Coming up in this column: Salt, Farewell, The Recruit, It’s Love I’m After, Strawberry Blonde, Canyon Passage, White Collar, Burn Notice, Mad Men, but first…
Fan mail: To pick up on a couple of comments from US#51 first. “B DeGuire” is defending film noir, which you will remember I am not a fan of. I can agree with much of what he says, but I am still not crazy about the genre.
“AStrayn” wondered about my implication that the sequel to Understanding Screenwriting will not be published. Here is the situation. The first book came out in April 2008, and it has done reasonably well. One person at its publisher, Continuum, told me there are fewer returns (bookstores sending back copies they do not sell) than there are from many other of their books. When I was in New York in July 2008, I talked to the folks at Continuum about ideas I had for three more books. The first would have been USII. At that point they were interested, although neither one of us wanted to do a contract at that point. I generally prefer working on spec, since that means I can do it my way. Then the recession hit in the fall of 2008. It has whacked the publishing business very hard. Continuum has pretty much decided to do textbooks and get out of doing more general books, which USII would be. Continuum is not alone in its belt-tightening. Other publishers are slimming down their list of books. One area being particularly hit hard is serious books about screenwriting (as opposed to those “Write a Screenplay by My Rules and you Will Make a Million Dollars by Tuesday”) books. This is not helped by the fact that two of the most heavily promoted “serious” books about screenwriting in recent years, David Kipen’s The Screiber Theory (2006) and Marc Norman’s What Happens Next (2007) were both a) dreadful books, and b) bad sellers. I have talked to several people about a number of publishers and they say publishers are all cutting back on books. I talked in US#20 about Claus Tieber, the Austrian film scholar, looking for an American publisher for his book. He never found one. So those of us who are in the business of writing about screenwriting are in for a tough few years. I am going to continue working on USII and will eventually find a publisher, whether it is Continuum or not. After all, my first book, the biography of Nunnally Johnson, was turned down by over thirty publishers, most of them twice, before it got published.
Meanwhile, the struggle goes on. In US#19, way back in early 2009, I mentioned I was doing a “resume enhancer,” a scholarly article for a book of essays. I completed the first draft and sent if off to Jennifer Smyth, the first-rate film historian who asked me to write it. She didn’t like it because it was not academic enough, e.g., I did not quote every other film scholar who has written on the subject, I did not neatly summarize everything, etc. I did a second draft that did a little more summarizing. She liked it better, but sent it off to one of the official readers for the British publisher. He really did not like it, at least partially because I quoted—gasp—screenwriters. Jennifer figured there was no way to get it past him and any other readers, so she dropped it from her book. I subsequently sent it to the prestigious Australian online scholarly journal Senses of Cinema. They recently published it. You can read it here.
And David Ehrenstein was back with some interesting tidbits on US#52. He thinks Christopher Nolan is Richard Thorpe compared to Resnais, although I think he is more Charles Waters, as long as we are going for really obscure directors. Actually, I like Inception a little more than my review would indicate, since it had a fairly high level of invention. Not unlike a Charles Waters musical. I also agree that we need to get Providence out on DVD. I have been hoping to see it for the third time for decades.
Salt (2010. Written by Kurt Wimmer. 100 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day One: It’s a typical spy movie opening. Evelyn Salt, our heroine, is being tortured in her underwear by the North Koreans. Was James Bond so skimpily dressed when the North Koreans tortured him in Die Another Day (2002)? We jump ahead two years. Salt and Winter, her sort-of-boss, are leaving their office for the day when they are called in to interrogate a walk-in. He’s a Russian who claims to have knowledge of a plan to kill the President of Russia when he is in New York for the funeral of the Vice President of the United States. And, he says, one of the Russian undercover agents involved is…Evelyn Salt. Now if this were a serious examination of the tradecraft of spying, there would be a lot of discussion about this. If the underwear didn’t already tell you what kind of picture this is the fact that Salt is put into custody and immediately, and imaginatively, escapes from a secure, locked down building does. It also tells us that this is a character who is going to do things on screen.
The escape is followed by a terrific chase using cars, buses, trucks and who knows what else. Salt is not only smart, but very athletic, which continues to build interest in her character. The fact that she stops in the middle of her escape to make sure the neighbor girl will babysit her dog while she’s on the run tells us she is a nice person. So we think she is probably not a Russian plant.
The chase is long enough that by the end of it we have pretty much figured out what the structure of the film is going to be. Salt is going to go to New York and in the big finish, she will stop the assassination, probably with the help of a nerdy computer geek. Guess again. The funeral starts less than half an hour into the picture and is over a little over half an hour in. And it ends with the Russian President being assassinated.
But, but, but…the dog.
If Wimmer throws us fast balls with the opening twenty minutes, the rest of the movie is nothing but sliders, curves, and scroogies. After the funeral, Salt contacts a group of people and we expect they will play an important part in the—whoops, they’re out of the picture within ten minutes after we meet them. Wimmer’s got a good change-up as well. He is playing with what we assume the structure of a film should be and keeping us off-balance. He’s helped a lot by having Angelina Jolie as Salt. A lot of the hype about this film has been that Salt was originally written for Tom Cruise and when he passed on it, it was rewritten for Jolie. Cruise, who is not stupid about his own career, probably recognized the part was not for him. Cruise is a very open actor, with hints of depth in his best performances (Born on the Fourth of July , Magnolia ). He is simply not mysterious on the screen the way Jolie is, and since we are constantly trying to figure Salt out, her presence is a major asset to the film. Matt Zoller Seitz’s wonderful review goes into that in more detail than I will here and probably better than I could. Matt is also right about Wimmer’s additional work tailoring it for Jolie adding a lot to the film.
The additional casting also plays games the way Wimmer’s script does. Pay particular attention to the casting of Andre Braugher in what appears to be the nothing role of the Secretary of Defense. You don’t hire someone with that power unless…
Farewell (2009. Original screenplay by Eric Raynaud, adaptation and dialogue by Christian Carion, based on the book Bonjour Farewell by Serguei Kostine. 113 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Two: No Angie in her undies here. The one scene that seems about to be a chase never does, becoming instead a great payoff for a red herring planted earlier in the film. This is a much more realistic story about spying than Salt, but just as compelling in its own way.
It’s based on a true story about a Russian KGB colonel in Moscow, called Sergei here, who gives piles of secret information to a French engineer who works in Moscow. The focus in the film is on the relationship of Sergei and Pierre. We are never told how Pierre became Sergei’s go-to guy. Sergei knows Pierre’s boss and apparently approached him. The boss sent Pierre to what we see in the film is their first meeting. Sergei really does not want to deal with an amateur, but realizes it may be for the best when the French send a pro, who is immediately put under surveillance by the KGB. Sergei comes to trust and like Pierre, while Pierre becomes more and more upset at being a spy, for which he has had no training at all. Early on in the film we meet the wives of the two men and we get a lot of everybody’s domestic life. Sergei is constantly having difficulty dealing with his sulky teenage son, Igor, and is convinced that his wife is having an affair with another KGB man. Pierre’s wife is increasingly bothered by Pierre’s lying to her.
We see a lot of the tradecraft involved in the meetings of Sergei and Pierre: the neutral locations (including one in which Sergei gets his picture taken, but not by spies), the shifting methods of transportation. All very ordinary stuff. But then we hear what is being passed to the French and ultimately the Americans: it lives up to its reputation as information that helped the west win the Cold War, but it is mentioned very casually by the people involved. This is what day-to-day intelligence gathering and evaluation involves. The writers, including Carion, who also directed, make it as watchable as the action scenes in Salt.
Sergei is eventually caught by the KGB, and the picture slows down a little more than it should in the last hour, but it still gives us some terrific scenes. We have Sergei and his wife, Sergei and Igor, and a border crossing that is one of the more suspenseful scenes you are going to see this year. We also get scenes with President Mitterand of France and President Reagan. Reagan is played by Fred Ward, and there has been some criticism of his performance, one critic noting that he sounded more like Clint Eastwood than Reagan. But this is Reagan in his tough guy mode rather than his folksy mode, even if you don’t believe his sophisticated film analysis of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in one scene. And he is much more entertaining than the block of wood who plays the president in Salt. Willem Dafoe plays the head of the C.I.A., “Feeney” here but obviously based on William Casey, and he gets a good scene near the end that explains a lot of the political maneuvering over Sergei and his material.
If you want non-stop action, see Salt. If you want a more realistic look at the great game, see Farewell.
The Recruit (2003. Written by Roger Towne and Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer. 115 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Three: In the course of the discussions of Covert Affairs with my various contacts with experience in Intelligence work, this film got mentioned by a couple of people. One said that C.I.A. alumni found the training scenes in here to be more accurate than in other films and especially Covert Affairs. This is why we do not allow the C.I.A. to be film critics in a democracy.
Yes, the first half may be accurate, but it is not all that interesting. Walter Burke, an Agency man, recruits James Clayton and we see some of the training at the Farm, as the Agency’s training site is called. The details are mildly entertaining, but nothing we have not seen or guessed at. Burke is the traditional tough teacher with no nuances, and Clayton is still in a huff because his father died in 1990. Not a word about his mother. Clayton assumes that his father was in the C.I.A., and Burke strings him along. We assume that what we see in the training is going to pay off later in the film, but very little of it does. In the training we get a briefing and demonstration on how to follow people, but Clayton and the others seem to have forgotten all about that when they get in the field. Compare that to the payoff in Farewell to Sergei telling Pierre not to make it hard on the people following him, since if he makes it easy on them, they will come to like him and be less suspicious of him.
In the second half of the film, Clayton is looking after one of his classmates, whom Burke tells him is trying to steal a big secret. This alas leads us to lot of typing-at-the-computer scenes, the bane of modern movies. We do get action scenes, but the big finish involves a plot twist that is there primarily to give Al Pacino, who plays Burke, one of his traditional arias. There is a nice twist on something he says later in the very final scene if you want to wait for it.
OK, secret agents, pop quiz to test your powers of observation: Other than being about the C.I.A., what else connects Salt and The Recruit? It’s right there in plain sight in the items on their two films. Go back and look.
Kurt Wimmer wrote on both of them. He was one of three writers on The Recruit, and the film very much has the feeling of having all its rough edges rounded off in the development process. In the case of Salt, the development process of turning it from a Tom Cruise vehicle to and Angelina Jolie vehicle appears to have made it better. The characters are more interesting and the twists are far more compelling.
Two more things from my friends who dealt with spooks. Agency alumni thought The Good Shepherd, the 2006 film on the early days of the O.S.S. and C.I.A., was an attack on the white male culture of the Agency. They also thought no spy worth his salt would have ignored Angelina Jolie the way her husband does in the film. Which may be why Jolie’s Salt is such a tough cookie.
It’s Love I’m After (1937. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the story “Gentleman After Midnight” by Maurice Handline. 90 minutes.)
Pauline was right: I first read about this film in Pauline Kael’s 1968 book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. She had a collection of program notes on 280 movies, including a paragraph on this one. She describes it as a “thoroughly incredible light farce” with Leslie Howard (Basil Underwood) and Bette Davis (Joyce Arden) as a couple of egotistical actors. She enjoyed the performances, noted that the there are typical ‘30s comedies characters like millionaires, butler, and heiresses. She writes that “The pace is sluggish and Archie Mayo’s direction (from Casey Robinson’s screenplay) is—to put it kindly—uninspired, but the movie is a rather pleasant bad movie.” When I disagreed with Kael’s judgement on a film, I completely disagreed with it; when I agreed I completely agreed. This is one of those times when I agreed. But it took me 42 years to get around to seeing the film. It’s one of those films that is not yet on DVD and has never been on tape. I’ve never come across it on television. It showed up this July as a part of a great series the UCLA Film Archives is running called “Rarities from the Warner Archive Collection.”
Basil and Joyce are actors who fight as much as they act. They are obviously the forerunner of Fred and Lilly in Kiss Me Kate (both the Broadway show and the 1953 film), and as Kael indicates, Howard and Davis are having a marvelous time cutting loose. Marcia West, the heiress, develops a mad crush on Basil, and her fiancé persuades Basil to go to her estate and act like a cad to help her get over the crush. Hijinks ensue. Robinson’s screenplay uses all those ‘30s character and situations well. We don’t usually think of Robinson as a comedy writer. His credits include swashbucklers like Captain Blood (1935), soap operas like Dark Victory (1939), and literary adaptations like Kings Row (1942). The script here is not a great screwball comedy script, but it is a good one. He sets up situations nicely, develops the complications well, and above all, gives the cast a lot of great stuff to say and do.
As Kael suggests, one problem is the direction by Archie Mayo. Mayo started in silent films, writing and directing silent comedy shorts, but none of his silent comedies are classics. He is better known for his Warner Brothers melodramas of the ‘30s like Bordertown (1935) and The Petrified Forest (1936). There is at least a Master’s thesis waiting to be written on why Mayo could not move successfully from silent to sound comedy. In It’s Love I’m After, he’s letting the actors be a little too farcical for the material, which really requires a slyer touch. His directing suffers in comparison with others in the field at the time, like Capra, Hawks, Leisen and Cukor. Watching this film, you can just imagine what one of those guys would have done with this. Preston Sturges, in the ‘40s, got his actors to work at this farcical level, but that was because he had written the characters that way. Robinson had not.
I think also there is a problem in the editing by Owen Marks. Marks, who was a great film editor (Casablanca , Treasure of the Sierra Madre , and East of Eden ), tends to hold too long on scenes. Eric Blore, one of the great supporting actors of the period, plays Basil’s butler Digges. He has some great bits, many of them involving his skill at bird-calling, but often Marks will hold on him for a few seconds after he has completed his bits and reactions. It kills the pacing of the film. Kevin Tent, one of the great contemporary film editors, was a student of mine at LACC. When I saw Election, the 1999 film he cut, I was struck by how precise his cutting was. There were laughs he got by cutting on exactly the right frame. One frame either way and the jokes would not have been funny. I am not sure he could have “saved” It’s Love I’m After, but he would have made it sharper.
Strawberry Blonde (1941. Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein, based on the play One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan. 98 minutes.)
Second feature: The second feature at the UCLA Archive screening after It’s Love I’m After was this film. It is the second of three films made from the Hagan play. The first was made under the name of the play in 1933 while the play was still on Broadway. The third was a 1948 musical again made under the title of the play. That third version was directed by Raoul Walsh, who directed the second version. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz later.
The current version was written by the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip. They had come to Warners a few years before and eventually developed a reputation for light comedy. Strawberry Blonde is not exactly light comedy, but it has some light touches. Biff Grimes is a dentist in turn-of-the-century New York. He is in love with Virginia, the local beauty. She marries his semi-friend Hugo, and Hugo becomes rich via some shady dealings in the construction business. Biff realizes Hugo and Virginia are not happy, and that he is much better off married to Amy. Amy starts out being something of a free-thinker, although the Epsteins (and perhaps the original play) undercut that when we find out her mother was not really a suffragette and she does not smoke cigarettes. The piece is an odd choice for Warner Brothers, the home of gangster movies and melodramas. Not to mention an odd choice for its director, Raoul Walsh, who was better known for his very macho adventure movies. Maybe it appealed to his sentimental side, although I am not sure Walsh had a sentimental side. I suspect that Walsh decided to do the musical version seven years later because Strawberry Blonde feels like a musical. There is an enormous amount of turn-of-the-century music played and sung, and I am surprised that in 1941 it did not occur to them to do it as a musical in the first, or second, place. Especially when you consider that James Cagney plays Biff and a young Rita Hayworth is Viriginia.
For reasons that defy understanding, the film was shot in black-and-white (well shot by the great James Wong Howe, but the print shown had been made with inconsistent illumination, so it varied from light to dark within scenes) instead of color. Maybe it was just Jack Warner being cheap, a not-unknown event in Hollywood.
Canyon Passage (1946. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the Saturday Evening Post novel by Ernest Haycox. 92 minutes.)
From the writer and producer of Stagecoach!: This one popped up a little while ago on Turner Classic Movies. You may or may not believe that I had not only never seen it, but never even heard of it before. In spite of the fact that it is from the writer and producer of Stagecoach, I loved it.
I have never been that much of a Stagecoach fan. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay does the original story no favors by hyping the Indian attack storyline, making the film rather ungainly. The Indian story begins at the start of the film, then ends 15 minutes before the end. The Ringo Kid story starts 20 minutes into the film and goes to the end. As I wrote in my book Screenwriting, “The characterization is clichéd, and the only reason the characters work at all in this version is that [John] Ford bullied the actors into believing them.” On the other hand, other Haycox stories have made some good movies. This is one of the best.
The producer is Walter Wanger, who produced Stagecoach, and according to Robert Osborne in his introduction on TCM, Wanger wanted to reunite at least some of the cast of that film for this one. He did not manage to do that, but he did get a good script from Ernest Pascal. Pascal was very active in the Screen Writers Guild, serving one term as president in the ‘30s, but his filmography is not particularly distinguished. This may be his best script.
Although nominally a western, it is more a frontier story, bearing a slight resemblance to Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The setting is a small town in Oregon in the 1850s, and the film is in the great tradition of westerns that deal with the tension between individuality and community. There is at least a scholarly article if not a Master’s thesis on the theme of individuality and community in this film. The film begins in Portland where we first meet Logan Stuart. He has come to town on business and he is all business. By ten minutes in, we known he is an in-charge sort of person. One of his tasks is to pick up Lucy, the sort-of fiancée of his friend George, and take her back to the town. We get the trek, against gorgeous Oregon scenery, meeting a variety of neighbors as we go. They include a woman Logan is interested in, Caroline, who is staying with the Dances. But wait a minute. Logan is played by Dana Andrews, the star of the picture, and Lucy is played by Susan Hayward, another star, and Caroline is “just” the British actor Patricia Roc. So why is Logan not interested in Lucy? Well, she belongs to George. And George is played by Brian Donlevy, who made his reputation playing villains (Sgt. Markoff in the 1939 version of Beau Geste, to name the most obvious one). But here he is a nice guy. Pascal lets us know he is weak, given to gambling and probably not entirely faithful to Lucy. Pascal has created in George one of the more complex characters that Donlevy played in his career. You would not see this in a traditional western.
Logan runs a freight service, George a bank, and they are very much involved with the community. Both help out, although George reluctantly, when the community gets together to build a house for a young couple. The house-building is interrupted by Indians, and the film makes a nice point that the Indians do not object to the settlers moving in, but they do object to them building houses, since it says they own the land.
The town bully is Honey Bragg, and Pascal and/or Haycox has given him some light touches as well. Honey is played by Ward Bond, and Pascal has, as he did with Donlevy, created a richer character than Bond usually played. Honey comes into town specifically to fight Logan, and Logan has to agree, since as the townspeople tell him, “The town wants it” i.e., the fight. Logan beats Honey and Honey leaves down. It is much later in the picture when we see Honey kill the horses that Logan and Lucy are riding on, and later than that when we see him about to attack two Indian girls he sees swimming. That attack sets the Indians off, and the house we saw built is burned down. Honey is caught between the Indians and the community, whose people turn their back on him, and the Indians kill him. Several of the community members we have come to know and love are killed. Logan decides he is finally ready to settle down in the town, but Caroline refuses to move into town. In a very nice moment, she says she prefers living at the Dance’s farm out in the wilderness. Since George has been killed in all the action, Logan and Lucy do end up with each other.
We get all of that in 92 minutes. I did not even mention there are songs written and sung by Hoagy Carmichael, including the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky.”
White Collar (2010. “Need to Know” episode written by Joe Henderson. 60 minutes.)
Always nice to have a black lesbian around: In US#31 I talked about the first episodes of this series, and I mentioned that Diana, the black lesbian F.B.I. agent, was dropped after a few episodes and was replaced by a straight Latina. As much as I love straight Latinas, I was glad to see that this season they brought back Diana. They also made a specific point of Peter and the others welcoming her back. The advantage of having her as part of the team showed up in this episode. Peter and Neal are trying to take down a corrupt politician. Diana is helping Peter trying to find “the box” for Neal, and she comes to his house one night with information. The politician has sent out spies and they take pictures of Peter and Diana. They show them to Neal, who is working undercover for the politician. Thinking quickly, Neal tells the politician that Diana is a high-priced call girl. The politician knows a pimp who runs call girls and thinks they can use Diana to get dirty stuff for blackmail on Peter. A meeting is setup at a party between the pimp and Diana. He tells her that as an “audition” he wants her to pick out somebody at the party and get him to hand over $10,000 in cash. Neal is there and she picks him. While they wait around in a hotel room for Peter and Mozzie (of course) to come up with the money, Neal tries to work his charm on Diana, even though he knows she is gay. What this leads to are a couple of nice scenes in which they bond as friends, much better than if it were just a straight, pardon the expression, seduction scene.
The storyline is that Neal gets the politician to draw attention from the F.B.I. investigation by pretending to be against a large development in his district, saying instead he wants a playground for “Timmy Nolan,” a completely fictitious kid. The large development is also fictitious. In other words, he is “wagging the dog,” as in the 1997 movie of the same name. Which nobody mentions in the entire episode. Which I for one find highly unlikely. Everybody in politics knows about Wag the Dog.
One peculiarity of these first episodes of this run of White Collar is the relative absence of Tiffani Thiessen as Elizabeth, Peter’s wife. She does not appear in this episode, and had only one scene in each of the first two. The scenes looked as though she was green-screened in. I was afraid she was being written out, which would be too bad, because she is a nice counterpoint to the plotting. But an eventual check of the Internet told me that Thiessen had been pregnant during the spring. She had a daughter in June and is going to be back in the last episodes of this run.
Burn Notice (2010. “Past & Future Tense” episode written by Jason Tracey. 60 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Four: Burn Notice is moving along nicely, integrating the other burned spy Jesse into the team. This episode, however, was one of their weaker ones, which is too bad, since it had great promise. A conference of intelligence professionals takes place in Miami. Our guys spot a Russian wet ops (assassination) team. They kidnap one of team and get him to tell them who their target is. He’s a retired C.I.A. guy named Paul Anderson. As Sam points out to Michael after they meet Paul, he’s the “ghost of Christmas future.” So Tracey is going for the idea that Paul is what Michael might become. Except that is never developed. Instead we get banter between Michael and Paul, who is played by Burt Reynolds. Now you would think Reynolds and Jeffrey Donovan could do banter with all four hands tied behind their backs. But Tracey just does not give good banter. Their scenes fall flat, and the idea of Paul being a spectre for Michael never gets up a head of steam. Hey, we all have our off days.
Mad Men (2010. “Public Relations” episode written by Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes.)
It’s ba-a-a-ck: Things are not going well for Don Draper. I don’t just mean all that last season stuff about his former company collapsing and his wife divorcing him. That’s chicken feed. Besides, he’s started a new company and as he finally admits to a reporter at the end of the episode, he is the star of the new company. But being a star has its problems. The episode opens on an uncomfortable Don being interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age. Don, a man who holds his secrets in, is not giving the guy anything. When the interview is published, one of their clients drops them because they are not mentioned in the article. Then Don tells off another potential client and throws him out of the office. Don’s in trouble because he seems unable to do the things he does best: sell and persuade. At the end of the episode, he is back on track a little, given a better interview with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal that Bert Cooper has set him up with. Things may get better for Don. But we all hope not. No, we do hope they do. No, we don’t. And so it goes.
Early in the episode Roger has fixed Don up with a date, his first real one since the divorce (later we see what he has been doing for sexual release in the meanwhile, and it’s not nice). The girl is a friend of Roger’s wife Jane. She looks like Don’s ex-wife Betty, but she is her own character. Writers who want to learn how to establish a character as quickly and deeply as possible should study this scene in detail. Look at how much Weiner gives us about her in just a couple of minutes. That’s great writing, even if we never see the girl again.
A personal note. I have mentioned in passing that I was on the East Coast during the time of Mad Men and that I think the show captures the nuances and attitudes of the time perfectly. In this episode, Henry, Betty’s new boyfriend, suggests that on the weekend after Thanksgiving 1964, when Don has the kids, he and Betty should get away for a day or two. The place he suggests: The Griswold Inn in Essex, Connecticut. I know it’s a perfect romantic inn because about two weeks after Henry and Betty would have been there, my wife and I spent our honeymoon there.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: Ophelia Wants, and Fails, to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon
Transforming Ophelia’s abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of Hamlet.1.5
Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein of the same name, Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of the troubled Danish prince’s would-be betrothed. Here, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) is a tomboy forced into court-life femininity, her tragedy rewritten as a triumph, but it’s hard to say that she comes out, in the end, either as a more full-blooded character or as a girl-power icon.
Given Hamlet’s sustained cultural influence, Ophelia might be described as the original “refrigerator woman,” the girlfriend or wife whose shocking death serves to motivate the male main character to action. In Shakespeare’s play, the vengeance-obsessed Hamlet callously drives her to suicide, first by spurning her as part of his insanity charade, and then by accidentally murdering her father, Polonius. Gone mad due to her lover’s too-perfect performance of madness, Ophelia drowns herself in a river, her death exacerbating both Hamlet’s anguish and his simmering feud with her brother, Laertes.
In the film, Ophelia recounts her side of the story in voiceover: how she, the common-born daughter of an advisor to the Danish crown, was taken in by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and raised as one of her handmaidens; how she became privy to Gertrude’s affair with the king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, glowering throughout from within a villainously matted Severus Snape wig); and how she fell in love with Hamlet (George MacKay), the crown prince with the awful bowl cut. But first, the film opens with a fake-out, the camera skimming along the water of a river until it lands on Ophelia’s floating body, surrounded by water lilies and other vegetation in a vision of tragic, all-natural femininity. It turns out that she’s alive, and that floating peacefully in the river is just a habit of hers, which has the unintentional effect of fooling us into thinking the film’s about to end every time Ophelia slinks into the water.
Ophelia looks and feels like a syndicated ‘90s television special, with its blandly lit sets, skeletal romance between the girlish Ophelia and its bro-ish version of Hamlet, and haphazard imagining of 15th-century speech and customs. The film can never quite decide whether it should be exploding or paying homage to Shakespeare’s text. What we see isn’t simply the events of the play from Ophelia’s perspective, but it also isn’t something radically new. Unintentional humor results: In the well-known scene from the play in which Hamlet first maniacally spurns Ophelia, they whisper secret messages to each other between simplified Shakespearean lines—margin notes as dialogue. Rather than an alternate take on the play, such moments simply shoehorn new material into the old. Other lines clumsily rewrite the play’s sexism by turning Hamlet’s verbal abuse into lovers’ code: When Hamlet advises Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s just telling her to hide out from the coming violence.
McCarthy’s film concocts an original plot involving a medicine woman in the woods outside the castle who’s a dead ringer for the queen (and is also played by Watts), which ultimately places Ophelia in the Danish grand hall as the bloody climax from Hamlet plays out. In this moment, Ophelia, who’s been known to everyone in the court since childhood, improbably passes as a male page because her shock of red hair is a few inches shorter. It might be argued that resonant whispers and unlikely misrecognitions are a part of the Shakespeare toolbox, but Ophelia otherwise makes few pretentions to replicating the tropes of the Elizabethan stage. Early in the film there’s some woeful faux-Shakespearean banter between Hamlet and Ophelia, but the filmmakers quickly abandon a dialogue-driven approach in favor of a plot-heavy structure of court intrigue and scandalous revelations.
Ophelia, in fact, ends the film at a nunnery, a twist which completes the process of transforming Hamlet’s abusive words—symbols in the original play of the blurry line between cruelty and its simulation—into the signs of true love. In the end, Ophelia’s no longer defined by her victimhood, but transforming her abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of English literature’s most well-known drama.
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George McKay, Tom Felton, Dominic Mefham Director: Claire McCarthy Screenwriter: Semi Chellas Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up
The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.1.5
The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.
Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.
In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.
Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.
The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.
Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family
The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.2.5
Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?
At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.
The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.
Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.
One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident
Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.2
Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.
It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.
As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.
While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.
Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón
Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.
Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.
Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.
Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.
If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.
Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.
Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.
More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.
And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”
Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects
Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.2
Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.
The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.
Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.
By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.
Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The Best Films of 2019 So Far
Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.
In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.
And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.
But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.
That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)
The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac
The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg
Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti
Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray
Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.2
Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.
The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.
It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.
Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019