it was going to have a little more action than the first one. A friend of mine who has read both The DaVinci Code and this book said this one was more likely to make an interesting film. Ewan McGregor, who plays McKenna, showed up with a clip on The Tonight Show and suggested he and Hanks were able to get a little actor stuff going. And the deal maker was that it was shot in some of my favorite places in Rome, one of my most favorite cities in the world. So why not?
Well, it’s no Roman Holiday or Three Coins in the Fountain, but it is not as awful as The DaVinci Code. I suspect that Goldsman, who wrote the first one, and Ron Howard, who directed both, realized this was a chance at a do-over to show they were not as incompetent as the first film suggested. (I have always thought that Spielberg did the second Jurassic Park movie because he knew how badly he had geeked the first one—see the chapter on the three Jurassic Park movies in my book Understanding Screenwriting for details.) The Koepp-Goldsman script here is much less talky than Goldsman’s for Code. We get some lengthy, repetitive exposition (the newscast voiceover at the beginning made me a little nervous), but nothing like Sir Leigh Teabing in the first one. And a lot of the exposition is delivered while everybody in the movie is running around all those great Roman locales, such as the Pantheon and the Bernini Four Rivers fountain in the Piazza Navona. I did not notice any credits for physical trainers for the cast, but they must have had them, given all that running.
The plot, while preposterous in MANY different ways, at least moves fast, so you do not have time to think about it. All right, sometimes you cannot avoid noticing the plot holes. How can one guy have kidnapped the four cardinals? How did that other guy know that they would find the canister at exactly that time? Why did the College of Cardinals let McKenna into their conference? And then why did they let him make the longest and dullest speech in the film? Generally though, the story moves quickly enough, and with a lot more suspense than that of The DaVinci Code. There is more at stake here than the doctrinal question in the earlier film, and the find-them-before-they-blow-up-the-Vatican timeline keeps our attention.
The script does go on too long after the big St. Peter’s Square scene. I must admit I looked at my watch when that scene was finished and said to myself, “This is going to go on for another twenty minutes?” It does, and not in a good way.
While there is nothing in here like the story in Code that will offend the Church, the script does get in a couple of little digs that Howard skates over in his direction. For example, at one point after an early vote for the Pope, newscasters from each country are shown announcing that the cardinals from their country are the favorites. It doesn’t have the comic punch it should. And a reference to the Vatican not being a large corporation is done while passing a Mercedes the Vatican owns. O.K., but you could do more with it.
A scene early in the film is a good demonstration of the hit-and-miss quality of the film. Langdon and Vittoria Vetra (I can only assume that name is Dan Brown’s inside joke, since it is close to Victoria Vetri, the 1968 Playmate of the Year who, under her stage name Angela Dorian, appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow asks her character if she is Victoria Vetri) have been granted access to the Vatican Archives. They find the rare manuscript they are seeking and then, even though the lives of the kidnapped cardinals are at stake, TALK about the meaning of it. Maybe that is Ron Howard’s fault, but I would have thought that Langdon would start looking through it AS they talk. But then Vetra brings the scene to a funny and surprising close. Vetra, by the way, is played by the great Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who was Avner’s wife in Munich. Unlike Audrey Tautou in Code or, going back further, Emmanuelle Béart in Mission Impossible, she is a non-American actress who instinctively understands how to hold her own is a big noisy American film. She even steals a couple of shots from Tom Hanks, which is more than just petty larceny.
The Dam Busters (1955. Screenplay by R. C. Sherriff, based on the book by Paul Brickhill and the book Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Comdr. Guy Gibson. 125 minutes): The British version, “N” word and all.
Nearly every Memorial Day I pay tribute to those who served in the armed forces by watching a war movie. You have to pick carefully, of course. One year it was Bridge on the River Kwai, which does not exactly honor those in the military. I figured this year it would be my DVD of The Great Escape. I recently read Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, a solid, modest (under 300 pages, in comparison with those door-stop director biographies we usually get) book on a director whose films (Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven in addition to Escape) give as much pleasure as anybody’s. Then TCM, in its usual 36 hours of war movies on the Memorial Day weekend, ran the British version of The Dam Busters. So even though Memorial Day is an American holiday, I paid tribute to our cousins and their efforts to blow up three important German dams during World War II.
I had seen and liked the American cut when I saw it in 1955 and have not seen it since. The American cut is 22 to 23 minutes shorter depending on who’s counting. There were two obvious areas that were probably cut (I remember a lot about movies, but there are limits, even to my movie memory) for the American release. The first half-hour of the film includes some nice scenes of B.N. Wallis, the Vickers engineer who devised the scheme, trying to convince the British bureaucrats it might work. The bureaucrats are not shown as stupid, just skeptical, as well they should be. Wallis’ idea was to drop a bomb on the reservoirs behind the days and have it bounce over the defenses, then sink to 30 feet under water, and explode at the base of the dam. Would you believe such an idea? The second section that was probably condensed was the slower portion leading up to the raid, where we watch the airman writing letters to loved ones and getting their affairs in order. While I am generally of the opinion, often expressed here, that longer is not better, both sets of scenes add to the film.
One change that had to have been made for the American market was the nickname of Wing Comdr. Gibson’s dog. Apparently he really was called a word beginning with “N” that rhymes with digger. It’s there all the way through this version, but it was probably looped in the American version.
The film is very much in the tradition of the British documentaries of the war, and a lot of the bombing raid, which takes up the last 45- or so minutes of the film could come straight out of Harry Watt’s 1941 Target for Tonight. There is the usual British understatement throughout the film. Michael Redgrave plays Wallis as one of those slightly distracted but obsessive British scientists, the forerunner of Q in the Bond films. Richard Todd plays Gibson as a little nicer than he apparently was in real life, but with more of a hearty, friendly quality than a stiff upper lip.
Sherriff’s script is great at not telling us things until we need to know them. We have no idea in the opening scene why Wallis is skimming marbles out of a water tub, but we want to find out, so we are hooked. It is well past the hour mark when Wallis finally tells the bureaucrats where the idea originally came from. The one scene everybody who saw the film remembers is Gibson getting the idea of how to keep the plane at the right height—since they have to fly so low the altimeters do not work. We have already been told what the problem is, and then we have what we first think is a little throwaway scene of Gibson and a friend at a theatrical show. We see Gibson thinking, and we see what he looks at, but there is no dialogue about it. Next we see his plan in action. And only in the next scene do we get an explanation, which by then we really want to hear.
Rumor has it that Peter Jackson is producing a remake. I am sure it will be bigger, and the special effects (which seem chintzy to us these days, but which got an Oscar nomination) will be much more elaborate. I am not sure he can improve on Sherriff’s script, but if he does not mess up the story and have Hobbits flying the planes, I’ll be there.
In Plain Sight (2009. Episode “Rubble With a Cause” written by Alexander Cary. Episode “Aguna Matatala,” written by David Slack. Each episode 60 minutes): Ah, the road not taken.
In “Rubble,” Lewis, a witness in a bombing, got heroic when he saw another building bombed and went in to try to save people. Unfortunately this got his face on television before he was trapped under some of the rubble. So Mary and her team have to try to a) protect him from being shot by a sniper, b) protect him from being outed by a nosy reporter, and c) keep him from dying. Mary of course is the one who threads through the rubble to sit by him. After all, she’s the star of show. Unlike a lot of other episodes, there is not a lot of running around in this one. And the witness is not a flake, unlike the pot farmer and the woman with three kids (see US#25). Lewis is an ex-military man who now works for a private security firm. In one of the best scenes, he and Mary talk about how you deal with having killed somebody. The suspense is structured well and there are multiple twists. What Mary’s partner Marshall thinks is a sniper on a roof is just the reporter and her cameraman. Lewis’s former partner, the defendant in the case, is not trying to kill him as we all thought. This A story is a good one, well told.
The problem is Brandi. She keeps calling Peter, the man she met at AA when she pretended to be her mom. He won’t return her calls. She goes to the meeting place, but he won’t talk to her. She shows up at a meeting and admits to one and all what she did. She apologizes, says they are doing a great thing, and leaves.
In “Aguna Matatala” Peter shows up at Mary’s house to thank Brandi for speaking up and ask her out. It also turns out he’s very rich. So what does he want with Brandi? Has his sobriety made him so dense he does not realize she is a flake? He wants to take her to a swell society function. What is this man thinking? The episode ends with Peter and Brandi, who does look gorgeous (with a little help from Jinx, who is visiting on a day off from rehab) heading off to the ball. Do you have the same suspicion I do that the AA Thought Police forced the showrunners to turn Peter and Brandi into something conventional, rather than the unconventional approach I suggested in US#25?
Glee (2009. Episode “Pilot” written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Flachuck & Ian Brennan. 60 minutes): Not as smart-assed as it thinks it is.
Fox promoted this new show as being so good they could show the pilot in May and then not run the rest of the series until the Fall. Good luck with that. The hype was that this was fresh and original, like Murphy’s cable show Nip/Tuck. It is not that fresh nor original. The setup is that Will Schuester, a high school teacher, is taking over running the glee club. Ah yes, another straight white male who will enlighten the multi-culti heathens. We also have the dumb football coach, the uncaring principal, the sports jock who can sing, the talented but bossy girl, the nerd in the wheelchair and of the course the fat and sassy Black girl. There is also a lot of snarky dialogue, which gets tiresome very quickly, since there does not seem to be a lot of point to it. The intent was to be a sort of satire of the “high school musical” type. There are moments that suggest that, but then there are other moments when the writers seem to be taking all this seriously, as in Will’s dropping the club, then deciding to come back. That is played for unearned sentiment. O.K., this is the pilot, and there are trying to stuff as much into it as they can, a flaw in most pilots, but they simply have not got the balance right.
The End of the Season: And maybe an era.
While cable tends to go on year around, or at least at times the networks are into reruns, the network shows are finishing their seasons. In this item I am going to look at a few of them, and make a few guesses on what the future will bring for writing for the networks. First up is Castle, which has developed nicely since I first wrote about in US#21. There has been a lot less smirking by Castle and eye-rolling by Beckett. Castle’s daughter Alexis is still the most mature one of the bunch, and Susan Sullivan has been given several good scenes as Castle’s mom. As I suspected when I first wrote about it, they have not repeated Castle’s poker games with real mystery writers. Castle and Beckett have developed a working relationship that is not all flirting and bantering. Beckett seems a real professional.
The story structures seem to borrow from Law & Order: what we first suspect is true turns out not to be, as is the next thing, etc. This works nicely with Castle coming up with way out suggestions for what the case may be about. Beckett and the other cops know he is probably wrong, as Castle will cheerfully admit when he is proved wrong. Castle also uses his connections, including those on the other side of the law. In the final episode, “A Death in the Family” (teleplay by Andrew W. Marlowe, story by Marlowe and Barry Schindel), Castle talks to a Mafia guy he knows to find out whom the mob has put out a hit on. Beckett couldn’t do that, but it is useful information.
In the “Little Girl Lost” episode (written by Elizabeth Davis) we meet F.B.I. agent Sorenson, with whom Beckett had an affair. The affair ended when he moved to the Boston office, but he is now back in New York and ready to take up with Beckett again. She is not so sure she wants to do that, although she is clearly still attracted. We also find out in that episode from Sorenson that Beckett has been a big fan of Castle’s books since long before he came to work with her. Nothing more is done with that at this point. In “A Death in the Family” Castle goes looking into the murder of Beckett’s mother even after Beckett has told him not to. A forensic scientist looks at the file and tells Castle the mother was probably the victim of a serial killer. Castle is reluctant to tell Beckett, but his mother insists he should. He is about to when the final fadeout comes.
CSI has still not found its bearings since Grissom left. Catherine has taken over command of the unit, but the various writers have not written her as though she has taken over. Marg Helgenberg could certainly play that (look at her as K.C. in China Beach), but the writing is not there. The writers are giving a lot of screen time to Langston, but he is not the one in charge, since he is the newbie. Laurence Fishburne certainly has command presence, but they have not created a character that lets him use it.
How I Met Your Mother IS still playing us and Ted’s kids along as to who the mother is. Are you getting as tired of this as the kids must be? The kids have been on that damned couch for four years listening to dad tell these stories. Hasn’t it occurred to either of them just to get up, go in the kitchen and get the short version from their mom so they can all get on with their lives? Or is Ted more sadistic than we thought? Is that going to be the finale of the show: Child Protective Services breaking down the door and rescuing the kids?
The “Right Place Right Time” episode (written by Stephen Lloyd) ran an elaborate set of actions that showed how Ted, carrying the all-important yellow umbrella, ended up on a street corner where he met, ta-da, Stella. Who left him at the altar earlier in the season. But in the “As Far As She Can” episode (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) the next week, we learn Stella is not their mom. She is still with Tony, who wants to make it up to Ted for Stella dumping him. Not much good comes out of that, although there is a hint that something will in the future. In other words, exactly the thing that keeps clogging up the show. In the season finale “The Leap” (written by Bays and Thomas), Ted gives up architecture and turns to teaching. He tells us in the narration that the mother is in his class. Pull out to reveal a class of several hundred people.
Meanwhile, Bays and Thomas have finally gotten back to Barney and Robin. Barney is about to tell Robin he loves her when she tells him she loves him. And Barney replies that they are just friends. We find out that Robin had heard Barney telling Ted he was in love with her, so she discussed it with Lily, who suggested she tell him first, which would naturally make him have second thoughts. This eventually leads to a scene in which Robin and Barney are alternately admitting and retracting their love. Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders have a fine time with it.
I do, by the way, have a little sympathy for the show’s writers in the second half of the season. Both Cobie Smulders (Robin) and Alyson Hannigan (Lily) are very, very pregnant. Neither pregnancy was written into the show, so for the last several episodes both actresses have been sitting down a lot, holding LARGE purses in front of them, etc. It limits what the writers can do.
The writers of Two and a Half Men have been writing themselves into a corner. Charlie and Chelsea are engaged and appear to be headed for marriage. This happened several years ago with Charlie and Mia and the writers wrote their way out of that one. In “Good Morning Mrs. Butterworth” (teleplay by Eddie Gorodetsky & Mark Roberts, story by Don Foster & Sid Youngers), the next to the last episode, they lay out an interesting possibility that would have, alas, completely changed the character of the show. In the episode, Alan and Chelsea are becoming good friends. He goes shopping with her at the Farmer’s Market and discusses physical exercises. As Berta points out to Charlie, Alan is Chelsea’s gay best friend. Alan of course is straight and one can imagine what might happen if he took Chelsea away from Charlie. Like I say, it would completely disrupt the show.
The writers’ solution to the problem, or the possible solution, showed up in the last episode, “Baseball Was Better with Steroids” (teleplay by Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, story by Mark Roberts & Susan Beavers). Alan, who tried ventriloquism as a hobby in the previous episode, is now in a coffee shop trying to write a screenplay. Who shows up but Mia. She is divorced and back in town. When Alan tells Charlie, Charlie realizes he still has feelings for Mia, which is essentially where the season ends (after Judith has given birth to what we all know is Alan’s baby). Not a big cliffhanger, but enough to give them something to work with next year.
Desperate Housewives got rid of Edie (US#24) and in the two-part season finale (“Everybody Says Don’t” written by John Pardee & Joey Murphy, “It’s Only in Your Head” written by Jeffrey Richmond) they also finish off the Dave storyline. Dave has tried and failed to kill Mike, Susan, and finally their son, M.J. Dave has been shipped off to the hospital for the criminally insane, so presumably we won’t be seeing him any time soon. In “The Born Identity” episode (written by Steven Ross) of Ugly Betty they sent Betty’s one true friend at Mode, Christina, back to Scotland. They had earlier gotten rid of Betty’s two boyfriends, Henry and Gio, and sent Helena off to a new job. In the two-part season finale (“Curveball” written by Terry Proust & Jon Kinally, “The Fall Issue” written by Silvia Horta) they kill off Daniel’s bride Molly, and it looks as though they may be getting rid of Marc, although that is left very much up in the air. I hope they keep him, since he provides a nice wacky presence, and both the writers and actor Michael Urie have done some nice work deepening a character you would not have thought was very deep. Henry was brought back in this two-parter, but only temporarily, so he is now gone for a second time.
The attrition rate on network shows is an effect of the recession on network television. The big sponsors, like the car companies, will have less and less to spend on advertising, and the networks will have to get along with less money for programming. So next season will see more “reality” shows as well as NBC having nothing but Jay Leno at 10 p.m. five nights a week, eliminating the time slots where they used to have ER, Homicide: Life on the Streets, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and a few others. What we are seeing at the end of this season is the beginning of the cuts that will be more obvious over the next seasons.
What does all this mean for both television writing and writers? First, the budgets for shows will be more limited, so writers will have to have less action and fewer characters. Instead of car crashes, there will be more and probably longer dialogue scenes, not necessarily a bad thing. Special effects will be cut back, which may hurt the science fiction shows and even a show like CSI. I for one could do with a lot less CGI and prosthetic gore on CSI, so that might also not be a bad thing. There will ultimately be fewer shows with large ensemble casts. In other words, network shows will look more like cable shows, with their limited casts and budgets. Given the quality of writing on cable shows, all of this may not be a bad thing.
The new situation may not be so good for writers, which the networks and studios won’t shed any tears over, since they still hold a grudge from last year’s writers’ strike. There will be a lot fewer jobs for writers, and some of those will have moved to Canada and other countries where production costs are cheaper. Writing staffs, including all those executive producers who are essentially writers with bigger titles, will be smaller. So the writers will be writing more, and the writing will probably be more rushed. Writers may not have time to revise a script from the Not-Quite-So Good category to the Good category. This has always been a problem with network television with its orders for 22 episodes per season. One reason writing on cable often seems better is that cable needs fewer episodes, and the writers have a chance to polish the scripts before they are shot. It is not unusual for the scripts for a mini-season to be completed before any of them are shot, which ultimately also helps keeping production costs down. That probably would not be possible with a 22-episode order, and we have already begun to see shorter orders from the networks, as with Castle in the last part of the season.
So we may be at the end, at least temporarily, of the era of the big network shows. And by big, I do not mean just in terms of production values. Will any network be able to afford an ER, with its large cast and long narrative lines? I like the under-populated Monk and In Plain Sight, but there was, and still is, some satisfaction to be found on a different level of magnitude in a great network show.
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.
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
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
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.3
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
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.3
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
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.2.5
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
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.3
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
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.3
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
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.1
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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