Coming up in this column: The Book of Eli, Valentine’s Day, Theater of War, Hamlet 2, Test Pilot, Prince Valiant, In the Line of Fire, Life Unxpected, Temple Grandin
The Book of Eli (2010. Written by Gary Whitta. 118 minutes)
A stranger comes into town…: I am not normally a fan of post-apocalyptic movies. My left brain always has trouble with the reality of the details. For example, if it is all arid and dusty, where do they get their food? Where do they get their refined gasoline to drive their motorcycles and trucks? Where do they get the bullets they fire off in great numbers? And so on. I had some of those problems with this movie, especially the bullets, but Whitta has thrown in a nice scene when The Man With No…, sorry, Eli, comes into a rundown town. He has not said much so far, as one might gather when one learns from Peter Clines’s article on the writing of the film in the January/February 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting that Whitta is a big fan of Sergio Leone and Toshirô Mifune samurai films. By the time he gets to town we already know he is a whiz with an industrial strength machete, having dispatched several hijackers on the road. We also know he doesn’t say much. Hey, if it worked for Eastwood, why not? So he goes into a store and negotiates swapping various stuff he has picked up along the way for other stuff he needs. I don’t know how much of the dialogue is in the script—most of it I would guess—but Denzel Washington as Eli and Tom Waits as the Shopkeeper get a nice rhythm going and we get a sense of what is now valuable and what is not any longer. If the rest of the film appeals to post-apocalyptic action junkies, this scene appeals to my left brain.
Eli is carrying, well, you can guess from the title of the film. What book? We assume early on that it is the Bible, but we are half-way into the film before Whitta tells us. In the early drafts he made it clearer earlier, but at the encouragement of his managers and the studio (Warner Bros), a lot of the religious material got cut down. Until Washington came on as the star and wanted some of it back. The balance the collaborators ended up with is good, since it does not make the film preachy. We are caught up with the characters and the situation. Carnegie, the town boss, wants the Bible because he can use it to increase his power. Chases and action ensue. The directors are the Hughes Brothers and they know how to stage action. I could have done without what the New Yorker blurb calls the “brown-and-white” photography. It probably did not help that I had caught about fifteen minutes (the arrival of Lawrence and Farraj at the deserted army post by the Suez Canal) of Lawrence of Arabia the night before I saw Eli, which does put the Brothers’ desert landscapes to shame. On the other hand, they do get the most out of the actors. Mila Kunis plays Solara, who becomes a follower of Eli. She was cast for her looks, which are perfect for the part, but as she showed two years ago in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she has some acting chops, which are also on display here. She holds her own against Washington. The Brothers may get too much out of Gary Oldman. Whitta has him wounded in the leg early in the film, and Oldman has never met a shtick like a game leg that he didn’t like a little more than he should.
The two twists at the end are rather inventive, one having to do with the book Eli is carrying, and the other having to do with how it is used in relation to Oldman and his mistress in their final scene. On the other hand, the very end of the film is so blatantly setting up a sequel that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, I’d like to see that actor again, but not necessarily in that part.
Valentine’s Day (2010. Screenplay by Katherine Fugate, story by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein. 125 minutes)
Not as good as Love, Actually, but not as bad as He’s Not That Into You: Yes, here we have another all-star cast, multiple stories rom-com. And it is not as bad as some of the reviews would have you believe. Or maybe it just seemed better to me because I saw it after I read the reviews. Or it may be that I live in Los Angeles and loved all the LA-centric jokes. Of course, it is also not up to What’s Cooking? (2000), which is still the best contemporary film that captures the real LA. But it has its LA moments, including one at the very beginning. I wrote before about the importance of starting a comedy off with a nice joke, and here’s this film’s one: A fleet of pick-up trucks, each with a similar bush in the back, is driving down the street in a very affluent neighborhood. They dance around each other as they turn into separate driveways. O.K., that may not strike you as funny if you live in Manhattan, but in LA the dance of the gardeners’ trucks is funny.
Over that shot and several others of morning in LA, we get voiceover from a couple of radio personalities. This sounds like something leftover from earlier drafts of the script, when one of the writers probably assumed they were going to need something like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti (1973) to tie it all together. They don’t and the more stories they added, the more useless the narration is. The idea that it is Valentine’s Day and we are going to watch a bunch of romantic couples is fairly clear fairly early. Richard Curtis used Christmas in much the same way in Love, Actually (2003), but Curtis was smart enough not to stick to just romantic love. In Curtis’s film, in addition to the romances, we have the rock star Billy Mack’s relationship with his manager and Daniel trying to be a good father to his stepson. That provides a nice counterbalance to the romantic stories. Here, with one late-entry twist, it is all romance, all the time, but at least the writers catch the romances at different points in their relationships. Curtis managed to balance nine stories in his script, but Fugate tries for more. Her writing is not sharp enough to make them all work. Curtis is the master of giving us quick, sharp characterizations. In Valentine’s Day, the characterization is at least better than it was in last year’s He’s Not That Into You. You may remember my complaint from US #20 on that film that we never find out what a lot of the people do for a living. Here it is clear, starting with, appropriately enough, Reed, who owns a flower shop. That’s a convenient way to connect him with several other people in the film. Several others have work relationships with each other over a variety of professions, not all of them in show business.
On the other hand, the lack of characterization leaves some of the actors more or less adrift. Anne Hathaway’s Liz comes off best because she not only has an office job, but moonlights in an even more interesting line of work, which gives Hathaway a chance to show some acting chops of hers we have not heard before. And gives her boss, Queen Latifah, a great payoff scene at the end of the film. Latifah is even funnier in the real scene than she is in the outtake of at the end. Several of the male characters are rather bland, including Dr. Copeland, Jason, and for most of the film, Holden, who gets a nice twist at the end. Felicia is a teenage ditz, and an actress new to me, Taylor Swift, gives the part some real topspin. Some reviewers have panned Swift, and while I am not sure I want to see her try Lady Macbeth very soon, she is good here. I have heard rumors both that she can also sing and not sing.
Actors often say they take a role in a film because of the director. The director here is Garry Marshall, and he has had enough success, at least commercially, with the rom-com genre to encourage all these actors to sign up. Stay through at least the first set of outtakes, since the last one is Julia Roberts having some fun with one of her previous adventures with Marshall. Better actors should look at the script than the director. Marshall directs the actors well (although I agree with the review in Variety that said the cinematography does the actresses no favors), but the script does not give them enough interesting stuff to do. See below for a script that does right by its stars.
Theater of War (2008. No writer credit, but directed and edited by John Walter. 95, 96 or 100 minutes, depending on your source)
Bertolt Brecht meets Mr. Ed: I did not know about this film at all when I came across it in my usual nighttime ramble. Before I turn off the television each night, I run down the guides Time-Warner provides for the assorted movie channels and set the DVR for what looks interesting. All the blurb on Sundance said on this one was it was a documentary about the production in 2006 in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park of Brecht’s Mother Courage, with Meryl Streep as Mother. How had I missed that? (If I had been reading either Slant or The House Next Door in May 2008 I would have seen their reviews of it, but I didn’t come to The House until August of that year.) Well, it was not widely distributed, and I can see why.
Not that it is uninteresting. After all, you get to watch some of the brighter lights of the American Theatre put on a production of what is considered one of the great plays of the Twentieth Century. So we have a process, which can make for an interesting film. One problem is that we do not see much of the process. Streep’s performance seems pretty much the same in the rehearsals and the bits we see from the final performance. Streep at one point says she does not like to let people in to see the process, since it shows so much bad acting. Here it does not show so much bad acting as demonstrate why she was really miscast in the part. As one review (you can check out the few reviews of the film on the IMDb’s external review page) points out, she is a little too aristocratic for the part, and what we see of her performance is a little too mannered and fussy, as Streep can sometimes be.
Another problem is that the film keeps shifting focus from the production. It cuts to Jay Cantor, a novelist and professor, pontificating to his class about Marx and Brecht, but mostly about Marx. And then shifting to a mini-biography of Brecht. And then to some very interesting scenes with Carl Weber, who was an assistant to Brecht. And then to a combination of a book of stills of the first production in 1949, along with recordings of that production, which starred Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, who was much more suited to the part than Streep. Bits of these discursions are interesting, most are not.
What is interesting, but not necessarily in the way I think the filmmaker intended, is the idolatry of both Marx and Brecht that keeps popping up. It shows up not only in Cantor’s comments, but in those from Tony Kushner (who adapted the play) and some of the other artists connected with the show. Brecht was certainly a giant of Twentieth Century theater, but much of his work has dated badly, at least in some part because of his doctrinaire Marxism. One of the problems that middle left intellectuals have had since the collapse of the Soviet empire was making Marxism convincing for the next generation. Cantor’s class does not seem particularly impressed by it. In the early ‘90s there was a small film studies conference at UCLA in which a bunch of Marxist film historians tried to figure out a way to maintain their “authenticity” in view of the collapse of communism. They generally have not figured out how to do it, and the writings of several of them, such as David Bordwell, have gotten a lot less obviously Marxist than they were before.
What that means for the production of Mother Courage is that for purposes of putting on the play, the artists have to take the audience to live in Brecht’s Marxist world to make it at all convincing on stage. Joe Dougherty, who was a writer on the television show thirtysomething, told me in an interview for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, that when he went to write an episode, he “went into a thirtysomething trance.” A slyer version of that idea came from the comedian George Burns, who was one of the producers on the talking horse series, Mr. Ed. He used to sit in on the writers’ conferences. At first he did not say much, but one day he stated, “If you don’t believe the horse talks, you can’t do this show.” In some part of your brain, when you write a Mr. Ed episode, you have to believe the horse talks. When you do Mother Courage, in some part of your brain, you have to be a Brechtian Marxist.
The question, which the film avoids like the plague, is did audiences in 2006 want to go and live in that world? In a spectacular failure of nerve, Walter does not give us any indication of how the production was received. We get no reviews (they were not that good), and no interviews with audience members. Did they believe the horse talked, or did they just come to see Meryl Streep?
Hamlet 2 (2008. Written by Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming. 92 minutes)
William Shakespeare meets Mr. Ed: I saw Theater of War in the afternoon and at night watched this fictional version of the talking horse problem. I had seen the trailers for this film back in 2008, and thought it looked like it might be amusing, but it had not been in theaters long enough for me to see it. It popped up on HBO. Boy, was I glad I hadn’t paid $20 for my wife and me to see it in a theater.
Dana is an actor who has ended up teaching drama in a high school in Tucson, Arizona. He puts on play versions of famous films, such as his two-actor production of Erin Brockovich. He decides to do an original, a sequel to Hamlet in which Hamlet comes back in a time machine along with Jesus and lives happily ever after. Hey, if Mel Brooks can do The Producers (the original 1968 movie) and “Springtime for Hitler,” why not Hamlet 2 and “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”? Two problems: It’s not sharp and it’s not funny.
Brooks’s screenplay is more tightly focused than you might remember. We have the storyline of putting on a flop and we have the outrageous play within the film. Here we have a very unfocused story about Dana trying to save the drama program at the school while dealing with his students while dealing with his wife who eventually runs off with their boarder while dealing with…well, you get the picture. None of these story elements are done in an interesting or funny way. Mostly what is supposed to be funny just turns out to be silly. Dana’s behavior would have gotten him kicked out of any school in the country. Steve Coogan does not help by overacting. Some other scenes have no comic fizz to them at all. The scene in which his wife tells him she is leaving is written and played perfectly straight. Several elements are brought in and then not developed, such as using the Gay’s Men’s Chorus of Tucson as essentially backup singers for the production.
The play and its production are also not focused. We know in The Producers that the author intends Springtime for Hitler to be a serious defense of Nazi Germany, and the jokes key off that. In the stage play Hamlet 2, Dana is sort of working out his issues with his father, but that is overpowered by the stagecraft, whereas in “Springtime for Hitler,” the stagecraft (i.e., the Busby Berkeley overhead shot) carry through on the joke. “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” is supposed to be just as transgressive as “Springtime for Hitler,” but we have no idea why, since it just seems one other element in the show.
So here we have an example of the talking horse syndrome in reverse. We see the delusions that Dana is under about his life and talent. He believes his horse can talk, but it can’t. And the writers of the film thought it was funny, and it wasn’t.
Except for one audience. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and got such a good response that Focus Films picked up the distribution rights for $10 million. It grossed less than $5 million when it was released. Hamlet 2 is only one of a number of films that made a terrific impact at a film festival, and not just Sundance, and then died at the box office. Because so many films at film festivals are so bad—I have come to believe that film festivals exist primarily to sucker people into seeing movies they would not otherwise pay to see—every so often a movie like Hamlet 2 will come along and seem better than it is. Sometimes an audience will believe a horse can talk, even when it has nothing funny to say.
Test Pilot (1938. Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young (and Howard Hawks and John Lee Mahin, uncredited), based on a story by Frank Wead. 118 minutes)
The MGM style in its full glory: I mentioned in US#41 in talking about Libeled Lady that the MGM screenplay style was to provide scenes for its stars. This is a perfect example of that, and an entertaining one to boot. Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a test pilot. Spencer Tracy is Gunner, his mechanic. Myrna Loy is a Kansas farm girl Lane meets and marries when his plane crashes on her farm. The rest of the film follows the ups and downs not only of Lane’s flying, but of their marriage. Look at the scene on Loy’s porch when she comes back from a date with her fiance and Gable is waiting for her. In narrative terms it does not have to be that long, but it gives Gable and Loy a wonderful scene to play. Much later Gable and Tracy have been AWOL from Loy for five days and come back to the apartment. Look at what the writers provide for Gable and Tracy to do while trying to figure out how to tell Loy, in the next room, that they are back. Look at Loy telling Tracy what she thinks the three roads in her life might be. And look at the scene between Gable and Lionel Barrymore as his boss near the end. As a star vehicle, the script is wonderful.
The scenes with the stars get us into the emotions of the scenes and the situations, often in obvious ways. But sometimes the focus on stars throws the scenes off. After a pilot is killed, the other pilots get drunk and ignore his death. Gable has a good time playing a drunk scene, but we don’t get under the surface of the emotions the way Jules Furthman does in a similar scene in his screenplay for Only Angels Have Wings a year later. As you know, I am always a little dubious about the uncredited writers the IMDb lists, and especially so when it turns out to be a director. But it is possible that Hawks worked on this and then went off and had Furthman write that script, which is based on a story by Hawks. Furthman is a better writer than the two credited writers on Test Pilot, which is why Only Angels Have Wings is a better movie. But boy, if you love Gable, Tracy, and Loy, you may not care.
Prince Valiant (1954. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the comic strip by Hal Foster. 100 minutes)
One of the later not-so-funny ones: In writing about the legendary screenwriter Dudley Nichols in FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I mentioned that he is best known for his serious work, such as The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). But I added that some us prefer his later, lighter ones such as this and Heller in Pink Tights (1960). Maybe, maybe not.
Nichols was one of the most highly respected screenwriters of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he did as much as anybody to help persuade people that screenwriting was a serious business. He wrote essays and articles about it, and with John Gassner published a couple of volumes of best screenplays. Nichols’s reputation has diminished, since many of his highly acclaimed scripts of the period seem clunky and ponderous now. The symbolism he writes in The Informer is thuddingly obvious, e.g., the wanted poster for the man he informs on following Gypo around like a little dog. Although he wrote intelligently about the differences between film and theatre, he still was a very wordy writer. Well, if you are drawn to material like Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), which he both wrote and directed, you probably love words. On the other hand, his script for the 1940 The Long Voyage Home breaks up O’Neill’s four one-act plays into an interesting film structure. But I generally prefer Nichols’s less ponderous scripts. Rawhide (1951) reverses his situation in Stagecoach by having a group of people held hostage by the bad guys in a stagecoach station rather than a moving stagecoach, and becomes a competent little western thriller in the process.
The script for Prince Valiant is simply not as lighthearted as it should be. Aside from his credit on Bringing Up Baby (1938), there is not a lot of comedy in Nichols’s filmography. He was one of the writers on Cecil B. De Mille’s The Crusades (1935), where his heavy-handedness fit with De Mille’s approach, but the basic material in Prince Valiant is just not that substantial. We do get some good jousting and some great second unit scenery of England and English castles in the then-new CinemaScope process. This makes one remember that this was the film the head of the studio Darryl Zanuck kept referring to when Elia Kazan and Budd Shulberg tried to set up On the Waterfront at Fox. Zanuck should have stuck to what he knew best.
In the Line of Fire (1993. Screenplay by Jeff Maguire. 128 minutes)
Bye Bye, Blockbuster: I was out for a walk a few weeks ago and noticed that my neighborhood Blockbuster store was closing. I really appreciated having it a couple of blocks away so that on a day when I had a couple of hours, I would wander in and see if anything jumped off the shelves saying, “Watch me! Watch me!” But now it is closing, and they were having an “Everything Must Go!” sale. I limited myself to ten DVDs. Some were older (Drums Along the Mohawk ), some were ones I wanted to upgrade from my Beta and VHS panned-and-scanned versions (You Only Live Twice , The Outlaw Josey Wales ), and some, like this one, were just targets of opportunity.
The project began many years before the film was released. Jeff Apple, the producer, was fascinated the Secret Service’s job of protecting the president. One of Clint Eastwood’s biographers, Patrick McGilligan indicates it was Maguire who came on the project late and added the interesting detail that Frank Horrigan had been with Kennedy’s motorcade at Dallas and was haunted by his failure. The fact that the producers were looking at older actors for some time suggests it may have been part of the earlier scripts by other writers, as well as Apple’s comments that he first got interested in the subject during the Lyndon Johnson administration. In any case, that was an element that the various studios which were approached hated. They all wanted the character made younger and hotter. Which would have turned this into just another cop chasing just another mad would-be killer. In Maguire’s script, Leary is fixated on Horrigan and his experience with Kennedy. While the script is terrific as a thriller, the Kennedy connection adds interesting textures to the film. As well as providing one of the richest characters Eastwood played in his career. Leary is a great role for John Malkovich, and Malkovich and Eastwood have a great on-screen chemistry. Eastwood was in the middle of post-production on Unforgiven (1992) when the project came to him, and did not want to direct it himself. The director was Wolfgang Petersen, whose American films until then had not matched his 1981 German success Das Boot. Aside from his insistence on doing more than just a couple of takes of each shot, he and Eastwood, who very seldom does more than two when he directs, got along well. The success of this film gave launched Petersen on a Hollywood career that included such hits as Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000) and Troy (2004). Amazing what a good screenplay can do for a director’s career.
Maguire has also provided another interesting foil for Eastwood’s Horrigan, the younger female agent Lilly Raines. Rene Russo lightens up both Horrigan and Eastwood, and Eastwood has seldom seemed as charming as he does here. There are some wonderful dialogue scenes between them, and Rene Russo gives a great performance as Lilly. Much better than her performance the year before in Lethal Weapon 3. Well, she had some help. Not only is the Maguire script better, but the editing of her performance here is better. While writing in US #37 about The Blind Side, I mentioned that the cutting of a Mel Gibson film is quicker than that of an Eastwood picture because the rhythm of the two stars is different. Russo’s rhythm is closer to Eastwood’s, and the great editor Anne V. Coates does a beautiful job of cutting what Petersen has shot with Russo (and everybody else—it is one of the best edited films you will ever see). In Lethal Weapon 3, the cutting is faster and it often looks as though Russo is just getting started in a shot when it cuts to Gibson or something else. Just as writers have to write for performance, editors have to cut for performance as well.
Life Unexpected (2010. Episode “Turtle Undefeated,” written by Adele Lim. 60 minutes)
Bye, bye Lux: In US#41 I wrote that I thought this show might have possibilities, but by this episode (#5), it has worn out its welcome. Lux, whom I mentioned in the pilot was a potentially interesting character, got more and more conventional sensitive teenager as the episodes have progressed. Now she is like every other teenager on the CW and who wants to see that?
Cate and Baze, her unmarried parents, are still having the same arguments. In an earlier episode Cate mentioned on the air that she was the mother of an illegitimate child, but other than the mention of the radio station getting a few calls, nothing more was made of it. Ryan, her fiance, is still hanging around. At least Cate and Baze have not slept together again.
As indicated by the lack of reaction to the announcement of her child, the show is not getting into the material it keeps bringing up as deeply as it could. Two more examples from this episode: Lux arranges to have a party of her teen friends at her room over Baze’s bar. Cate is bothered that she is not involved. So she dresses up and goes to the party. Since Shiri Appleby, who plays Cate, does not look old enough to have a 16-year-old daughter, one guy at the party flirts with her. And nothing is made out of it. What is Cate’s reaction to this? Is she turned on? Grossed out? How much does she play with him before dumping him? Or before it is revealed she is Lux’s mom? And why don’t we see the boy’s reaction when she is revealed?
The second example: two of Lux’s friends from her homeless days crash the party. The middle class teens are a little put off. But what if they are not? What if the middle class kids think the homeless kids are exciting and dangerous? We all know people who like the bad boys or the bad girls or both, so why not play with that?
So I am afraid I am giving up on the show. Life is too short and there is too much else around.
Temple Grandin (2010. Teleplay by Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson, based on the books Emergence by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scarciano and Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. 109 minutes)
Shirley Temple Grandin: The opening scene of this HBO film is a nice variation on the famous Francis Ford Coppola-Edmund North opening of Patton: Temple Grandin stands out and tells us who she is. Except that instead of being in front of an American flag, she is in one of those optical illusion rooms where nothing is quite as it seems. It is a perfect way to establish how the autistic Grandin sees the world. And Claire Danes makes Grandin just as compelling as Scott makes Patton, not only in this scene, but in the rest of the picture. Obligatory “back up the trucks” line: If this one is nominated for the pile of awards it should be, there are already enough pickup trucks in the movie they can use.
If you missed Peter Swanson’s review in Slant, Grandin was diagnosed as autistic when she was a child, then grew up to develop a variety of techniques for calming cattle before they are led off to slaughter. As the title of one of her books says, she thinks in pictures, and the room in the pre-credit sequence is not only an example of that, but shows up again in the main body of the film. The writers and the production staff use animation very effectively to let us see the world as Grandin sees it. The writers also provide some great character writing, not only for Danes, but for the rest of the cast. The opening sequences show us Grandin in her late teens at her aunt’s ranch for the summer, which establishes both Grandin and her aunt, a nice role for Catherine O’Hara. Grandin’s mother feels a lot of guilt for Grandin’s autism, and the writers give her a great moment at the end when Grandin tells an autism conference how much she owes her mom. Director Mick Jackson focuses on the mother’s reactions during the speech, and Julia Ormond, as she does in the rest of the film, delivers the best performance I have ever seen her give.
I do like Grandin’s defense for helping calm cattle before killing them, that we owe them respect, given what we are doing to them. I am not sure it completely overcame my queasiness about her work, but as a lover of hamburgers it would be hypocritical of me to complain too much. It helps that the writers don’t push the issue any more than they do. In the second half of the film, as Grandin is trying to persuade cattlemen to try her ideas, the film gets a bit repetitive. They don’t understand and dismiss her and in the end she is right. The scenes reminded me of a story Philip Dunne told me. He was working with a screenwriter named Julien Josephson on Suez (1938). Josephson had written pictures for George Arliss, the imperious British actor who played historical figures like Disraeli and Cardinal Richelieu. Josephson had also written movies for Shirley Temple. Dunne asked him, “Julien, that’s quite a switch, isn’t it? You move from Shirley Temple to George Arliss and back.” Josephson replied, “No, it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.” Monger and Johnson and Danes convince us that Temple Grandin is the “bright little character.”
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.2
Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.
The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.
It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.
Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.2.5
Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.
Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”
Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.
The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.
Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story
Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.3
At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.
As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.
As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.
Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.
Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.
The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.3
Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.
Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.
The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.
The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.
Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.
These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.
Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.
There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.
These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.
Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019
Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair
Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.1
Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.
Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.
Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.
The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.
Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.
Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen
18. Monsters University (2013)
It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson
Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels
The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.3
It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.
Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.
Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).
Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.
Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).
Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.
Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.
So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019
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