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Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It,



Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It,

Coming Up In This Column: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It, The Phenix City Story, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mad Men (2), The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first:

Fan Mail: dfantico suggested the ways he would rewrite Law Abiding Citizen in his comments on US#34. I generally avoid telling people how to rewrite a script, although I sometimes fall into that trap. As a screenwriting instructor I try to not to tell students how to rewrite their scripts. I just point out the problems and let them figure it out. They learn more that way.

Since I did not do any comments on the comments on my piece “Talking Back to Documentaries,” let me just throw in a thanks to the people who wrote in on it. I was glad to give you some ideas of stuff to watch. I was particularly touched by the comments from joan, who seemed from the comments to be Betsy MacLane, the co-author of the textbook I use. Glad to know the class meets with your approval.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009. Screenplay by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, based on the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett. 90 minutes): O.K. banana, but a great credit.

I suspect that the children’s book this is based on is probably a charmer, and I can see why kids would love it. Flint Lockwood invents a device that takes the water in clouds and turns it into food: cheeseburgers, pizza, pancakes with butter and syrup, etc. The food drops on the small town Flint lives in and makes it famous, but then the device gets out of control. Nice little story. The problem is the film is 90 minutes long and there is not enough story for 90 minutes. The filmmakers have, pardon the expression, larded up the story with more and more and more food sight gags. It gets relentless. An additional problem is that the characters are rather bland and one-dimensional and they cannot sustain a 90-minute film either. Once the plane takes off to try to stop the device, it is all action, all the time. And of course it is a huge hit, especially with kids, who love the excessive food jokes. I suppose this means that the writers know their audience, but still…

There are the occasional nice moments with the characters, but not enough of them. Sam, the TV weather intern given her big shot at covering the story, has a habit of saying something very smart and then realizing it was too smart for the room. She then resorts to pretending to be stupid. Flint, finally, after way too many examples, calls her on it and she admits she really is smart. Flint changes her look from cutsie weather girl back to nerd, complete with glasses. We are supposed to applaud, but can’t she be cute and smart at the same time? Flint’s father is a fisherman who talks (with James Caan’s voice, a perfect bit of voice casting) in fish metaphors, which also gets tiresome, but the father has a good gag when he tries to e-mail the kill code for the device to his son.

In writing about The Mouse That Roared, I mentioned that it got off to a great start with the gag of a mouse scaring the Columbia logo lady. This film starts off with a banana falling from the sky and hitting her. Not as funny. But then the film recovers beautifully with a main credit that starts: “A Film by…” and then adds “A lot of people.” For once, truth in the credits. Too bad the rest of the film is not up to that joke.

Bright Star (2009. Written by Jane Campion. 119 minutes): Define bright.

My wife and I were really in the mood for a romantic drama, complete with English poets (Keats in this case) and the lovely countryside (my wife is English and I have a nostalgic view of the good old sceptre’d isle). I do have to tell you that my wife stayed awake through the entire film (she is notorious for sleeping through the first act of plays—where do you think I developed by skill at quickly summarizing a play or movie?), but I had trouble keeping my eyes open.

John Keats, as written and directed by Campion, is a real drag. He hardly ever does anything but cough, and he does not seem to have much of a reaction to anything around him. Surely a guy who writes stuff like his would be paying at least some attention to the world. Campion’s real interest is in Fanny Brawne, a seamstress who falls in love with Keats. Now she is paying attention to everything that is going on, and that’s in the writing as well as the directing and acting. Abbie Cornish gives a star performance as Fanny, blowing Ben Whishaw as Keats off the screen, which is not what you want in a love story. Compounding the problem though is that Abbie is not all that sympathetic a character. She mopes a lot (not as much as Keats, but still) and seems rather silly a lot of time. I know people in love act silly, but as screenwriters you have to protect them a little. Just to make matters worse, Keats’s friend and protector, Charles Brown, is set up to be the minimal bad guy in the piece. He keeps dragging Keats away from Abbie to get him to work on his poems. Which makes him the most sympathetic as well as hard-headed of the characters. Referring to another poet entirely, Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ’Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

The England we see in the film is rather dreary, although Campion has provided us with some nice butterflies, but even Rome is dark and gloomy when we see Keats’s coffin there. I realize it is a tragic story, but a little sun might be nice as a counterpoint. The closest we get is Fanny’s little sister “Toots,” who has more charm than anybody else in the movie.

Whip It (2009. Screenplay by Shauna Cross, based on her novel. 111 minutes): Not just Juno joining the roller derby.

Bliss is a teenaged girl who joints the roller derby, unbeknownst to her mom Brooke, who forces Bliss to compete in teen beauty pageants. In the middle of the picture Brooke and her husband Earl find out. The confrontation scene between Bliss and Brooke is the only mediocre scene in the entire script—very flat and “on the nose.” The rest of the script is terrific.

Cross has a great feel for the locale of her film: white trash Texas (and the production design is very convincing; I was amazed to discover in the end credits that it was filmed in Michigan), and she gets the details of the lives of her characters right. What would you say to get your best friend to vomit up the alcohol she drank when she doesn’t want to? Listen to what Bliss tells her best friend Pash. More importantly, Cross is not condescending to the characters. They all are not only rich and funny, especially the derby girls, but Cross gives them nice counterpoints. It comes as a surprise to learn that Brooke, for all her pretensions, is a mail delivery person. Earl is not as dumb as you may first think. Pash has an interesting relationship with their boss at the diner. Late in the film, in a charming little scene in a car, we learn that “Maggie Mayhem,” one of the Hurl Scouts team, has a very interesting relationship with a much younger guy. Much, much younger.

This is Cross’s second screenplay, but it is the director’s first film as a director. She is Drew Barrymore, and she has been producing commercially successful, if not exactly critically acclaimed, movies for years. Her DNA from one of America’s greatest acting families shows up in her direction of the actors, most of whom haven’t been this good in years. Look at what Barrymore does with the reactions Cross has given to Marcia Gay Harden’s Brooke in the first scene in the film. Ellen Page as Bliss gives a wider-ranger performance than she did in Juno. Barrymore, unlike a lot of directors, LOVES actors, and it shows. Cross has given Barrymore a great set of characters to play with and Barrymore lets the actors go. True, she lets herself overact a bit in a supporting role, but she’ll learn. The outtakes at the end show the great time everybody had making the movie, and unlike some movies with outtakes at the end, the film gets that feeling across to the audience. Barrymore has given the film an energy and drive that Campion does not give to Bright Star. Now if Campion had just put Keats on roller skates…

The Phenix City Story (1955. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur. 100 minutes): Doesn’t quite live up to its reputation.

Writing about The Captive City in US#8, I mentioned this film as “an example of how it [a script based on a true crime story] ought to be done.” I wrote there that it never showed up on DVD or on television. Well now it has appeared on Turner Classic Movies and I have to revise my opinion a bit. I saw this film when it first came out and found it stark and compelling. Since I was also about 13 at the time, some of my love for the film came from the early scene when actress-singer Meg Myles, a very buxom young lady in a low-cut dress, sings the “Phenix City Blues,” but I remember the impact the rest of the film had.

Phenix City, Alabama, was the legendary Sin City for most of the first half of the twentieth century. It was right across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and therefore near Fort Benning. Soldiers went across the river for gambling, prostitution and whatever other vices they could find. During World War II the bordellos drove “mattress trucks” up to the gates of Fort Benning to cut down on the soldiers’ travel time. In 1954, Albert Patterson, a local lawyer who had just received the Democratic nomination for State Attorney General, was assassinated, which finally provoked a cleanup of Phenix City. The story made the newspapers and magazines around the country, and the film came out the following year.

This is shot on location in Phenix City, but it is a lot more relentless about making sure we know this than, say, On the Waterfront was the year before about its location shooting. When actor Edward Andrews, playing Rhett Tennant, the owner of the worst club, runs into a little old lady on the street and has a nice chat with her, people at the time knew she was the real notorious town madam. Nowadays, who cares? Like The Captive City, the script is so determined to document the story that it comes out rather flat. There is one really good scene near the beginning where Tennant goes to persuade Patterson not to join the crusaders. Andrews and John McIntyre, two first-rate character actors of the period, get a lot out of the scene. Too many of the rest of the scenes are very flat, and others, particularly those with Richard Kiley as Patterson’s son John, are too melodramatic. Another problem with the script is that it is vague about several points. There are suggestions, but only suggestions, that the sin merchants are connect to organized crime. Part of the vagueness may be that several trials were still going on at the time and the filmmakers could not be too specific. It does hurt the film. There are moments that still shock, such as a death of a little girl, but the script is not good enough to have the film impact today as it did then.

Georgia O’Keeffe (2009. Written by Michael Cristofer. 120 minutes): Another back-up-the-truck film.

In US#24 I brought up the idea that some movies and television shows are so good that instead of having all the nominations and award shows, you can just back up the truck and start shoveling out the awards. I raised that while writing about Grey Gardens. Check the list of Emmy winners this year.

Although the title is Georgia O’Keeffe, this made-for-television movie is about the long, difficult relationship between O’Keeffe, the painter, and her mentor, lover, and salesman, Alfred Steiglitz, one of the great American photographers. One of the comments on the message boards at IMDb complained that the film did not go on after his death and show the rest of her life. Well, you got to leave something for the sequel. And there is more than enough material in her life for another film.

Michael Cristofer is an actor and a playwright. He is best known for his 1977 play The Shadow Box, but he has done several screenplays. His screenplay for The Witches of Eastwick (1987) may have been messed up during that troubled production, and his script for The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) certainly was. I always found it interesting that Julie Salamon, who wrote the book The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood appears never to have talked to Cristofer. Salamon started the project intending to show how a great director, Brian De Palma, makes a great film. What happened of course was a disaster, and in a spectacular failure of nerve, Salamon fails to acknowledge in the book what is clear from everything else in the book: the problem with the film was that De Palma directed it very badly. Cristofer’s comments would have been very illuminating.

Because Cristofer is an actor as well as a writer, he has written a lot of great scenes for Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Steiglitz to play. Look at the first scene in the apartment he sets her up in. Look at the argument they have late in the picture and how the emotions turn on a dime. Look at the scene with her in the hospital and him trying to persuade her to let his gallery have a show. That last scene is a beautiful example of making a scene work where only one person talks.

Cristofer also lets us see her development as an artist. When she temporarily leaves Steiglitz in New York and goes to New Mexico, we see what attracts her about the place. One of the commentators on the IMDb boards complained that the cinematography made the East Coast scenes look all blue and green. Yes, and they are supposed to look that way so we feel the contrast when she comes West.

The film was shown on Lifetime and should pop up again. Look for it, especially if you have a big screen TV. Do NOT watch it on your iPhone.

Mad Men (2009. “The Gypsy and the Hobo” episode written by Marti Noxon & Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): The Best Commercial Break of the Year.

Rather than look at the entire episode (Todd VanDer Werff and Luke de Smet are doing great jobs on their summaries/commentaries, aren’t they?), I want to look at one, or two, of the best scenes of this year. Not just on Mad Men, but in any movie or television show this year.

In the previous episode Betty had found the key to Don’s secret drawer. She looked in the old shoebox and discovered his “stuff,” including the fact that he had been married and divorced before. She did not do anything then, but we knew the day was coming. In this episode she takes the kids off to Philadelphia to see her brother, but as we discover, also to talk to her family’s lawyer about her situation with Don. The lawyer pretty much tells her to stick with Don, since the other options are not good. Meanwhile, Don is planning a getaway with Miss Farrell. They drive by his house and he leaves her in the car to go in for a minute. But he finds that Betty and the kids have come home early. Betty tells the kids to go upstairs to bed and says to Don, “I need to talk to you.”

So how would you write the scene that follows? Yelling, screaming, throwing things? Not with these writers. What we get is a very quiet but very tense scene in which Betty confronts Don. What the writers are very good at in this scene are the silences, which give the actors a lot to do. We see Betty’s anger, hurt, and bafflement, as well as her determination to find out what the hell is going on with the man she thought she knew. Don is devastated that his secrets have been found out. He says he can explain and Betty tells him he is good at that. So Don is forced to tell the truth for a change, and the one time he strays from it (about when he got the divorce) Betty nails him on it. We know he is telling the truth because we have seen nearly everything he says take place.

Now, what makes this a great scene? First of all, it delivers what we have been waiting for, and as much as I love the show, I keep wishing it would speed up the days of reckoning. I feel that way even more now that I see from this scene how the reckonings will be delivered. Second, the scene rewards the longtime viewers because we know what all this means, even if we don’t know where it will end up. Third, the scene provides, especially in those silences, great opportunities for the actors. Jon Hamm has shown Don skating through a lot, but here he is stunning, particularly in his first closeup when he realizes that Betty knows what is in the drawer. January Jones matches him in suggesting, not telling, all the conflicting feelings Betty is going through. Fourth, the scene provides the opportunity for the director, Jennifer Getzinger, to do it right by not doing much. Getzinger is smart enough to know we just want to watch these characters in this situation. With this quality of writing and acting, all she has to do is let the camera watch. Anything more would be redundant. Fifth, the writers let our knowledge of Miss Farrell out in the car hang over the entire scene (much later we see her get out of the car and walk home). Sixth, the writers and producers are willing to let the scene run longer than any scene I can remember in this series, and longer than almost any other scene in any television series. The entire scene runs nine minutes, which is an eternity in series television. It breaks the rhythm of the show, which is generally shorter scenes, intercutting with other scenes of other characters. This scene stays on these characters as long as it does because the artists know we want to see these characters and how they deal with this situation.

And then we get a commercial break. After which we come back to some of the other characters? Nope. We come back to Don and Betty in their bedroom as Don explains who the people in the photographs are. This scene runs five minutes, also long for a television scene, but again we want to be with these characters and see how it plays out. Don, talking about his brother, begins to cry, and for the first time Betty seems to have at least a little sympathy for him. Would this scene seem too much if there were not a commercial break between it and the previous scene? It might, which is why the writers place the commercial break where they do. I think it is probably easier for us to get back emotionally to Don and Betty if we are completely out of the story than if they had just cut to a scene of the other characters. We are used to commercial breaks by now, and this is one of the best uses of the commercial break I have ever seen.

I said that I would only deal with this one scene, but I cannot resist a comment on the final line of the episode, one of the best fadeout lines of recent years. In the two scenes discussed above, Betty is constantly trying to find out who Don is, not just in terms of names, but of character. In the final scene Don and Betty take their two older kids trick-or-treating. At one house, the guy who comes to the door correctly identifies the kids as a gypsy and a hobo, then looks at Don in his ad man suit and asks, “And who are you supposed to be?” Todd thought in his comments the line was “incredibly on the nose,” but I disagree. “Who are you?” would be on the nose. “Who are you supposed to be?” is a whole lot richer. When you are writing dialogue, one word can make all the difference.

Mad Men (2009. “The Grown Ups” episode written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): Structure, structure, structure, and structure.

As I write this on November 7th, I have not yet read Luke’s comments on this episode, nor watched the season finale, but I wanted to get this column finished and into Keith. I am not going to go into this episode as deeply as I am sure Luke is going to (see comments in previous item). However, having dealt with just a couple of scenes in the previous item, I want to say a word about the structure of this episode, which is brilliant. I had assumed Weiner and his team were saving the Kennedy Assassination for the final episode of the season. I think the filmmakers were assuming we were assuming that, and they protected their episode by sending out completely bogus loglines to TV Guide and newspapers: “A candidate makes an impression on Don. Peggy is questioning her taste in men.” Well, that worked. I for one was caught off-guard when Pete goes in to talk to Harry and the television is on. Harry dismisses it as saying he has to watch to check the commercials, but he does turn off the sound. The notice of a news bulletin comes up on the set, and Pete and Harry just continue talking. We are well into the scene before others come in and they turn up the sound. It is twenty some minutes into the episode, which means the writers are giving themselves enough time to show the immediate impact of the assassination on nearly everybody in the cast.

So right away we get the famous Cronkite footage? Guess again. We see Betty and Carla, sitting at opposite ends of the couch, watching the NBC announcement of Kennedy’s death. Using that footage tells us in a subtle way that we are not just going to get the obvious clips or obvious reactions; a shoutout here to the show’s researchers, who found all kinds of interesting footage for this episode. We do get the Cronkite stuff, but only after Duck has unplugged the TV set in his hotel room before Peggy shows up for their tryst. He plugs it back in and they watch Cronkite together.

Don tells his kids at home that everything will be O.K. (how Don of him) and we will just have a new president. Pete matches that with the comment to his wife that nothing will change with Johnson as president. Joe Dougherty, whom I interviewed for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, said that one problem they had on thirtysomething was that the networks would never let them have a character be wrong. About anything. Thank goodness television has grown up a little bit since those ancient days in the eighties. Mad Men could not exist under those rules.

We of course have assumed that the wedding of Roger’s daughter would be called off, since it was scheduled for the day after the assassination. No, big public events were canceled or postponed, but the wedding goes on, which gives the writers a lot to work with. Not all those invited show up. Several attendees are in the kitchen watching the news coverage, which give us another great selection of footage. They seem to be watching the Texas lawmen whom we know from the famous clip of Oswald being shot, but the shooting does not occur here. The writers also have time to give us a wide variety of reactions to the assassination. I believe it was Peter’s wife who says, “You don’t shoot the President of the United States,” which was my reaction when, as a 21 year-old Navy officer, I heard the news. (My second thought was, “What about Jackie?” and my third thought was “Well, that ruins Vaughn Meader’s career.” Look him up.)

We then get the clip of the Oswald shooting at the end of the episode, with Betty watching. She goes out for a walk “to clear her head,” but meets Harry. He sort of proposes, and they kiss, but she returns to Don. Don thinks she’s just upset at the assassination, but she tells him he can’t hear her. Don may have a point, but it may be that the writers have in mind a line that someone said at the time. It was that America could recover from the Kennedy Assassination, but probably not from the Oswald killing.

So, what the writers have done here is shaped an episode around the public event and brilliantly interwoven it with the private lives of the characters. Which certainly anticipates the sixties.

The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season: Carrying on.

As you may have noticed, the newer movies I have looked at in this column have been in theaters for a while. I did not get out to any new movies during the month of October. Some of that is that there were not that many I wanted to see, but mostly it was that I was busier than usual teaching at Los Angeles City College. At least partially due to the tanking job market in California, our enrollments are higher than ever. Since I require papers and essay tests in my film history classes, that has meant a lot of paper-grading. Add to that a whole bureaucratic hassle involving the state assessment of our classes, and time was short. I did, however, manage to keep up with the television season. Here are some comments on some shows from the last several weeks.

Community just got so stupid that I had to give up watching it. I eagerly await someone doing a really good, sharp, funny comedy about community colleges.

The Good Wife is turning out to be as good as I thought it would be (see US#34). The writers are keeping a nice balance between Alicia’s private and public life. In “Conjugal” (written by Angela Amato Velez), Will and Diane, the two heads of the law firm Alicia is working for, discuss what Alicia brings to the firm, which is that she thoroughly buffaloes all those lawyers who used to work for her husband. The series writers have been very good about developing the supporting characters. I mentioned in US#34 that the pilot did not overdo establishing the other characters, but you just knew that if they had hired Josh Charles as Will and Christine Baranski as Diane, it wasn’t to keep them unemployed. This scene shows why, as does the way the “Fixed” episode (written by Todd Ellis Kessler) gives Diane an interesting B story about a potential addition to the firm. Cary (Matt Czuchry), the other new associate, is in competition with Alicia for the full-time job. Czuchry was Logan Huntzberger on Gilmore Girls and caught Logan’s Ivy League arrogance and smarmy charm a little too well. I know it was a good performance, but Logan was wrong for our Rory (that’s the grandfather in me talking), and I was glad to see she dumped him. Czurchy, who I am sure in private is kind to widows and orphans, brings some of those same smarmy qualities to Cary. The “Home” episode (written by Dee Johnson) has him working on a case with Alicia, and Johnson lets us know that he has had virtually no trial experience. This gives him a legitimate vulnerability, as well as providing an opportunity for Alicia to shine in court. I also loved that Johnson had Alicia take her two kids back to the suburbs where they lived. The kids really wanted to go back to living there, but by the end of the episode they had come to see the suburbs’ flaws and were perfectly happy in their new big city digs.

Eastwick is still mostly charming, although it has been slow about developing the women’s powers. I found the “Bonfire and Betrayal” episode (written by showrunner Maggie Friedman and Rina Mimoun) particularly irritating in that the three women kept saying, “I’m sorry” to each other and everybody else. Come on, folks, we watch this show to see the women use their powers, not apologize for them. I was thinking of suggesting an Eastwick drinking game where you take a drink every time one of the women says “I’m sorry,” but everybody would be completely blotto by the thirty minute commercial break.

Castle has gotten a little off its game. The mysteries are getting more complicated, and until the “Famous Last Words” episode (written by Jose Molina), the show was in danger of getting away from what made it special: the relationships between Castle, Beckett, Castle’s daughter Alexis, and Castle’s mom. The “Famous Last Words” episode got that balance back.

Cougar Town settled down a bit in subsequent episodes. Some were about sex, some were not. In “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (written by Sanjay Shah), Jules, out of desperation, has a date with a man old enough to be her father. We don’t see the date, which turns out just to be a setup for a neighborhood barbecue. Too bad, since the show could have gotten some mileage out of a woman wanting to date younger guys stuck with an older guy. The show this seems to be turning into is a more conventional sitcom than it started out to be. That may or may not be a good thing.

Modern Family is growing on me. They have pretty much cut out the idea that this is a documentary, at least in the way the story scenes are shot. The interview material is still there, and some of that writing is very good. The writers are developing the characters beyond the stereotypes the show started with, always a good sign. I particularly like Mitchell and Cameron, the gay married couple. They are both so ordinary and so gay at the same time, something that a lot of other shows have had problems dealing with (were you ever really convinced that Will of Will and Grace was gay? I wasn’t). I loved that Cameron once played college football and is as big a football fan as his father-in-law Jay.

The Barney-Robin relationship is still providing much more entertainment on How I Met Your Mother than Ted’s supposed search for the mother. I was particularly impressed with the writing of the “Bagpipes” episode. The writer was Robia Rashad, who was new to me, although she has written for other shows I have watched, including the wonderful Aliens in America. Her speech for Marshall in which he describes himself as a master of relationships (i.e., watching Sandra Bullock movies without complaining) was nicely crafted, as were a couple of other speeches. She has been hired this season on the show as a story editor. Obviously a talent to watch. And listen to.

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

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.



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


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.




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.




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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