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Understanding Screenwriting #47: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #47: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, & More

Coming up in this column: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (play), Poets, Screenwriters and Classical Musicians, Johnny Eager, The Sound Barrier, Finishing the 2009/2010 TV Season, but first…

Fan mail: “Agor” took me to task for not appreciating David Simon and Treme, and he makes a very good defense of what Simon is up to, comparing it to an intricately structured novel. My problem was that I did not find the characters and the situations compelling enough to put in the time the show was going to require, just as I have occasionally started a novel that I just cannot get into. Many viewers will stick with Treme and I hope they enjoy the show.

Agor also points out that I am not really writing about Simon as much as HBO in the item on Treme. He’s right. I have liked some of Simon’s stuff before, especially Homicide: Life on the Street and the second season of The Wire. However, what I was getting at in the piece was the overall tone of HBO insisting it is superior to anything else on television. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. But as you may have noticed in this column I deal not only with the screenwriters and their work, but many other aspects of screenwriting. I have discussed on several occasions the screenwriting styles of major studios like MGM and Warner Brothers in their heyday. Simon is working for HBO because its approach fits his. In the column below, I spend some time on a stage adaptation of a film and a collaboration involving a screenwriter and a lot of other artists. After all, screenwriters do not work in a vacuum.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 152 minutes.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It’s not The Secret in Their Eyes, but it’s still pretty good: As occasionally happens, I will see a great film like The Secret in Their Eyes, and it is so good it colors the next similar film I see. Both The Secret in Their Eyes and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are long, complicated mystery-thrillers in which investigators track down information and people involved in crimes that happened years before. I went into detail about The Secret in Their Eyes in US#46, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the next film I saw. I have not been out to a lot of movies lately. My wife has been in and out of the hospital a couple of times in the last month, most recently for what was finally diagnosed as a fractured femur. She is now in rehab for it. It limited her mobility even before it was diagnosed, so we have not seen several films we both wanted to see, and dealing with her care has cut down my moviegoing, but care must be given. As the movie saying goes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the one film she insisted on hobbling out to see before the fracture was diagnosed. She is a huge fan of mystery novels and television shows. It is rumored that the reason she has never read any of my books is that I have never murdered anyone in them. She had just finished reading the novel of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and wanted to see how they handled it in the film. She was very happy with the results. The novel is a huge thing, between 600 and 700 pages long. According to her, it goes into much more detail about virtually everything in the film. The novel takes much longer for its semi-disgraced journalist hero Mikael Blomkvist to find the details of the past crimes that are connected to the disappearance of Harriet Vanger nearly forty years before. In the film, Blomkvist and his partner Lisbeth Salander, a professional computer hacker with more oddities that just that tattoo, seem to zip through the cases so fast we can hardly keep up. As I have stated before, I always like a movie that makes me run to catch up. The primary reason I think this one is not quite up to The Secret in Their Eyes is that there is SO much plot that we don’t get into the characters as deeply as we do in the previous film.

The novel also takes longer at the end to track down where Harriet went, but the screenwriters were correct to jump right to it. We are at the end of a long movie and do not really want to wait around. By then we know Blomkvist and Lisbeth can find out anything. The film has dropped Blomkist’s ex-wife and kids, although there is a great, quick reference to his divorce and what it has meant to his mobility. One of the smartest moves the screenwriters made was to eliminate Blomkvist’s mentioning that he thinks Lisbeth has Asperger’s. She may well have, but if you mention it in a movie, then we will be looking at her behavior in terms of symptoms. By not mentioning it, we have to deal with Lisbeth in all her strangeness as written and as dazzlingly performed by Noomi Rapace. The novelist and the screenwriters have created a wonderful gallery of characters to surround her, especially the members of the Vanger family. One of Harriet’s aunts is given at the most three minutes on the screen, and the character and the performance are so compelling that I did not even realize until the end credits that she was played by Gunnel Lindblom, one of Ingmar Bergman’s great stars from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

In my very first column, I had an item about the French film Tell No One (2006) and I made the point that although it was an American novel, it was good that it fell into French hands. There is all kinds of gossip that there is going to be an American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hope not. Yes, the title sounds like an Angelina Jolie film waiting to happen, and I am sure she would be good as Lisbeth, but it is similar to what we have seen her do. A lot. And the story is so embedded in Swedish history and culture that I cannot for the life of me see how it can easily be translated to America. So while some studio may pay some screenwriters several hundred thousand dollars-plus (and I am always in favor of screenwriters making a buck), I would be happier just to let this film be the single and singular adaptation of the novel.

Please Give (2010. Written by Nicole Holofcener. 90 minutes.)

Please Give

A little more tightly wound than usual: I have enjoyed Holofcener’s previous films, such as Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely and Amazing (2001), and Friends with Money (2006). Part of their charm and part of what can make them so irritating at the same time is that they are very, VERY loosely constructed: a variety of people, mostly women, talk about their lives, and every once in a while actually do something. Please Give starts off in the same way. Holofcener quickly introduces the main characters. Look at how much we learn in the first scene about Rebecca (that is, if you can tear your eyes away from the mammograms she takes). The same in a following scene with Kate and her teen daughter Abby. It is almost half an hour before we get a plot point of any kind. But nearly all of the casual conversation pays off in a variety of ways, unlike Holofcener’s previous films. Rebecca in the opening scene turns down an opportunity to go see “the leaves” out in the country and puts down the whole idea of a trip. Then she makes a later trip with her 90-year-old grandmother, a patient of Rebecca’s and the patient’s grandson whom everybody is trying to pair off with Rebecca. Likewise, the discussion between Kate and Abby over a pair of jeans pays off beautifully at the end. Rebecca’s sister Mary, the bitchy one, constantly complains about a girl she sees in a shop. I took that as just showing Mary’s character, which it does, but in a totally new way at the end of the film.

While they are all walking and talking in the streets of New York, I would not have been surprised to see Alvy and Rob or Lee and Elliott or Hannah and Holly pop into the picture. Holofcener worked as an editorial assistant on Hannah and Her Sisters and it’s rubbed off. But not in a bad way. Holfcener has Allen’s ability to create a great gallery of characters, which appeal to actors, especially women actors. Catherine Keener has been in all four of Holofcener’s films and, boy, are they on the same wavelength. Holofcener the writer knows that Keener can give us several conflicting emotions at the same time (irritation, guilt, love, empathy—the list goes on and on) and simultaneously keep the character from being unwatchable. Rebecca Hall turns Rebecca into a very Woody Allen-ish heroine. She obviously picked up the rhythm when she worked with him on Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Holofcener as director lets her work it a little harder than she needed to. On the other hand, she has written a great role for Amanda Peet as Mary, who gives what is easily her best performance. Ever. Holofcener the writer has also provided two great parts for two actors of way beyond a certain age, Ann Guilbert and Lois Smith. Guilbert was Millie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Smith has been giving great performances since her film debut opposite James Dean in East of Eden in 1955. Both Guilbert and Smith do some of their best work here, especially in a scene in the back of a car going to see the leaves. Geezer power at work!

Date Night (2010. Written by Josh Klausner. 88 minutes.)

Date Night

Seeing it later: My wife and I were going to try to get to this one together, but the medical problems prevented that. As I mentioned, she loves mysteries, so hobbling out to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was OK, but as much as she loves Tina Fey…

So I did not get to see this until the end of its run. That’s after the mediocre reviews and the surprisingly persistent box office grosses. Yes, the writing in not as sharp as 30 Rock, but what is? What I think threw some reviewers off is that they assumed the script should be as good as 30 Rock. Yes, if we lived in a perfect world, but we don’t. Klausner (his other credits are on the Shrek movies) is not writing 30 Rock, he is writing a more conventional romantic comedy. And, more to the point, he is writing a star vehicle. Both Steve Carell’s show The Office and 30 Rock are ensemble shows. Here the focus is on Phil and Claire Foster, a nice married couple from New Jersey who simply try to have a nice dinner in New York City. It’s their movie. We spend more time with them than we do with anybody else. And Klausner has written great star parts for both Carell and Fey. Carell has already shown he can carry a picture (The 40-Year-Old Virgin [2005] and, in a character closer to this one, Dan in Real Life [2007]), and he is equally good here. Fey is the real surprise. One of the knocks against her when 30 Rock started was that she was a better writer than an actress. But she was always a better actress than she was given credit for, especially on 30 Rock. People assume that with Liz Lemon she is just playing herself. Yes and no. Her Claire here is not Liz, which probably upset critics more than it did general audiences. Klausner gives Fey a lot more to do than Fey gives herself as Liz, and Fey the actress delivers a real movie star performance here. 30 Rock episodes often seem rushed to me, and here she uses the additional time to give us several colors to the character.

Klausner has also written some nice supporting roles. They are not ensemble parts: they provide support for the stars. He has written a wonderful scene for James Franco and Mila Kunis as two sort-of blackmailers who are torn between screwing on the spot and escaping through a window. Klausner only gives them a couple of minutes of screen time, but they make the most of it.

Klausner has also written some good physical comedy, including a car chase. Yes, a car chase. In Manhattan. But it’s funny. As I tell my screenwriting students, you can get away with almost anything if you make the audience laugh. And if you make them laugh and enjoy it as well, you can get away with anything.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (Stage play. 2006. Adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, based on the book by John Buchan. 115 minutes.)

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps

Charles Bennett’s fat little English director strikes again: This play started in London in 2006, where it ran for 1,000 performances, then played Broadway a couple of years ago where it got nominated for a couple of Tonys. It has also played in seven other countries including Korea, Israel, and Italy. So why has it taken so long to get to L.A.? Maybe they knew some son of a bitch like me was waiting for it.

If you missed it in New York, the play is a very silly and very entertaining rehash of the 1935 movie, done in a wonderfully theatrical way, with only four actors (and the hand of an understudy) and limited props. As someone less interested in over-produced shows (although I have to admit I did like the production of Mary Poppins that flew into L.A. a few months ago), I always admire theatrical ingenuity used in place of money. I can see why the play has been a hit all over the world. But this is L.A., home of the movie business and film historians like me.

You may remember that when I wrote about the new film version in US#44, I kept referring to the 1935 film as Charles Bennett’s version. Look at the title of the play, and then look at the official credits. See Bennett’s name anywhere in there? OK, well, the play is adapted from the book, and in the 2008 film Lizzie Mickery went back to the book, but the title of the play announces that it is a stage version of the film. Maria Aitken, the play’s director, says in the program notes that “We almost do the film frame by frame…” The play follows the structure of Bennett’s script precisely. And Aitken goes on to say that “Patrick Barlow’s dialogue is at least 60 percent from the film.” OK, so why not credit both Bennett and Ian Hay who did the dialogue in the film? (I was in error in #44 when I said there was more than one writer of the dialogue.) Bennett, unlike his fat little English director, was perfectly willing to give his co-writer credit. In an interview with John Belton in the first of Patrick McGilligan’s classic series of Backstory books, Bennett says, “We brought in Ian Hay, who wrote some lovely dialogue.” Charles Barr, in his essential book, English Hitchock, identifies Hay as a screenwriter, light novelist and playwright.

So why not credit Bennett and Hay? I searched high and low in the program and there is no mention of them. The reason of course is that Hitchcock is, after nearly sixty years of the auteur theory, much better known to the public. So much so that several of the added gags refer to other Hitchcock movies, as in the farm wife telling Hannay not to go out the front window but the—pause—rear window. Some of these are funny, but a lot of them end up trivializing Hitchcock and the film.

So, again, why not credit Bennett and Hay? The day after I saw this production I happened to be talking to Charles Bennett’s son, John, and mentioned the lack of credit for his dad. He accepted that given the contracts of the times, the producers of the play (and there are a lot of them) were legally justified in not giving credit. On the other hand, his first reaction when I told him was simply, “Thieves.”

Screenwriters, Poets, and Classical Musicians

Gustavo Dudamel

Can’t we all just get along?: If you keep up to date on classical music you may have heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a hot new music director, Gustavo Dudamel, aka The Dude. Believe the hype. And if you caught him recently with the L.A. Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, you know what I mean. One of the issues facing him, as it faced his predecessor, Esa Pekka Salonen, was how to deal with the fact that Los Angeles is the film capital of the world. What does a classical orchestra do with the long tradition of film music? One of Salonen’s solutions was to have the Phil record a terrific CD of Bernard Herrmann’s music. Another, which did not work out as well, was to commission short films to go along with commissioned music. It did not work out at all. In my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, I describe one of the attempts:

“The stupidest audience I ever saw a movie with was a presumably middle-to- upper-class subscription audience at a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert. In October 1998, the Philharmonic conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and arts wunderkind Peter Sellars adapted some music by Jean Sibelius for the orchestra to play as a live accompaniment to the 1928 silent film The Wind. [Sellars could not be bothered to make a new film for the project, which died shortly thereafter.] The music sort of fit, but the audience began giggling at the beginning of the film, as sometimes happens at silent movie screenings. But the giggling continued, with the audience seemingly determined not only not to get into the film, but to trivialize it as much as they could. Mostly I think this was an example of the cultural divide in Los Angeles. The Philharmonic subscription audience is made up of people from Hancock Park east out through Pasadena, the type of people who have always looked down on movies as inferior to the other arts. If the same film had played on the west side of Los Angeles, at say UCLA or LACMA, the audience there would have very easily gotten into it, as I’ve seen them do with other silent films.”

One of the Dude’s big series of concerts this spring is called Americas and Americans, in which he brings together music from not only his native Venezuela, but from other South American countries. In the program for April 29 through May 2, we had a too-brief excerpt from Copland’s The Tender Land and a very lively (the Dude is nothing if not lively) reading of Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia dances. The major work was Antonio Estévez’s Cantata Criolla. It is based on Alberto Arvelo Torrealba’s poem Florentino and the Devil, which tells the story of Florentino, a traveling singer, who rides the plains of Venezuela and gets into a singing duel with the devil. The story sounds like the Venezuelan version of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads. Rather than just let the music (orchestra, two choirs, and two soloists singing Florentino and the Devil) carry it, Dudamel and his collaborators decided to juice it up. First they got Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros [2000], Babel [2006]) to write what turned out to be a poem. It does not fit with the film prepared to play along with the Cantata Criolla, so it was read by three actors off and on during the evening. It is not particularly compelling. Disney Hall, which has great acoustics for music, is not so good for the spoken word, but even reading it in the program did not help. Better they should have had Arriaga develop a script for the film. The film’s director, Alberto Arvelo, the grandson of the author of Florentino and the Devil, ended up with a sort of Venezuelan Once Upon a Time in the West without that film’s speedy pace. He says in his Director’s Statement in the program, “From the point of view of the film, recreating the image of the South American plains has to do with something that goes beyond a horizontal world, where anything vertical, a tree or a streak of lightning, acquires an almost sacred connotation: recreating the plains has to do with the diminutive size of man in an immensity that can be both beautiful and suffocating, both deeply moving and horrific.” Doesn’t he just talk like a director? What we saw up on the screen was the figure of Florentino on his horse, riding slowly across the plains. Very slowly. And riding some more.

Essentially the balance of image and music was off. As often happens if filmmakers try to match their film to existing music, they don’t have enough story to cover the music. Film scoring is an art, and a lot of film music does not work particularly well in concert settings. Film music that does, whether in its original orchestrations or revised into a suite, usually has a speed and inventiveness that sets it apart from much classical music. On the other hand, there are many short classical pieces, such as overtures, that work in the same way as good film music.

Johnny Eager (1941. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant, story by James Edward Grant. 107 minutes.)

Johnny Eager

It just doesn’t sound right: The plotting is fine. We think Johnny Eager is an ex-con who is turning his life around, but then we discover he is an even bigger crime kingpin than he was when he went up the river. Later on, a guy we think has been killed turns up alive. And Johnny gets involved with the daughter of the judge who first sent him up. The production is MGM glossy, which I suppose is OK, since Johnny is supposed to be a rich crook. The casting is adequate, although Robert Taylor and Lana Turner do not have the kind of on-screen chemistry they apparently had off-screen. He’s a little two sedate for her. She was much better with Clark Gable.

The major problem is the dialogue. This is just far enough along after the early ‘30s gangster films that the kind of slangy dialogue would not work, and it is not yet up to the heyday of film noir. If you look at James Edward Grant’s filmography, you will see he was much better at writing action pictures for John Wayne, especially westerns. John Lee Mahin wrote star vehicles at MGM. It probably did not bother audiences in 1941, but watching this today, after nearly seventy years of films noir, you really miss the great dialogue the genre is noted for. Where are Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity [1944]), Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep [1946]), or Robert Towne (Chinatown [1974]) when you need them?

The Sound Barrier (1952. Written by Terence Rattigan. 118 minutes in Britain and on Turner Classic Movies, 109 minutes in original American release.)

The Sound Barrier

Slightly dated: I saw this film when I was about 10 or 11 and loved it. I hadn’t seen again until it showed up recently on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t love it as much this time…

The film’s director, David Lean, wanted to do a film about civilian aviation. His producer, Alexander Korda, was reluctant, having had a flop on the subject a few years before the war. But he encouraged Lean to do some research on the subject. Lean came back with a notebook full of material, including ideas for several scenes. Korda suggested they get Terence Rattigan to do the script because, “I think he would be wonderful at this because he knows about airplanes [he had been a flyer during the war], he’s very inventive, and he does not despise the cinema.” Korda was wrong about that last one, but right about the other two. Rattigan took Lean’s notebooks and came up with a script that included several of the ideas but as Lean said, “Much better than mine.” But nobody was happy with the first draft. The story was based on the death of two sons of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, one of the leading aircraft builders in Britain. Rattigan had written it as the conflict between the father and the sons. It was Korda, ever the creative producer, who threw out the idea that one of the sons should be a daughter. Rattigan realized a father-daughter conflict was better and made the whole thing work.

So Susan, the daughter of the de Havilland surrogate, Ridgefield, marries a former RAF pilot who goes to work as a test pilot for her father. This is after Ridgefield’s younger son, who is not all that keen on flying, is killed in a crash. So Tony, the son-in-law, is going to test jets and break the sound barrier. Of course, because he is the hero. Except Rattigan kills him off an hour and a half into the film, and it is his old flying partner Philip who succeeds. Well, it was the early ‘50s, and Rossellini and his writers had already shown us in Open City in 1945 that you could kill off a major character in a film well before the end. Tony’s death adds to the suspense of Philip’s successful try. If they killed off Tony, they could easily kill off Philip. (Yes, we all know now that it was an American, Chuck Yeager, who actually broke the sound barrier. When the film was being made, Yeager’s work was still classified and not known to the public. Lean and Korda panicked when it became known during the production of the film, but moved on with the production anyway. There are still people today who saw the film then who are convinced the Brits did it first.)

Rattigan’s script is good at characterization, but it does give us a little more exposition than we need now about what the sound barrier is. What dates the movie even more are the attitudes toward jet planes, which is worshipful in the extreme. At one point Tony flies Susan to Cairo for lunch. They watch a jet airliner take off, and the film treats it like, well, maybe like the taking off of a jet airline from Heathrow today, what with all the volcanic ash around. Hmm, maybe the picture is not as dated as I thought.

Finishing the 2009/2010 TV Season

Smashed TV

More or less: Here are some quick takes on some of the last shows of the seasons, and some that are not.

Modern Family sent the families off to Hawaii in “Airport 2010” (written by Dan O’Shannon & Bill Wrubel) and “Hawaii” (written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh). Wait a minute! The show is only in its first season. Traditionally the “trip to Hawaii” episodes don’t come until the 3rd or 4th season after the writers have run out of ideas on what to do with the characters. Fortunately, the writers here had some interesting ideas. “Airport 2010” was set entirely in LAX before they ever got airborne. Sensible Claire hates to fly and gets drunk at the bar. Of all the members of the family, who would you put on the no-fly list? Their choice is Manny, who according to government records, went to Japan on business when he was four. “Hawaii” was a more conventional episode, but as usual, the writers are good about having storylines for everybody in the family that play off each other the same way multiple storylines did on Seinfeld.

30 Rock came up with three good episodes to finish off the season. My favorite was “The Moms” (written by Kay Cannon & Robert Carlock). TGS is celebrating Mother’s Day (have you forgotten the show started as being a comedy show for and about women?), and we get a plethora of mothers. Some of whom we have met, such as Elaine Stritch as Jack’s mom and Patti Lu Pone as Frank’s mom, and Jan Hooks as Jenna’s mom. Those three actresses alone could take over any show in town, but the writers have given each of them specific, concrete bits, just as Klausner gave his supporting actors in Date Night. You might think it overkill to bring in Patti Lu Pone for at the most five lines, but Lu Pone gives them everything she can. The same with Stritch and Hooks. And Anita Gillette, making a second appearance as Liz’s mom, sets Liz off to track down Buzz Aldrin, whom mom had a fling with. This leads to a great scene with Liz and Aldrin talking about what might have been and ending with the two of them howling at the moon. I take notes during these shows, but I can’t do it fast enough to have caught all the corners that scene went around.

In “Emanuelle in Dinosaur Land” (written by Matt Hubbard) Nancy, whom I had thought was off the show, arrives in New York and Jack is caught between her and Avery. More fun with Alec and Julianne, although their best scenes were in the next episode, “I do, I do,” (written by Tina Fey), where Jack has to decide between Nancy and Avery. Nancy meets Avery in the bathroom, and Fey is smart enough to give us only the opening part of the scene, so when Nancy goes back to Jack we don’t know what is going to happen. It isn’t pretty, but it is pretty fun. Nancy leaves, for good this time, but not before telling Jack that what she did last night to him was only 50% of what she could do. In “Dinosaur Land” Liz revisits and reviews her previous boyfriends, and in “I do, I do,” she meets a guy she thinks may be “the one.” He is a pilot who loves TGS, is delighted to learn Liz writes the Dr. Fart sketches, and thinks Sully Sullenberg should have just flown around the birds. Needless to say, Liz tells everybody he may be the one. He overhears her and leaves, but then comes back. OK, he is played by Matt Damon, who probably cannot stick around much longer than Julianne Moore, but a girl can hope.

In Plain Sight has not brought back Allison Pearson, which is too bad. Allison Janney has been hired for the new Matthew Perry show, so we probably won’t be seeing her again. A couple of episodes focused a little more on Marshall, which was as nice change of pace.

Castle, following up the two episodes with Jordan Shaw I mentioned in US#45, got both Castle and Beckett involved with others, just at the time when both were beginning to realize there might really be something between them.

The Good Wife ended up letting Alicia have the junior associate position at Lockhart Gardner in “Unplugged” (written by Karen Hall). The following week in “Hybristophilia” (written by Frank Pierson) Cary, who was upset at being let go, was hired by Peter’s enemy Childs, so we have not seen the last of him. If you want to understand why this is one of the best shows on television, go out to the Internet Movie Database and check the credits on those two writers.

Two and a Half Men came up with a surprisingly mediocre episode, “Gumby with a Pokey” (teleplay by Don Foster, Eddie Gorodetsky, & Mark Roberts, story by Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronshon, Dave Richardson & Cuck Lorre). The log line was that Alan and Jake go on a road trip while Charlie is visited by ghosts of former girlfriends. OK, so we are in Christmas Carol/Ghosts of Girlfriends Past territory. Except we are not. Way too much time is spent with Alan and Jake, and the gathering of the “ghosts” suggests more the harem scene in Fellini’s 8 ½ than Dickens or McConaughey. There are jokes, but it never really goes anywhere, or gets as much out of the situation as Fellini and his writers do. I am all in favor of stealing from the best, but if you do, at least try to live up to your source.

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

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Review: 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.

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Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

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

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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

2.5

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.

The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.

As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.

Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.

The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art

Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.

A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.

Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.

Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.

Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.

Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973

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Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman

In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

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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