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Understanding Screenwriting #38: Precious, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, The Big Sleep, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #38: Precious, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, The Big Sleep, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (book), The Big Trail, Remember the Night, The Big Sleep, Men of a Certain Age, 30 Rock, but first…

Fan Mail: In the last batch, there were only a couple of comments, both discussing a couple of movies I haven’t seen, so let’s get right to the good stuff.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009. Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel by Sapphire. 110 minutes): Not The Blind Side.

I know this has been a critics’ darling since Sundance, yadda, yadda, yadda, and I really wanted to like it, but since I have a reputation to uphold, I have to tell you that I did not think it was as good as The Blind Side, which covers similar territory.

Precious (to use the short form of the title—what an agent Sapphire must have) gets off to a reasonably good start. We see a red scarf in a nicely composed shot that tells us that however gritty the film is going to be, this is still going to be an aestheticized version, with the occasional beautiful imagery as a counterpoint. Given the horrible things I had read happen in the movie, that was a relief. And the director does follow through on that, although his visions of Precious’s dreams seem increasingly conventional. (Granted her dreams probably are, but the script handles this better.) Meanwhile the director shoots a lot of the “real” scenes in the shaky-cam style that is so annoying and which grates against the fantasy style.

The script starts with a voiceover by Precious and if you feel inclined to take one of my compare and contrast essay exams, write a paper comparing the lead character’s first-person voiceover in this film to Ryan Bingham’s in Up in the Air. He is a talker and talks in the voiceover just as he does in real life. He has such a gift of gab we want to hear whatever he has to say. Precious hardly ever speaks up in class, where we first see her. She’s the kind of quiet kid teachers tend to ignore. But her voiceover tells us her mind is working full-tilt and looking at the world in interesting ways. Even before she says anything in dialogue, we like her and want to follow her through the movie. Nice introduction to the character, and it sets up better than the visuals do the difference between her interior and exterior life.

So Precious, a quiet, obese, African-American sixteen year-old goes home to her apartment in Harlem in 1987. We meet Mary, her mother from Hell. Mary spends most of her time watching television and yelling at Precious. A little of this goes a long way. Mary is a one-note character and gets just as tiresome for us to watch as she must be for Precious to deal with. Yes, she does have some reasons to be angry with Precious, since her boyfriend, Precious’s father, has raped Precious and gotten her pregnant. Twice. The first baby has Down’s syndrome and lives with Mary’s mother. But Fletcher has not given Mary any counterpoint to play. Mo’Nique, the comedian and talk show host, plays Mary as well as she can, which is considerable, but the script limits what she can do. How about a moment, before the big scene at the end, where we get some sense that Mary loves Precious in one way or another. That would not only be more interesting for Mo’Nique to act as well as for us to watch, since it would make her even scarier than she already is—we and Precious would never be sure which Mary is showing up.

The white principal at Precious’s school gets her enrolled in an alternative school and Precious’s teacher, Ms. Rain, has her students write every day in their journals. We begin to get Precious’s words coming out and not just in voiceover. The process of education has begun, which is what the film is going to be about. And here it begins to get into conventional territory. The girls in the class are the standard-issue juvenile delinquents we have seen since The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and To Sir, With Love (1967). And Ms. Rain is the same paragon of virtue that Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier were in those two films, respectively. She announces in class the first day her name is Blu Rain, to laughter from the class. Now, what does the screenwriter do with that? Nothing. Would it have killed Fletcher to run in a gag about her parents being sixties hippies? She is played by Paula Paton, who like Mo’Nique does what she can, but the script limits her. If you objected to the white folks helping the overweight black boy in The Blind Side, notice that Ms. Rain is the lightest skinned black person in the film. And just to appeal to the liberal crowd, we and Precious find out she is gay. So of course she is a saint. Would it have killed them to make Ms. Rain a very dark-skinned black lesbian who is more butch than God? And her lover, who seems to walk around her apartment with half her robe off most of the time, is so understanding of Ms. Rain bringing Precious home to stay with them that I wanted to puke. Isn’t she getting tired of all this? The scene in the two women’s apartment lets Precious have a voiceover that, like the rest of the movie, is decidedly anti-male. (A male nurse is a slight exception to that.) If Ms. Rain and her lover were the only lesbians I’d met, I’d think they were all perfect as well. The Blind Side gives Leigh Anne and Miss Sue a lot more texture as characters than any of the supporting roles in this film, and manages to be politically incorrect about it as well. Since The Blind Side has both white and black characters, we get a view of race relations in America today. With Precious’s virtually all-black cast and limited story, we only get another view of the black underclass, and without the nuances that The Blind Side has. The brief scene with Michael’s mother in the latter film gives us a richer character than do all the Mary scenes in the former.

So Precious has her second baby and we get a couple of nice scenes in the hospital when her classmates come to visit. Then she has to go home and Mary goes full-tilt psycho, throwing them out and dropping a television set down the stairwell that nearly kills Precious and the baby. Meanwhile Precious has been telling her life story to Mrs. Weiss in the Welfare office and we are sneaking into Oprah country. The actress playing Mrs. Weiss is someone named Mariah Carey, only one of whose previous movies (The Bachelor [1999]) I have seen, and I don’t remember her from it. Like Mo’Nique and Paton she does what she can and does it very well. If she can resist Hollywood shaving off her moustache and trying to turn her into a glamor girl, Carey may have a future.

The big finish is an extended scene in the Welfare office in which Mary confesses that she let her boyfriend have sex with Precious, starting when she was three. The scene goes on forever, like an episode of Oprah, and not in a good way. There is very little drama to the scene (Mary would like Precious to come home, Precious understandably does not want to), just relentless confessing of how everybody feels. There is a reason why most therapy scenes are so boring to watch on film: they are all talk, and very little happens. That it happens here is part of the Oprah-ization of our culture: if we just talk about how we FEEL, everything will be OK. Because then we will all be self-empowered. Self-empowerment has its limitations, such as often making it difficult if not impossible to get along with other people. The self-help books make it clear you have to take charge of your own life, but they say very little about how you then deal with others. That’s because most self-help books are aimed at women who are trying to get over trying to be all things to all people and need to develop a little independence. Guys, for better and for worse, already have that independence and don’t need to learn how to do it. Imagine the scene in the Welfare office, but with Precious’s father wanting to get back together with her, and you can imagine the howls of protest from Oprah and her fans.

And so Precious does not go home with Mary, but takes off down the street with her two children. And the “take control of your own life” vibe of the last half of the movie suggests this is a good thing. Let’s recap: here is a now seventeen-year-old girl who is homeless, has two babies, one with Down’s Syndrome, no husband or other means of support, and no high school diploma or GED. I really don’t see that as a happy ending.

Avatar (2009. Written by James Cameron. 162 minutes): The emperor’s old clothes.


Well, it’s not as bad as Titanic, which is a relief. We don’t have all that romantic dialogue with Kate and Leo that sounded like a bunch of song cues, and the final song over the credits is not sung in as screechy-voiced a way as “My Heart Will Go On.” And the water CGI effects are a vast improvement. If you want my detailed take on the script problems with Titanic, see the chapter on it in the book version of Understanding Screenwriting.

As more than one commentator on it has mentioned, Avatar borrows from a lot of movies. I am going to avoid even the minimal listmaking of sources I did in US#24 on Monsters and Aliens, but I will point out a few. The picture starts out with us on our way to a planet where a mining crew is at work. When we get there we feel right at home. The crew recalls the team in Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Here is Sigourney Weaver (not playing Ripley here, but always welcome, and she at least tries to give the humorless Cameron’s flat dialogue a little light touch) and there is a macho Latina fighter formerly played by Jenette Goldstein, currently played by the also always-welcome Michelle Rodriguez. So what’s going on? For all the location and crew’s familiarity, Cameron is still facing the bane of all science fiction movies: how do you establish the world we will be living in during the running time of the film. His answer is talk. Cameron immediately starts with voiceover narration by Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine. Unfortunately, Sam Worthington plays Sully with a typical Marine clenched jaw, which means some of his narration is incomprehensible. There are quicker and better ways to set up the situation. The scientists at the base want to use Sully’s DNA, which is similar to his dead brother’s, to let him become an avatar: part human, part Na’vi, so he can learn about the Na’vi inhabitants of the planet. He agrees to this and lets himself be put in a sleeping pod and wakes up as his Na’vi self. Cameron handles these transitions nicely, but once he is out on the planet, the movie turns into Dances with Wolves (1990). Sully’s Na’vi learns to love the other Na’vi, especially Neytiri, the female who is appointed his minder. She is the most interesting character in the film, much more so than Angelina Jolie’s minder in Wanted. Thanks to Cameron’s writing, Zoe Saldana’s “performance,” and the way that performance has been manipulated by computers, she shows a greater variety of emotion than any other character in the film. It would be a much better picture if Cameron gave the other characters the kind of nuances he gives Neytiri. The other characters are pretty much one-note, although Sully has two notes that seem to contradict each other: in his human form he seems to be a gung-ho Marine. In his Na’vi form, he seems to be a sensitive guy. I suppose you could defend this as the planet making him into a nice guy, but the writing does not do it.

So what we get are other-planet versions of scenes we have seen before. At one point Sully must “break” a flying animal so he can ride it. For all the technological wizardry, it is a “breaking the horse” scene from a hundred westerns. The dialogue Cameron gives to the Na’vi sounds like the dialogue given to the Native Americans in westerns, which along with the computer-generated characters makes them awfully close to Jar Jar Binks. When the Na’vi rise up against the military, we are back in They Died With Their Boots On (1941) or Little Big Man (1970). Except that Cameron gets sloppy about the mechanics. Where did the Na’vi suddenly get the voice communicators in their necklaces? We have not seen any sign of that kind of technology in the film before. And where did the Na’vi get the weapons they now carry? OK, maybe they got some from the military, but that many? And where did the Improvised Explosive Devices Sully uses come from? You could say the final assault on the Na’vi, in addition to conjuring up the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now (1979), is also similar to battle with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983), except that Lucas is more inventive. He has the Ewoks fight in the way guerilla groups have always fought, rather than as Cameron does, turning them into a full-scale conventional army. And here the film reveals itself to be very much a Bush-era critique of the military. Cameron has given the military and the people dealing with them very Bush-era slogans, including “shock and awe.” The colonel leading the charge is very Rumsfeldian. So we are encouraged to cheer for the Na’vi, standing in for the Iraqis and Afghanis, defeating a very conventionally American-looking army. The father of my granddaughter’s boyfriend is on the politically conservative side, and this bothered him a lot about the film.

As I have mentioned many times in here, if you are writing for film, you are writing for performance. Normally I mean that in relation to the actors, but in a picture like this, you are also writing for the performance of the designers, CGI people, et al. For all the hype about Avatar being a “game changer,” the visuals and the effects are not all that stunning. The planet looks like a botanical garden designed by a lighting designer for a Vegas show: phosphorescent purple and blue plants. The performance capture works with Neytiri, but not as well with the others. And the 3-D does not add a thing to the picture. I ducked once when something was thrown out at the audience, but that was about it.

The audience I saw the picture with, on the Saturday morning after Christmas, seemed more dutiful than impressed. There were no “Awww” sounds and when the credits started, they got up to leave. When I saw the original Star Wars on opening day, the audience stayed through the credits applauding. Now granted, that audience had a little botanical help, but still…

The Princess and the Frog (2009. Screenplay by Ron Clements & John Musker, and Rob Edwards, story by Ron Clements & John Musker and Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, plus several other people who helped on the story and are listed in the film but not on the IMDb or the official website of the film. 97 minutes): The emperor’s old drawings.

The Princess and the Frog

I am not sure you will entirely trust my judgment on this one, since I saw it immediately after Avatar and anything, especially if it was an hour shorter, would seem better. But this one had me at hello. We meet two little girls, Charlotte, a spoiled white southern belle, and Tiana, the black daughter of the woman who sews things for the white family. The seamstress is reading the story of the frog and the princess to the kids. Obviously the movie is going to be about the white girl, this being Disney and all. Except it’s not. We follow Tiana home with her mother. Wow, talk about a game changer: a black girl as a Disney princess. So we meet Tiana’s dad and see the happy family. We know the mom is not long for this world, since there is an over-abundance of dead mothers in Disney cartoons.

THE MOTHER DOES NOT DIE. Now that’s a real game changer, more so than anything in Avatar. In the Obama era, that is a bigger whoop than a mere black princess. OK, the father dies, but that’s a small price to pay. Tiana grows up to be voiced by Anika Noni Rose. You know she was wonderful in The No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency (see US#23), but you may not know she started on Broadway in Caroline, or Change, and the writers have given her a lot to do here. She sings, she has great lines, which she delivers beautifully.

We pretty much know what is coming and the storytelling takes us there with great confidence. When John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, took over as head of all Disney animation, he made two basic decisions. The first was to get back into hand-drawn, or 2-D, animation. Now that’s class, since it would have been very self-protective of Lasseter just to stick to the computer animation that he has taken to such heights. His second decision was to bring back to the studio Clements and Musker, who worked on the last great spurt of Disney 2-D animation in the late eighties and early nineties. They know their medium. (The backstory of the film is from Danny Munso’s article in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting.)

The writers have created a nice gallery of characters. They have provided a great setting by putting it in New Orleans. They have provided places for Randy Newman to write several terrific songs. And they don’t dawdle. After slogging through Avatar, it was nice to see something that not only has a great sense of humor, but does not waste a second of its 97 minutes. If you have to draw (almost) everything, you don’t waste time. The gags come quickly and do not overstay their welcome. The kids in the audience seemed to get the gags even quicker than I did, and I am no slouch in that area. The writers have also provided great opportunities for the performance of the designers. There are shots of the bayou that have a greater sense of three-dimensionality than anything in Avatar, and without those stupid glasses.

The storytelling is inventive, and no more so than at the end. The prince and Tiana are still frogs, and he has passed up the chance to kiss Charlotte, marry her, and use her money to get Tiana the restaurant she has been dreaming about. He and Tiana are in love and decide to live happily ever after as frogs in the bayou. OK, but the writers (and probably Lasseter, who has one of the best story minds in the business) understood that we really want to see Tiana and the prince back in human form (in an animated film? Yes, because we are so caught up in the story) and working her restaurant. So how to do it? You’ll have to see the movie, but the kids and I squealed with delight. And there was applause at the end of the film. Which there had not been for Avatar.

Me and Orson Welles (2008. Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow. 114 minutes): Where is Mank when you need him?

Me and Orson Welles

The Palmos have worked behind the scenes on movies for years, she as a production manager and he as an assistant director, among other jobs. According to Peter Debruge’s article in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting, they found the novel browsing in a bookstore. They started writing a screenplay from it without getting the rights. When they showed a draft to director Richard Linklater, with whom they had worked, he got the rights and directed the film. This is the Palmos’s first produced script, and they make a bunch of rookie mistakes.

The film follows Richard, a teenaged boy who gets picked to appear on stage with Orson Welles in his 1937 production of Julius Caesar. You remember the production, or at least the legends about it, don’t you? Welles had the cast dressed as contemporary fascists, borrowed the lighting scheme from Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Lights” (see Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will for a demonstration), and had the cast turn machine guns on the audience and fire blanks at them. Aside from the modern costumes, the other two details are left out. We see that the lighting is spectacular, but there is no reference to Speer. Well, why not? Because the script already has a lot of bald-faced exposition, done in the most flat-footed way possible. I was wondering why that was so, and then I read Debruge’s article, and the giveaway is that the book was a “young adult” novel. Obviously the book had to explain to its young adult readers who the hell Orson Welles was and what he did. The Palmos, maybe correctly, assumed they had to do the same thing with a movie audience. I am not sure they did, and if they did, they could have laid the information in a little more subtly. The dialogue in general is very flat. What was called for was a real screenwriter to goose it up. (And if you don’t know that Mank was Herman J. Mankiewicz, maybe you shouldn’t yet be reading this column. Or rather, maybe it will be crucial for your education.)

The writers write some nice characters, especially Richard, the secretary Sonja, and Welles. Linklater’s direction tends to just sit and watch the characters talk and react, and the actors do a nice job. Zac Efron plays Richard and gets a lot more up on the screen that you might expect, given his High School Musical experience. Claire Danes, well, Claire Danes, enough said. Christian McKay is ten years too old for the 22 year-old Welles, but he has the look and the tone. Unfortunately, like the screenplay for Amelia (see US#36), the Palmos have not given him enough of the genius to play. The Speer reference and the machine guns simply would not have fit in with the “young adult” tone of the film.

And if you are going to make a film not just for young adults, why not go all the way, not only with the Wellesian style, but letting Richard sleep with Sonja. He turns down a perfect opportunity to do so. I can see why Kaplow handled it that way, but surely you could sneak it past the ratings board in a movie.

ScreenwritingScreenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (2009. Book by Steven Maras. 227 pages): Stop the Presses!

Academics take screenwriting seriously!

One of the problems I faced early in my career of writing about screenwriting was that academia generally did not take the study of screenwriting seriously. In those days (late 60s/70s) the auteur theory held sway. This affected the book publishing business as well. My biography of Nunnally Johnson was turned down by over thirty publishers, most of them twice, because I was determined to deal with his contributions as a screenwriter. When I insisted that was the heart of the book, one editor gave me a look that said, “What planet are you from? I read Andrew Sarris. I know directors make it up as they go along.”

Things have changed, as Maras’s book will show you. He is a Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney (Australia), and his book looks at how academics have been dealing with, as the subtitle says, the history, theory, and practice of screenwriting. In very interesting ways, thank you very much. A lot of the issues that I have dealt with in relatively, OK, very, casual ways in this column are also being discussed among academics. You may get through the book quicker than I did, since I paused almost every page to think over the issues he was discussing. Sometimes I agreed with Maras and/or the people he was quoting, sometimes I didn’t. If you want to think seriously about screenwriting, you ought to pick this one up.

The Big Trail (1930. No credited screenplay. Story by Hal G. Evarts. 125 minutes): The big version.

The Big Trail

The old Fox studio had had a considerable success with John Ford’s 1924 The Iron Horse. When sound came in and they had a hit with the first western shot in sound, In Old Arizona (1929), the studio decided to shoot the works and do a big sound western in a new widescreen process called Grandeur. The studio got Evarts, who had written the story for William S. Hart’s last great western Tumbleweeds (1925), to come up with a story of a wagon train. Evarts sort of follows the story of The Iron Horse, with the hero, Breck Coleman, going along on the trek so he can get revenge on two men who killed his friend. That story is better integrated in The Big Trail than it is in The Iron Horse.

For years the only version that was available was the 35mm version shot simultaneously with the widescreen version, but Fox found the original and restored it. It plays better than the 35mm version because we get more of the epic scope of the trek. This would be writing for the performance of the 70mm camera. The problem is that the actors have not yet completely figured out how to say dialogue on film. Tully Marshall, whose film career essentially began playing the High Priest of Bel in Intolerance in 1916, adjusts better to sound than does former stage actor Tyrone Power (senior, the father of the better known one), who keeps pausing as he would on stage. Breck is played by a young guy just out of the prop department. His real name was Marion Morrison, but for this film the studio changed his name to John Wayne. He’s not bad, but he’s not “John Wayne” yet. And since the picture came out in early 1930 and only two theaters were equipped to show it in Grandeur, it bombed and Wayne went into B westerns until 1939. But if you have a big screen TV and you love westerns, you may find the movie entertaining.

Remember the Night (1940. Original Screenplay by Preston Sturges. 94 minutes): Writers versus directors.

Remember the Night

Mitchell Leisen, the director of this film, was almost single-handedly responsible for the move of screenwriters to directing in the early forties. Here is Billy Wilder on Leisen: “Leisen spent more time with Edith Head worrying about the pleats on a skirt than he did with us [Wilder and Charles Brackett] on the script. He didn’t argue over scenes. He didn’t know shit about construction. And he didn’t care. All he did was he fucked up the script…” And those are just the opening lines in a quote in Maurice Zolotow’s 1977 book Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Preston Sturges did not think too highly of Leisen either, and Remember the Night is the last script Sturges wrote before he turned to directing.

David Chierichetti, Leisen’s first biographer (Hollywood Director, 1973), is a little more sympathetic toward Leisen, but he did look at the scripts for this film. You can understand why Sturges disliked Leisen. According to Chierichetti, Sturges’s script was 130 pages, way too long for the kind of romantic drama the picture turned out to be. So Leisen cut it down. Mostly his cuts were long speeches Sturges had given to John Sargent, the deputy district attorney handling the case of Lee Leander, accused of shoplifting. As written by Sturges, Sargent is a fast-talking wheeler-dealer. Leisen thought, and he may have been right, that Fred MacMurray, who was cast as John, simply was not up to the demands of Sturges’s speeches. Or he may have simply thought that MacMurray was too much the all-American nice guy he had been playing in the thirties. It took Billy Wilder to see the darker side of MacMurray in Double Indemnity four years later; that MacMurray could have played Sturges’s character. The problem with Leisen’s cuts and his conventional direction of MacMurray is that when the plot requires us to see his manipulative side in the last twenty minutes of the film, we don’t believe it.

Some of Sturges’s comedy elements survive. The defense attorney at the beginning of the film would fit neatly into any other Sturges vehicle. Leisen did not cut his speeches. Lee Leander has the edge we expect of Sturges’s women. She is played by Barbara Stanwyck, whom Sturges used the next year in The Lady Eve. Leisen had a reputation as a woman’s director, and he certainly privileges Stanwyck over MacMurray in both the coverage and the composition and lighting of the shots. She of course delivers, but when did Stanwyck ever not deliver?

The story, which Sturges sets up so it is almost convincing (and Leisen does his part in these scenes with his direction of MacMurray and Stanwyck), has John not wanting Lee to spend Christmas in jail, since he got a continuance on her case. He is driving back home to Indiana for Christmas, and when he learns she grew up near his hometown, he takes her back with him. They meet her mother, who wants nothing to do with her (Sturges’s version was sharper: the mother had a second daughter who was also in trouble with the law). So John takes Lee home with him and his mother and aunt like her. Sturges satirizes small town America, some of which survives in the film, and some of which was shot but dropped. Leisen sets a quieter tone in the Indiana scenes than Sturges would have, and the film becomes more of a romantic drama than a romantic comedy. In other words, more of a Leisen film than a Sturges one. It is a nice movie of its kind, but thank God Preston started directing.

The Big Sleep (1946. Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman, from the novel by Raymond Chandler. 114 minutes): Silence.

The Big Sleep

This is not a full-scale piece on the writing of this film, but just a minor note. The film was running on Turner Classic Movies, and I had it on while bringing in the groceries, talking on the phone, and some other stuff. I, like nearly everybody else in the known universe, love the dialogue in this film, but what struck me watching it in an off and on way was how silent a lot of the film is. There are a lot of moments in the film where there is no dialogue. We are watching Marlowe watch people and figuring out what possible actions he can take. They didn’t need dialogue, they had screenwriters. OK, except for Faulkner, but he was fun to have around.

Men of a Certain Age (2009. Various writers. 60-minute episodes): Why would we spend time with these people?

Men of a Certain Age

Several critics have liked this new show, but having seen three episodes, it does not really work for me. The setup is that three guys in their late forties, Joe, Owen and Terry, go for hikes in the hills, sit around in a restaurant and talk about their problems. OK, if their problems were that interesting to hear about. Joe runs a party supply store, which could provide the writers with interesting characters to come for Joe to deal with. No such luck. Joe also has a gambling problem, which introduced us to his bookie, who is not that interesting either. Owen is a car salesman, working at his father’s dealership. How are you going to make a car salesman sympathetic to an audience? They haven’t found a way. His father is always on his case, so Owen seems like a wuss not to stand up to him. Owen is played by Andre Braugher, and the role does not play to his strength, which is a primal power. Terry is an unsuccessful actor who is the epitome of the Peter Pan Syndrome. None of the supporting characters show any signs of breaking out as somebody worth watching as well.

30 Rock (2009. “Secret Santa” episode. Written by Tina Fey. 30 minutes): Tina Fey’s Christmas present to Alec Baldwin.

30 Rock

So just after I got done in my last column complaining that this season of 30 Rock has been uninspired, Tina Fey uncorks not only the best episode of the season, but one of their best episodes ever. As often, there are several plot lines. The first is Liz’s decision to give Jack a Christmas present, although she is warned by Jack’s assistant that Jack is, who would have guessed, the master of giving presents. After several false starts on her part, she and Jack decide to give presents that cost no money. More false starts on Liz’s part. Jack ends up giving her a ticket from a “gender neutral” production of The Crucible in high school in which she played John Proctor. And it’s framed in wood from the school’s stage. And you thought the reference to the production was just a throwaway gag in an earlier scene. Obviously Liz’s present, whatever it will be, is fated to be a big disaster. Yes and no.

Jack, meanwhile, is dealing with NBC/Universal (the show has not caught up yet with the company being bought by Comcast, but that may well bring out the best in the writers) having purchased You.Face, the social networking site. Yes, the name is obvious, but out of it comes a high school friend of Jack’s, Nancy, contacting him. He acted with her in a show in high school. He got to kiss her, but only in the show, and had a mad crush on her. She is coming to New York with her teenage kids and would like to see him. She shows up in Jack’s office and, be still my heart, it’s Julianne Moore. In an earthy mode as a lower-class Boston native, complete with accent. Great idea for a character to pair off with Jack, and even more inspired to get Moore. You would expect something more elegant with her, but if Meryl Streep can have as much fun as she is having these days in a variety of roles, why not Moore? The scenes between Nancy and Jack are terrific, giving us a romantic side to Jack we have not seen, as well as a look at where he started as a person. And the chemistry between Moore and Baldwin is breathtaking. They have dinner, but don’t kiss. She has to go back to Boston on the train the next morning, but the train gets delayed. She comes to his office and they kiss, and she goes back to her husband. How come the train was delayed? Liz called in a bomb threat to Pennsylvania Station as a Christmas present to Jack.

Which in turn reaffirms Kenneth’s belief in God, since the F.B.I. arrives at the office to arrest the three writers whose phone Liz had used to call in the threat. The writers had pretended to be of another, made-up religion to get out of Kenneth’s elaborate Secret Santa system. This got Kenneth questioning God, since He had not punished them. And now they get punished, and his faith is restored. As well as mine in the show. Thanks Tina, that was a great present.

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

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




American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Our Time
Photo: Monument Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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