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Understanding Screenwriting #44: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #44: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, & More

Coming up in this column: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, White Feather, You Only Live Twice, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Parenthood, The Pacific

Ajami (2009. Written by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. 120 minutes)

It might have worked: This is an intriguing idea for a movie. Copti and Shani, who also co-directed, are Palestinian and Israeli, respectively. The film is set in the multi-ethnic Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. So we get storylines of Palestinians and Israelis both by themselves and together. The film is divided up into five chapters. In the first two chapters, we are introduced to the Palestinian characters, particularly Omar. Omar was the target of a hit man from another tribe, who was aiming to kill him because Omar’s uncle had killed one of the other tribe. Unfortunately the hit man kills a friend of Omar’s. Omar enlists the aid of Abu-Lias, the neighborhood fixer, to negotiate a settlement between Omar and the tribe. The negotiation scene is probably the best scene in the picture: dramatic, funny, and with great Middle Eastern texture. Omar goes to work for Abu-Lias to pay off the debt, and we meet several other characters Omar hangs out with. In the third chapter we meet an Israeli policeman, Dando, who is disturbed by the disappearance of his brother, whom he assumes has been killed. The fourth chapter brings the Israelis and Palestinians together, and the fifth chapter ties the stories together. So what went wrong?

In the first two chapters the Palestinians yell at each other. In the third chapter the Israelis yell at each other. In the fourth chapter the Palestinians and the Israelis yell at each other. In the fifth chapter every single character behaves as stupidly as they can so the filmmakers can have a tragic ending. Now from what we hear out of the Middle East, all that yelling at each other may be socially and politically accurate, and certainly stupid behavior is not unheard of in the area. But it just gets exhausting to watch. Yes, I know it is exhausting for those in the area to live through, but as writers they need to give us a little counterpoint. I have the same problem with this script as I did with the script for the 2005 film Crash (see US#9). I don’t know the Ajami neighborhood like I know Crash’s LA, so maybe they do behave that way. But that does not mean I have to watch them.

Green Zone (2010. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekara. 115 minutes)

Green Zone

More Middle East yelling, and not just among Middle Easterners: You probably know the rule of three in joke telling: never tell more than three jokes on one subject. You may not be aware of the rule of three in screenwriting. To establish a pattern, you need three activities. The first one is an event. The second is a coincidence. The third tells us there is a pattern. Green Zone opens shortly after the American invasion of Iraq. An army unit, run by Chief Warrant Officer Miller, is trying to find the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction. Their intel (intelligence; Helgeland gets the terminology and the military attitudes right) says one load is in a warehouse. Which the regular army has not secured. At least one sniper is still active, along with the general chaos. Miller and his unit go in, taking out the sniper. There are no WMDs; there is only rusted machinery with ten years of pigeon shit on it. Nice opening scene, and now we need two more, right? Did you forget that Helgeland also wrote L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003)? OK, he also wrote The Postman (1997), but his draft of that had more than a little humor in it. When the area is secure, Miller says this is the third time they have come up empty. So you know you are going to have to run to keep up with the story, which I for one always love.

Miller goes to the administrators living in the Green Zone (if you don’t know what that is, start reading newspapers, or Chandrasekara’s book), who really don’t want Miller to look into this too deeply. But Miller is a traditional American hero, standing up to the establishment. I saw Green Zone in the afternoon, and that night I showed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) in my History of Motion Pictures class at Los Angeles City College. Mr. Smith, meet CWO Miller. Miller is often as quiet as Smith, and he does not stutter as much, but he knows the right thing to do. Helgeland has created a great character, and he and Matt Damon make Miller one of the most convincing American military men I have ever seen on the screen. A lot has been made in the promotion for the film that it is by the director of The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and the direction of the action scenes proves it, but Miller is no Jason Bourne. Bourne is only trying to figure out who he is; Miller knows who he is.

Miller and some of the American bureaucrats yell at each other, especially the Pentagon rep Clark Poundstone. Poundstone is one of those young neo-cons who went into Iraq with high ideals and even higher assumptions, nearly all of which turned out to be wrong. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority during the time the film takes place, is mentioned but never shown. I can’t help but believe, however, that Greg Kinnear was cast as Poundstone because he looks like a younger Bremer. Lawne Dayne is a woman journalist who wrote a number of articles claiming inside information on the intel on the WMDs, an obvious variation of the New York Times’ infamous Judith Miller. CWO Miller’s best American ally is an old C.I.A. hand Martin Brown. Marjorie Miller, who covered Iraq before, during and after the invasion for the Los Angeles Times, notes in a great commentary piece on the movies about Iraq that is “Interesting to see Hollywood play C.I.A. agents as the good guys.” She’s right. And given all the warnings the Agency gave the Bush Administration, it’s certainly deserved.

Helgeland also handles the various Iraqi characters very well. Look at what he takes “Freddie,” who becomes Miller’s source and translator, through. After my problems with all the yelling in Ajami, I was delighted to see how subdued some of the discussions among the Iraqis were, particularly in the scene where the Baathist General Al Rawi has a conference with those of his associates who have not yet been captured. Look at the variety of reactions Helgeland gives to the different associates. Some yell, some don’t.

The script does run into problems toward the end. As Marjorie Miller points out, the film suggests that the promotion of the idea of WMDs was a conscious conspiracy, rather than as she more accurately notes, a willful belief by the Bush Administration in the bits of intelligence they wanted to be true. The film also, in the Mr. Smith tradition, assumes that one guy will set everything right. CWO Miller writes up a report and emails it not only to Lawne Dayne but to many other reporters. The implication is that this will blow the lid off the whole war, much in the way Mr. Smith’s sincerity in his filibuster made Senator Paine break down and admit his corruption in the Senate. Well, when have you ever seen an actual political figure admit to that? Listen to Rep. Massa and his explanations of “tickle houses” and the like. In real life, the news that much of the intel on the WMD came from a thoroughly discredited source did not appear to change the Bush Administration policies one bit. And the American public voted the following year to keep him in office.

Marjorie Miller deals with the issue of why the films about the Iraq war have not done well at the box office. She points out all the lies the Bush Administration told us going into the war, and says, “Maybe that’s why Americans haven’t been breaking down the doors to see these movies. The films serve as an uncomfortable reminder of our own gullibility, or fallibility.” She is dead on right about that. The film may be too late to help cause policy change on the one hand, and too soon for us to deal with the issues it brings up. The late Marvin Borowsky, my screenwriting teacher at UCLA, said that once when he pitched a baseball story to Darryl Zanuck, Zanuck told him it was too late for the last baseball movie cycle, and too soon for the next one.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008. Screenplay by Ann Peacock and John Romano, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. 97 minutes)

Nights in Rodanthe

You had me for the first hour: This is one of those that was sort of on my list to see when it was in theaters, but I never got around to until it showed up recently in the HBO rotation. Adrienne, a mother of two, is separated from her husband. Christopher Meloni plays the ex-husband in a picture that stars Richard Gere, so I am not sure how much writing you need to establish he is up to no good. Adreinne agrees to inn-sit for a friend of hers for a few days. The inn has one guest, Dr. Paul Flanner, and it is not clear at the beginning why he is in the North Carolina neighborhood. We eventually learn he is trying to visit the husband of a woman who died on his operating table. Paul and Adrienne talk and develop a friendship. Wait a minute, this is from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, who has made a fortune writing love stories. But that’s what nice about the first hour of the film: they are just friends. Adult friends. There is not a hint of romantic tension between them.

Then the storm hits the inn, which is seemingly isolated (although not so much as many shots would indicate; if you look closely at the reverse angles on the driveway you will see some signs of civilization) on a stretch of beach. And suddenly Paul and Adrienne are kissing. A lot. The scene ends with them still kissing and we have no idea if they slept together. They seem in love the next the morning, but we have not heard them say it to each other. They lark about hand in hand, and she convinces him to actually listen to the dead woman’s husband, although the writers (or the film editor) cut out the crucial scene where the two men make a breakthrough. I mentioned in writing about United States of Tara in the last column that sometimes you do not have to show everything that happens, but you have to be smart about what you do show, and the writers here are not. The writers, who have given us a lot of very precise detail about their growing friendship in the first hour, are now slacking off on the details about their love. We get nothing but movie conventions about their love affair and how it works out for them. Who would have thought that the friendship scenes would be more interesting than the romantic ones in an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel?

The 39 Steps (2008. Screenplay by Lizzie Mickery, based on the novel by John Buchan. 90 minutes)

The 39 Steps

And yet another version: This is a British television version of the Buchan novel that popped up on PBS recently. No, it is not as good as the 1935 Charles Bennett version, but it has its moments. It is set in 1914, the period of the novel, and since the writer this time around is a woman, Richard Hannay is portrayed as the sexist gentleman he probably would have been. So Mickery matches him up with a smart suffragette, not just a smart blonde, as Bennett did. The Buchan novel has no women at all. Mickery’s choice produces some interesting conversation, although it is not as romantic and charming as Bennett and his dialogue writers created. Mickery carries her character even further, making her—spoiler alert!—one of the secret service operatives tracking down the German spy ring. This leads to several rushed twists and turns in the final minutes that become a bit tricky to follow, but it also helps explain how inventive the woman is at getting her and Hannay out of jams. And it means Mickery does not have to handcuff them together as Bennett does.

Mickery does make one dreadful mistake. When Hannay is being chased across Scotland, he is attacked, on an open hillside, by a bi-plane. That makes several passes at him. Firing machine guns. I suppose we can take that as a slight nod to Bennett’s fat little English director, who had a much better version of the scene in one of his later works. But still. Why would you even want to call attention to something the Master of Suspense did so well, knowing that on a television movie budget there is no way you can match it?

White Feather (1955. Screenplay by Delmar Daves and Leo Townsend, based on the story “My Great Aunt Appearing Day” by John Prebble. 102 minutes)

White Feather

A favorite example of mine: In my 1982 book Screenwriting I used this now mostly forgotten western as an example of “Do not promise what you are not going to deliver.” It is 1877 and surveyor Josh Tanner comes to the Wyoming territory. The first thing he finds is a white man with an arrow in his back. A Cheyenne arrow. He gets to Fort Laramie and learns that while the other tribes have signed the peace treaty moving them off their lands, the Cheyenne have not. In other words, we are going to get a big battle with the cavalry and the Cheyenne at the end of the film. The opening scenes promise us that.

So the colonel at the fort has Tanner go out and talk to the Cheyenne. Tanner and Little Dog, the chief’s son who is spoiling for a fight, become friends. Tanner sees the preparations the Cheyenne are making in case there is war. More promise of a big battle. Broken Hand, the chief, decides to sign the treaty. Little Dog and his buddy American Horse object. The Cheyenne are moving out, accompanied by the cavalry. The two younger Indians show up and taunt everybody. American Dog is killed. Boy, now we are in for it. Nothing happens. Little Dog makes an attack on the cavalry and is killed. The chief’s son, for God’s sake. Broken Hand accepts his son’s death and the Cheyenne ride off. No battle. Yea for civilization, maturity and peace among peoples, but the movie has not delivered what it promised us from the beginning. When I saw the film in 1955, audiences literally threw things at the screen at the end of the film.

In 1970 I did an oral history interview with Robert D. Webb, the director of the film, and naturally I asked about the ending. His take on it was that “The big climax of the picture is the defense of the two young Indians, and the sacrificing of themselves, against what we would call today the Establishment.” I can see his point, but they still threw things at the screen.

For those of you in film production, you might want to take a look at this movie as to how to get the most for your money. It was essentially a B-picture budget that Webb, his art director Jack Martin Smith, and his great cinematographer Lucien Ballard made look like it cost a lot more than it did. And if you get the DVD, do not even THINK about watching the full-screen version. Flip the DVD over and watch it widescreen. The script is, by the way, a very sympathetic look at the Cheyenne. And, unlike the better Broken Arrow five years before, Debra Paget as the Indian girl does not die tragically, but gets to marry the white guy. But, it’s still Debra Paget…

You Only Live Twice (1967. Screenplay by Roald Dahl, additional story material by Harold Jack Bloom, based on the novel by Ian Fleming. 117 minutes)

You Only Live Twice

Widescreen DVD #1: I mentioned in US#42 that this was one of the DVDs I picked up when my neighborhood Blockbuster was having its going out of business sale. Yes, it looks great on DVD on my large-screen TV. After all, its cinematographer was Freddie Young. OK, now that we have that out of the way…

This has always been one of my favorite Bond movies because it does so many things well. We have not only Young’s cinematography, but Ken Adam’s great set design (especially the volcano interior, one of the best-used gigantic sets in movie history), the action sequences (do not even think about watching the duel between Little Nellie and the helicopters in a pan-and-scan version), and the views of not only the Japanese landscape, but also of Japanese culture (everything from Sumo wrestling to small island weddings). All of that reminds that while some movies are stars’ movies, and some are directors’ movies, and some are even writers’ movie, the Bond pictures have always been producers’ movie. A film critic a few years ago suggested that to revitalize the franchise, the producers should bring in a name director. Among the names he dropped were Martin Scorsese (“You looking at me, Mr. Bond?”), Quentin Tarantino (“We in the SPECTRE-killin’ bidness, Mr. Bond, and bidness is good”), and James Cameron. Well, maybe the younger James Cameron. I remember coming out of an opening day showing of Cameron’s True Lies (1994) and heard someone behind me say, “That’s the best James Bond movie I ever saw.” On the other hand, I do not see Bond on Pandora. The point is that to put together a Bond film, you need producers who know how to make a movie of that kind, more than specific writers, directors, or stars. The reason the Bond franchise has continued so long is that it has had those producers. Originally it was the team of Harry Saltzman and Albert C. “Cubby” Broccoli, especially the latter. They had made a pile of low-budget films in the mid-‘50s, and Dr. No (1962) was just another one of those kinds of films. Until it took off. Broccoli basically ran the franchise until he passed it off to his daughter Barbara Broccoli and his stepson Michael G. Wilson in 1990. Just like any good family business.

According to Raymond Benson’s very informative The James Bond Bedside Companion, Saltzman and Broccoli were going to make the next Bond novel in Fleming’s series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the next film, but they thought the plot was too similar to Thunderball (1965). So they went with You Only Live Twice, which was more recently on the bestseller list. Ooops. Twice is about Bond tracking Blofeld to a castle in Japan and killing him for killing Bond’s wife in Secret Service. But if you haven’t made Secret Service yet… So this becomes the first Bond film to depart almost completely from its source. The producers loved the idea of location work in Japan. Broccoli toured the country and could not find a castle that would have fit the original story. He did find volcanic islands, and decided the SPECTRE headquarters should be in it. That was all he handed over to Roald Dahl, the novelist friend of Fleming’s who had never done a screenplay before. Well, not all, as Dahl recounted in a Playboy interview Benson quotes from. Broccoli told him he cannot mess with either the Bond character or “the girl formula.” We are only five films into the series, and the formula is set. There are three girls: the first one is an ally of Bond’s who gets killed early on, the second is anti-Bond whom he seduces, and the third helps Bond. Look at how Dahl handles them.

Since Dahl was writing for a producer, he was writing for all the production skills and techniques that Broccoli and his crew brought to the project, i.e., all those things I mentioned in the first paragraph that I liked about the film. The screenplay and the producers’ skills then orchestrate them into a rousing entertainment. Roald Dahl never wrote another Bond film.

I once talked to a college classmate of mine, Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote three of the Bond films of the ‘70s. He said that on the first one, you are all excited. You get to write a Bond film! Come up with all the gadgets and witty dialogue! On the second one, you have some stuff left over, but it’s a struggle to make it as good as your original ideas. And on the third one, you are just thinking all the time of who you have to screw to get off the project.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976. Screenplay by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, based on a novel by Forrest Carter. 135 minutes)

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Widescreen DVD#2: Bruce Surtees’ great cinematography. Watch it. Enough said.

Then listen to the movie:

“We thought about it for a long time, ’Endeavor to persevere.’ And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.”

“When I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long.” “I notice when you get to DISlikin’ someone they ain’t around for long neither.”

“I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

“You a bounty hunter?” / “A man’s got to do something for a living these days.”

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”

“How did you know which one was goin’ to shoot first?” / “Well, that one in the center: he had a flap holster and he was in no itchin’ hurry. And the one second from the left: he had scared eyes, he wasn’t gonna do nothin’. But that one on the far left: he had crazy eyes. Figured him to make the first move.” / “How ’bout the one on the right?” / “Never paid him no mind; you were there.” / ” I could have missed.”

“You know, we’re sure gonna show them redskins somethin’ tomorrow. No offense meant.” / ” None taken.”

“I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

If you are a Clint Eastwood fan, you probably know most of those lines by heart and use them in everyday conversation. I used to work with a guy who said, “Endeavor to persevere” at least once a week. I have no idea where they come from: the novel or the drafts by Cernus and Kaufman. The novel was privately published and sent to Malpaso, Eastwood’s company. Robert Daley, Eastwood’s producer, picked it up and got hooked by it, as was Eastwood’s story editor Sonia Chernus. Chernus asked to be allowed to write the first draft, which she did. When Philip Kaufman was brought on to direct (Eastwood eventually replaced him), he did a draft. While the Writers Guild rules generally give the top credit to the first writer on the script, Kaufman asked Chernus if he could have it. It made no difference to her (as she told me in a 1984 interview I did with her), so she agreed. The novel had more about the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction (not surprisingly since it turned out that “Forrest Carter” was really Asa Carter, a segregationist and speechwriter for Governor George Wallace), but Kaufman cut that, and he also solved the structural problem of the novel. In the novel Wales is chased by the Terrill and the Union Redlegs only until the middle of the book. Kaufman continued the chase until the end, when Wales kills Terrill. This gives the very episodic story a stronger structure, including the thematic structure of how the war affected everybody, as seen in the last line of dialogue quoted above.

Although no critic I’ve read noticed it, the film essentially retells the story of Virgil’s Aeneid in the post-Civil War period. Instead of escaping from Troy after the Trojan War, Josey Wales is escaping from the South, and like Aeneas he is collecting a new family to replace the wife and son who were killed by the Redlegs. Part of the strength of the script is the gallery of characters Wales meets, including the old Indian Lone Watie, who gets a lot of the best lines. They also pick up the Indian girl Little Moonlight, but with two twists. First, she is not played by Debra Paget, but by the Native American actress Geraldine Keams. Second, she does not fall in love with Wales, but with Lone Watie. Another member of the community is Grandma Sarah, a cantankerous Kansas woman who hates Southerners. The script’s twists include not only characters, but story turns. In writing about White Feather above, I gave it a hard time because it does not deliver a big battle. The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of the few films I know that builds to a shootout and then does not deliver it. Yes, we do get a gun battle when Terrill and his men show up at the farm Wales and his “family” have settled on. Yes, Wales does track down Terrill and kill him. So that satisfies our bloodlust. But then Wales goes into the saloon in the town and sees Fletcher, his former commanding officer who has ridden with Terrill. The two men avoid killing each other. It is a nice little “nothing happens” scene of the kind I talked about in US#43 in the item on The Messenger.

While there were a few positive reviews of Josey Wales at the time of its release (although almost none of those got that the film was Eastwood’s Bicentennial-end of the Vietnam War movie—look at that last line of dialogue again), most were terrible. The worst was in the New York Times. It was short, and being a Yankee paper, it noted that the film was more sympathetic to the southerners than the northerners, adding, “There is something cynical about this primitive one-sideness in what is not only a historical context, but happens to be our own historical context.” As I wrote in the chapter on Eastwood in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, “The man who wrote the review, Richard Eder, later won the 1987 Pulitizer Prize for his book reviews. I will leave it to you to decide what that tells you about the connections, or lack of them, between the east coast intellectual establishment and the mainstreams of American life.”

Parenthood (2010. “Pilot” and “Man vs. Possum” episodes written by Jason Katims. 60 minutes each)

Parenthood

It’s no Modern Family: This is about the third time around for this material. First it was the 1989 feature of the same name, then the short-lived 1990 television series. This time the showrunner is Jason Katims, who kept Friday Night Lights afloat, so he knows from multi-story dramas. Here we have the extended Braverman family. Zeek is the cranky patriarch, just like Jay on Modern Family. Except instead of a Latina trophy wife, he has a wife his own age, who so far has not said much. Their son Adam seems like a nice enough fellow and like Phil on Modern Family he has a smart blonde wife, Claire there, Kristina here. But Adam does not have any particularly distinguishing characteristics, unlike Phil’s insistence that he is the coolest dad in the world. There is a slacker son, Crosby, but he slacks. There are a pile of smaller kids/grandkids, but not one has the personality of Manny on, yep, you guessed it, Modern Family. And there is no one the equivalent of Cameron and Mitchell and their daughter.

OK, this is not a half-hour comedy, so I don’t expect as many laughs, but as you can see from the previous paragraph, there is not much characterization in Parenthood. Since they have brought in a heavyweight cast (Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, Peter Krause, Monica Potter, and Lorelei Gilmore herself, Lauren Graham), you keep hoping they will give these actors something to do to earn their money. I have loved Bonnie Bedelia for forty years, but here she’s an extra. And unlike The Good Wife (see US#4 and especially US#35), the show is not giving me a sense that it has ideas on what it is going to do with all these characters. Or the situations, which so far have been fairly conventional. The scenes in which the young Max is being diagnosed as having Asperger’s are about as flat and literal as you can get. In the first episode, Katims sent Sarah, the daughter who has moved back in with her parents, out on a date recommended by her sister. The date and the sex scene that follows seemed rushed, as if Katims was in a hurry to get on to some other story. Subsequent episodes have shown no improvement.

The Pacific (2010. “Part One,” episode written by Bruce C. McKenna, based on the books Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge, with additional material from Red Blood, Black Sand by Chuck Tatum and China Marine by Eugene B. Sledge. 60 minutes)

The Pacific

And they got there how?: We did not have HBO when Band of Brothers ran and I have not caught up with it either in reruns or on DVD, but being an ex-Navy man, I thought I would give The Pacific a look.

The miniseries is based on three real guys who fought with the Marines in the Pacific in World War II, and we meet all three in the first episode. One problem is that so far, they are not particularly interesting characters. I suspect McKenna fell into the trap I thought Julian Fellowes got caught in on The Young Victoria (see US#41): assuming that because they are real people they will be interesting on screen. They are not, or rather you have to make them interesting. And there are virtually no secondary characters so far, other than a quick cameo by Chesty Puller, a legendary Marine officer. And his cameo shows another problem with the writing. He is given the second scene in the film as he explains to a bunch of non-commissioned officers what the war is going to be about. His speech may be a literal transcription of what he said, but he was a Marine, not a writer. Look at the speech William Goldman gives General Horrocks in A Bridge Too Far (1977), in which the British general describes his unit’s job as like the cavalry riding to the rescue in a western. Where is Goldman’s wit when you need it?

That also suggests another problem: the series, based on the hype for it and the first episode, is so solemn and ponderous that it may just put you to sleep. Yes, it may be better made than, say, Battle Cry (see US#39), but it is not nearly as compelling. I know that Hanks and Spielberg want to pay tribute to the Marines who fought in the Pacific. God knows the Marines deserve it, but having known a Marine or two in my Navy days, I can guarantee you they are not as solemn nor as ponderous as The Pacific makes them out to be.

Here is another objection, which probably won’t bother you, but it bothered me. The reason I knew Marines in the Navy was that I served on an Attack Transport during the late unpleasantness in Vietnam. That is one of those big ships that carry a ton of Marines to where they need to go, then put them out in little boats and take them ashore. We get a couple of special effects shots of the ships, and a brief scene of the Marines going down the nets on the side of the ship to the boats, but no real sense of what an amphibious operation entails. It is one of the most complicated military procedures there is, and the United States Navy did it better than any other country’s Navy. Americans had the combination of the technology, organization, and skills at improvisation needed. The war in the Pacific was a naval war, and it took the Navy to get the Marines to all those islands you will see in the rest of the series. Yes, I know the series is about the Marines, but I’d buy it a lot more if there were at least a little acknowledgement of the Navy’s role. On the other hand, Hanks and Spielberg can tell that story next. The only film I know of that deals at all with the amphibious force is the 1956 Away All Boats, and it is not terrible, but merely adequate.

One other thing in favor of The Pacific. I was concerned that with Spielberg involved, the series would have been shot in that crappy desaturated color he used in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and which seems to have infected every film made ever since. If you look at the color films from the war in the Pacific (where most of the government’s color film stock went during the war), the color is eye-poppingly vivid. There is some desaturation in some scenes in The Pacific, and in the first episode, we never see how blue the sky in the Pacific is. On the other hand, they have had the digital colorist make the greens of Guadalcanal iridescent. I am not sure that is enough to drag me back to the series, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, except your eyes if you look at it too long.

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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Film

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

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.

Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”

Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.

The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.

Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story

Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.

As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.

As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.

Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.

Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.

The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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

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

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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.

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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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