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Understanding Screenwriting #39: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #39: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, & More

Coming up in this column: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, Battle Cry, Wild in the Country, but first…

Fan mail: “Andrew” liked my comments on Precious etc, which gives me an opportunity to expand on something I wrote that I had second thoughts about. I wrote, “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.” I felt that reads like I am suggesting Precious should have been about relations between the races, which I did not intend and may have been unfair to the film. It was focused on the black underclass, but even on those terms I felt it could have done better, for all the reasons I wrote about in the column.

“Joel_Gordon” would like me to give Men of a Certain Age another shot, but I have seen three of them and it’s just not working for me. I may pick up another episode sometime, but by now I pretty much know what works for me and what doesn’t.

“Olli Sulopuisto” cleared up where the voice communicators came from in Avatar, as did “Htet.” Obviously they got established the one time I ducked for the 3-D effects. Htet liked the film more than I did, as did many, many millions of people. The audience I saw it with appears to have been an exception. Htet is right on picking up on my problems with Cameron, although I certainly like both the first Terminator and True Lies. I was not as awed by the special effects as he was, and I agree with his comment that “Movies are not screenplays.” Which is another way of stating one of my longtime themes, that movies are written for performance, and as I pointed out in my comments on Avatar, that includes the special effects guys.

And now, on to Penélope Cruz Week here at Understanding Screenwriting…

Broken Embraces (2009. Written by Pedro Almodóvar. 127 minutes): Thumbprints.

Somebody writing about Fellini in the ‘60s said that he stole from everybody but left his thumbprints on it. Absolutely true, and it is true of Almodóvar here (as in many of his other scripts). I whacked Monsters and Aliens (US#4) and Avatar (US#38) for borrowing extensively from other films, but my problem was that the writers of those did not leave their thumbprints on them. In fairness to James Cameron—yes, that’s a line I never thought I’d write—my eight year-old grandson loved Avatar, because as he wisely pointed out when we discussed it, he had not seen all those movies it borrowed from and so it seemed fresh to him.

For example, at one point Lena, the actress, and her financier/producer/lover get into a fight in their home. She is hurt and he puts her into his car and drives her to the hospital. Almodóvar the director shoots it like Douglas Sirk would—low angles and swirling camera movments. I half expected Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone to wander in and say a couple of lines from Written on the Wind (1956). But it is not an unthinking tribute to Sirk; it is Almodóvar using Sirk’s approach to present this scene in this movie. In a similar way, the opening shot could come out of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). We are watching through a camera viewfinder on a close-up of an actress. And it’s not the star, Penélope Cruz. I thought when I saw it, it was a reference to the screen test sequence in 8 ½, but the more I think about it, my guess is the other woman is just the stand-in for Cruz’s character. And throughout the film we have characters standing in for others. See what I mean about thumbprints? Almodóvar is very aware that he is borrowing, and to save us from having to make a list of films and filmmakers he is referring to, we get a later scene of Diego going through Harry’s DVD collection, reading off titles and directors.

One thing that struck me in watching the film is that it makes more sense as you watch it than any summary I have seen in the reviews of it. That is Almodóvar’s skill as a screenwriter. Look at how he lets you know Harry/Mateo’s situation, first with the girl who is reading to him, and then when Diego and Judit show up. And listen to how the scene with the girl sets up the later flashbacks and gets the story moving. She is reading the paper to Harry, who is blind, and mentions that Ernesto Martel died. Harry takes note of this, but tells her he does not know who he was. In other words, he does (Martel was the financier). Then look at how long before we get into the detailed flashback of Harry in his days as a director named Mateo. By then we are dying to know the whole story. John Ford always said, “Never tell the audience something until they need to know it.”

Much has been written about Almodóvar and Cruz and their professional relationship. You see the advantages of working with someone you know well. He has written a terrific part for her. Look at the reactions he has given Cruz when Lena thinks Martel may be dead. That’s the writer-director and actor completely in sync. And then Penélope Cruz disappears from the movie for almost the last forty minutes. Wait, wait, she’s the star, top-billed, Almodóvar’s muse, she can’t go missing. Yes, she can, because the movie is not her movie. It is Harry/Mateo’s movie. We start with him, we are telling his story, and we want to see what happens to him, as wonderful as Cruz has been. Almodóvar has a great sense of balance in the script, figuring out he can get away with that. And of course he knows that we will see Cruz again near the end of the film. After Harry and Lena run off, the producer, in a fit of jealousy, edits the film they were working on by putting in only the worst takes. We see an example as cut by Diego and boy, is it bad. Then we eventually get to see the scene with the good takes, recut now by Harry. It is a great demonstration of the skills a director, actors, and an editor can bring to a script. Wait a minute, Harry is blind, how can he recut the picture? Listen to the year’s greatest payoff line, better than the last line of (500) Days of Summer.

Nine (2009. Screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, based on the musical book by Arthur Kopit with music and lyrics by Murray Yeston, adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti. And there is no listing in the film’s credits or on the IMDb that the whole megilla is based on a screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, based on a story by Fellini and Flaiano. 118 minutes): Messy thumbprints.

Somebody writing about Fellini in the ‘60s said that he stole from everybody but left his thumbprints on it. Wait, I already told you that. With his masterpiece 8 ½ Fellini discovered the joy of having everybody steal from him and leave their thumbprints on his stuff. Sometimes it works (All That Jazz in 1979); sometimes it does not (Alex in Wonderland in 1970). With Nine, too many people have gone to the fingerprint ink pad too many times. The Broadway musical Nine opened in 1982 for a run of just under two years. Kopit and Yeston reconceived 8 ½ very much as a Broadway musical. In Fellini et al’s screenplay Guido is a director trying to get started on the production of a film, and he is surrounded by a variety—a great variety—of people. Kopit and Yeston reduced that to Guido and the women in his life. Each one was given essentially one number. I saw the show in New York in May 1983, and while it was not awful, my main recollection was that the lyrics were not that impressive. For example, the song “Be Italian” started out with “Be Italian, you rapscallion,” which to this day is the stupidest lyric I have ever heard. Thank God they have changed it for the film to “Be Italian, be Italian.” The characters were designed by Kopit and Yeston to be performed rather than acted.

Tolkin and Minghella focus on the women, but because they go outside of the framework soundstage set, we also get some male characters. But the writing of the characters is not a patch on that of the characters in 8 ½. Look at the scene in the theater in 8 ½ where they are looking at screen tests, then look at the screen test scene in Nine. 8 ½’s scene has more characters and more interesting characters. Also, Tolkin and Minghella, along with director Rob Marshall, have botched the difference between the character as performer and as character. Penélope Cruz’s first number is played as a cartoon, a caricature of a caricature, which is a total mismatch with the subtlety of the part as written and performed in the rest of the film. See, even Cruz needs good writing.

Oddly enough, with all these beautiful actresses at the filmmakers’s disposal, one of the elements of 8 ½ that is missing is its Italian sensuality. That’s not the only thing. The Catholic religion is given a cursory treatment, and the politics of the time are not mentioned at all. Most damaging of all is that Fellini’s wicked sense of humor has gone completely AWOL. Fellini and his collaborators, who had worked with him on many films, knew that Guido was often full of shit, and they all delighted in exposing that element. Tolkin, Minghella and Marshall are taking this all a little too seriously. As is Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido. He is of course a wonderful actor, but he is not a performer, which is what the musical calls for. I saw the singer Sergio Franchi in the New York production, and he was maybe 1/200th of the actor Day-Lewis is, but he could put over the songs and hold the stage.

There are moments in the film. I don’t think it was just that they had dropped “rapscallion” that made me enjoy Fergie as Saraghina in the “Be Italian” number, although I do miss the more fulsome Edra Gale from 8 ½. Marion Cotillard does a great job on “My Husband Makes Movies,” which is enough to make you imagine how good the movie should have been.
I would also be remiss if I did not point out that Tolkin and Minghella did get in a great dig at the whole occupation of directing, when they have Judi Dench’s Lili, Guido’s designer, ask him what is so difficult about directing? You say yes, you say no. What’s so hard? As I always tell people, any idiot can direct and many have. In 8 ½ we think there is at least something of a script for the film Guido is trying to make, although Guido keeps changing it. In Nine, it is clear he has not written it yet, which makes this more about writer’s block than director’s block. In both cases, the film production seems to be further along than would normally be the case, even in Italian films. Although you will notice in an item below that that is not always true.

It’s Complicated (2009. Written by Nancy Meyers. 120 minutes): Yes, Nancy Meyers writes screenplays about well-to-do women of a certain age who have sex. Get over it.

Some reviews of this have been absolutely scathing, and not just from male critics. What is it that pisses people off about Nancy Meyers’s films? First of all, she is writing about middle-aged women, both here and in 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give (see the book of Understanding Screenwriting for an in-depth look at the script of the latter; it’s in the Not-Quite-So Good section). Secondly, she is writing about middle-aged women who have sex, which automatically contains an “eeww” factor for critics young enough to be children of her heroines. Thirdly, she is definitely not writing about the underclass, as Geoffrey Fletcher does in Precious, etc. If Nora Ephron is into food porn, Meyers is into home decoration porn. Look at the main house in Something’s Gotta Give, or Jane’s house here. And to make it worse, Jane is having the house remodeled and enlarged. Most of us would kill for the kitchen she now has, especially as photographed by John Toll, but the remodel will include the kitchen she says she has always wanted. Nora Ephron just had a cow.

Once you either shield your eyes or get over the look of the film, what the script gives us is an amusing comedy of divorce. No, it is not as good as such ‘30s and ‘40s classics in that genre as The Awful Truth (1937) or His Girl Friday (1940), but it is not terrible. In Jane, Meyers has written a great part for Meryl Streep, who does everything she can with it and maybe a little too much. The same is true for Alec Baldwin as Jake, Jane’s divorced husband, with whom Jane has an affair. But would you really want to cut any of Streep and Baldwin’s stuff in here? Yes, the film could be shorter; the two earlier films mentioned above run 92 minutes each. But when those two are on-screen going full-tilt… (Speaking of Baldwin being at the top of his powers, the best news I have read in weeks is that Julianne Moore will be returning to play with him on more episodes of 30 Rock. Happy New Year)

Meanwhile Meyers creates some interesting secondary characters. Jane has a trio of female friends who serve as a Greek chorus until they unfortunately disappear halfway through the film, just when their comments could get really interesting. The scenes with Jane and the trio may be the most subversive element in the film. A writer in the British film magazine Sight & Sound several years ago stated that a photograph of a woman laughing is the most subversive thing in the world. Jane and her friends, especially Trisha, laugh a lot, which violates Hedy Lamarr’s brilliant observation that for a woman to be considered sexy in Hollywood all she has to do is stand still and look stupid. Jane and the trio do not stand still and they do not look stupid.

Jane’s about-to-be son-in-law, Harley, who figures out that Jane and Jake are having an affair, is a nice touch. In fact he is more interesting than either of Jane’s three grown children. Unfortunately, Meyers writes a very one-note character for Jake’s younger, current wife, Agness. She is a bitch from beginning to end, and the writing does a disservice to Lake Bell, the actress playing her. Given this is a film by, about, and for middle-aged women, I can see why Meyers wrote Agness that way, but as the film progressed I felt less hatred toward the character and more sympathy for Bell, who could have done more if given a better written character.

The real problem in the writing is Adam. He is the architect designing the remodel and a nice guy. See Ralph Bellamy in both of the earlier films I mentioned. He played those characters so well the role is now known as the “Ralph Bellamy” part. That’s fine if you have an actor as bland as Bellamy could be, but Meyers the director has cast Steve Martin as Adam. And Meyers the writer did not rethink the part for Martin. No, I do not expect him to show up in a white suit with an arrow through his head, but he can be a lot edgier than Meyers’s script lets him be. There is a funny scene where Adam and Jane get stoned on pot before they got to a party with her kids, and Adam does dance a little funny, but it is not enough. Meyers would have a much stronger film if Adam were a stronger character.

The extended pot scenes, by the way, are the reason the film is rated R. This was a source of outrage among pot smokers in Hollywood, but the rating system is set up to let parents know there may be something objectionable in the film for their kids. Lots of parents in America would not want their kids to see the scenes. As for us grownups, toke on the movie all you want.

Panic in the Streets (1950. Screenplay by Richard Murphy, adaptation by Daniel Fuchs of screen story by Edward and Edna Anhalt. 96 minutes): Creation and execution.

This began as a short story Edward Anhalt wrote for Dime Detective magazine, and then he and his wife Edna spent eight hours writing a thirteen page treatment, which sold to 20th Century Fox for a surprisingly high $75,000. As Edward Anhalt told William Froug in Froug’s 1972 The Screenwriting Looks At the Screenwriter, it was “hot.” The story won the Anhalts an Academy Award for best story, and Edward Anhalt went on to a long and distinguished career as a screenwriter. In this case, the story then passed through other hands and ended up as a screenplay by Richard Murphy. You may remember Murphy from US#12, when I wrote about his first collaboration with director Elia Kazan, Boomerang!. I said that Murphy’s screenplay “is a fast, tight, look at an unusual case.” That’s true here too. By the time this script came to Kazan’s attention, he had developed a real appreciation for Murphy.

Steven Maras, in his book Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (see US#38 for my review), discusses the issue of creation and execution in filmmaking, noting that many people writing about the subject consider the writing the creation of the film and the directing of it the execution. Maras writes about the difficulty of being quite so rigid about it. He suggests that, particularly as we get into technologically complex films (he was writing before Avatar, but that is a good example of what he is talking about), the creation is often done as part of production, both in CGI effects and animation. As Kazan writes in his memoir A Life, he and Murphy were both creating and executing at the same time. The story is about a guy who gets off a ship in New Orleans carrying the pneumonic plague, and the efforts of the cops and the health service to track down people who might have been in contact with him. Kazan insisted on shooting on location in New Orleans, and Murphy was on the set constantly adjusting the script to fit the locations. Kazan writes, “The author [Murphy] was with me every minute, and we reconceived each scene according to my directorial notions. I’d get to a location each morning before anyone and figure out the sequence of shots that would keep the story’s excitement going. Then Dick would show up, and we’d drop the tailgate of a truck, ask the property man to set up our [sic] typewriter, and, together, adjust the script for that day to fit my ideas. We rewrote every scene every day, and I was at the typewriter as much as Dick. But it wasn’t writing; it was filmmaking.” O.K., now discount even a third of that, which you should always do when you hear a director talking about his “rewriting” the script, and you still get a sense of the immediate collaboration that was going on. For an example of it in the film, look at the final chase in and around the coffee warehouse. Murphy and Kazan use every inch, every nook, every cranny, for maximum effect.

For all the rewriting, the script holds together very well. We follow the cops and the health service representative, and simultaneously we follow the crooks who killed the guy from the ship. The crooks assume the cops are asking about the dead man because he brought something valuable into the country. Murphy has done a nice job creating the two crooks. Blackie is the lead badass, and he is cool, pleasant, always dangerous and played by Walter “Jack” Palance, as he is billed, in his film debut. Raymond, his sort-of friend, is messy, nervous and wonderfully played by Zero Mostel, who was blacklisted the following year. Murphy has written such strong scenes that Kazan can shoot several of them in long single-takes.

Battle Cry (1955. Screenplay by Leon Uris, based on his novel. 149 minutes): Santa was not quite as good to me this year as last.

Last year Santa brought me boxed sets of Errol Flynn and Budd Boetticher films, which I dealt with over several columns. This was the most interesting DVD I got his year, so far, although there are another couple on order.

Battle Cry was a huge hit in its day, one of the top-grossing World War II movies of the ‘50s, but now is generally forgotten. Not without reason, since it is not nearly as good as From Here to Eternity or The Young Lions, to mention only a couple of the period’s films this will remind you of. It has its moments. The book was the first novel by Leon Uris, who like the characters in the film had been a Marine radioman in the Pacific during World War II. As a lot of vets did, he wrote a novel about it. His is a big sprawling story with a large cast of characters, and the film is the same. The script follows a group of varied American guys into the Marine Corps in 1942. By the end of the first fifteen minutes they are through boot camp and on to radio school. Uris does a nice job in his opening scenes of setting up the different characters.

What the film borrows from From Here to Eternity is a focus on the love lives of the soldiers. Danny, the typical All-American boy who has left his relentlessly cute sweetheart to go into the Corps, has a torrid affair with an older married woman, Elaine Yarborough. He is played by the teen heartthrob of the day, Tab Hunter, and she, complete with glasses, is Dorothy Malone, somewhat reviving her role in The Big Sleep a year before she let it all hang out in Written on the Wind. She eats him alive. Not literally, since this is the ‘50s, but you get the idea. Marion, the intellectual of the group, meets a sweet girl on his nightly rides on the San Diego-Coronado ferry. She turns out to have a shady present. Anne Francis captures both the sweetness and the raunch. Once the group gets through radio school and off to the Pacific, they set up camp in New Zealand. Andy, the lumberjack, falls hard for Pat Rogers, a Kiwi widow played by Nancy Olson, whose level-headedness matches nicely with Aldo Ray’s rough Andy. I don’t know if Marine Corps recruitment went up after this movie came out, but they should have had recruiting sergeants outside the theaters. To paraphrase the old Navy line, join the Marines, see the world, and get to shack up with Dorothy Malone, Anne Francis, and Nancy Olson.

Yes, the boys do see some fighting and several get killed, but mostly they spend their time coming in after the beachheads are established and mopping up the enemy. These scenes are not as exciting as they should be, and the final battle, when they get to go into Saipan first, messes up what should be the major turning point in the battle, the death of its commanding officer.

Partly because this is not an obvious star vehicle, it is very much in the Warner Brothers tradition of piling on as many stories and characters as Uris could squeeze from his book. It is not very deep, and it does not flow very well, but Uris writes several good scenes for the actors to play. He later wrote the screenplay for The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), one of the more stolid versions of the story, and then he became fascinated by Israel, leading to writing his best-known novel, Exodus. He spent the rest of his life writing novels, letting others adapt them into films and television miniseries.

Wild in the Country (1961. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, based on the novel The Lost Country by J. R. Salamanca. 114 minutes): Strange collaborators.

It was 1960 and Twentieth Century-Fox was falling apart. Darryl F. Zanuck had left as head of production and his replacements were incompetent. There were a few of the old guard around, including Jerry Wald, an enormously prolific producer. Since he had made Peyton Place for Fox in 1957, he was pretty much given free reign. Well, not so much given as taken by him. One day he called in Philip Dunne. Dunne was one of the great writers at Fox (How Green Was My Valley [1941]) who had turned to directing in the fifties (Ten North Frederick [1958]). Wald’s proposal was this: Clifford Odets, the New York playwright, was going to adapt Salamanca’s novel, and it would star Simone Signoret, who was just coming off her Oscar win in Room at the Top (1959), and…wait for it…Elvis Presley. Would Dunne like to direct it? Dunne replied, “Well, this is not what I expected, but let’s talk about it.” (I did an oral history interview with Dunne in 1970, and the material on the film is from that and his wonderful 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics.)

Odets started writing, but as Dunne said, “It was impossible for him to write badly. He could write unshootably, but he couldn’t write badly.” Odets’s problem was that he went on and on. Scenes ran 30 pages, and the draft he turned in was 500 pages. Figure a minute a page running time on the screen and you see the problem. Odets worked with Dunne for a while, but then Fox refused to pay any more money for Odets to do revisions. The studio figured that Dunne was a screenwriter, so he could make them. Except that they wanted to start production right away. So Dunne was shooting during the day and wrestling with Odets’s script at night.

Meanwhile, Fox would not pay Signoret’s price, which undoubtedly went up after the Oscar, so they had to recast in a hurry. The novel was about a sensitive country boy who falls in love with his much older teacher and gets her pregnant. (Dunne thinks that may be why he was offered the job: He was just coming off a 1959 film about a pregnant teen called Blue Denim, and he thought, “I seem to be the pregnancy expert” at the studio.) It was Odets’s idea to turn the boy into a wild kid, and it was Wald’s idea to change the title. So the teacher became a psychiatric social worker, but they could not get any actress of the right age to play it. Dunne ended up going with Hope Lange. She was a good 10 to 15 years too young for the way the part was originally conceived, but Dunne thought that gave enough of a sense of class difference, as opposed to age difference, to make it work.

Presley did not want to sing. Wald did not want him to sing. Dunne did not want him to sing. Presley wanted to get more into acting than singing, and he had already given an excellent performance in the 1960 film Flaming Star. But the studio wanted him to sing. So in addition to hacking away at the 500-page script, Dunne had to find some places for Presley to sing. He did, mostly with Presley sitting down in a truck. When the film was previewed, the reaction of the audience was, “Cut the songs.” The audience felt the songs disrupted the story. The songs stayed, and Fox advertised the film as “ELVIS PRESLEY sings of love to HOPE LANGE—TUESDAY WELD—MILLIE PERKINS.” Both it and Flaming Star were not commercial successes, and Presley pretty much gave up the idea of becoming a serious actor.

The picture is not as much of a mess as you might imagine, and it is often fascinating. Presley is very good at handling Odets’s dialogue, as is Tuesday Weld as the town bad-girl. Presley’s acting is first-rate, especially in the scene where he talks about his mother. And one of the songs in the truck, which he sings to Millie Perkins, lets her react with more charm and lightness than you could ever imagine from watching her in The Diary of Anne Frank two years before. Dunne as both writer and director brought out the best in his actresses. Look at Suzy Parker in Ten North Frederick if you don’t believe me.

And just to add in another strange collaborator: When Dunne was preparing Lange and Presley for one of the love scenes (probably the one in the motel room), what music did he play to get them in the mood? J.S. Bach. Presley loved Bach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

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

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

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


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

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


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

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


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

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


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

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

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

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

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.

Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.

Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.

Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).

Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.

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

So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.

Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.

So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.

Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.

From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.

The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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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.

2.5

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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.

1.5

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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.

3

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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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Review: Blue Note: Beyond the Notes Trumpets the Freedom of Jazz

The documentary proves that the history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself.

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Blue Note: Beyond the Notes
Photo: Eagle Rock Entertainment

The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.

Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.

The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)

Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.

Director: Sophie Huber Screenwriter: Sophie Huber Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Being Frank Is Cringe Comedy of the Most Nonsensical Sort

The film sends the curious message that any time spent with an abusive parent is time well spent.

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Being Frank
Photo: The Film Arcade

Miranda Bailey’s Being Frank immediately homes in on the tensions that divide a perversely controlling father, Frank (Jim Gaffigan), and his moody 17-year-old son, Philip (Logan Miller). In this dark comedy’s early stretches, the filmmakers pay reasonably nuanced attention to Philip’s anger and frustration over his father’s domineering ways and constant traveling for work. But when the teen sneaks off to a nearby resort town for spring break and conveniently discovers that his father has an entirely separate family there—thus explaining Frank’s frequent work trips to “Japan”—the film quickly drops all pretenses of authenticity as it starts to seemingly lay the groundwork for a revenge comedy in which Philip wields his newfound knowledge against his hypocritical father.

As Philip works his way into the good graces of Frank’s second family, he delights in his father’s perpetual discomfort, particularly as the teen’s half-sister, Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), unaware of their blood relation, develops a crush on him. For a while, the screenplay by Glen Lakin is content to mine middling yet harmless cringe comedy from the awkward collision of two worlds that Frank had planned on keeping forever apart. Soon, however, Philip decides to not only forgive his father, who’s done nothing short of make his life a living hell, but to conspire with him to continue protecting his secret. It’s at this point that Being Frank takes a bizarre and completely unconvincing turn toward a conciliatory buddy comedy as Philip becomes an inexplicable co-conspirator in his father’s web of lies.

For a while, you may be willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, as Philip would appear to be motivated to protect his mother, Laura (Anna Gunn), and sister, Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander), from the truth, as well as make his father squirm. But after Philip chooses to remain in the resort town and subsequently endures the torture of seeing Frank appear happier and more laidback with his second family, his endgame becomes increasingly muddled. As his initial gratification at finally having the edge on his father morphs into pity and compassion, his actions become more senseless, as if driven solely by narrative demands that require him to stick around simply to set up the requisite show of father-son bonding.

Once Laura also shows up at the resort town and inevitably stirs up more trouble for her husband, Being Frank only leans further into its farcical elements, losing all perspective on the psychological damage Frank’s behavior has caused to those around him, especially to his son. As Frank’s carefully constructed double life begins to unravel, he’s eventually held accountable for his deceitful actions by at least a few people, yet his relationship with Philip somehow remains not only intact but also grows stronger. Although Frank’s frequent manipulation of his son is often couched in humor, the film’s celebration of their bonding through such toxic conditions is, at best, misguided, all but condoning bad parenting by suggesting that any time an abusive parent spends with a child is time well spent.

Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Isabelle Phillips, Alex Karpovsky, Danielle Campbell, Gage Banister, Daniel Rashid, Jessica VanOss, Emerson Tate Alexander Director: Miranda Bailey Screenwriter: Glen Lakin Distributor: The Film Arcade Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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