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Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Caprice but first…

Fan Mail: I trust you all marked it down on your calendars. In his comments on US#54, David Ehrenstein and I actually seem to be in agreement over something. In this case it was the handling of the Jules-Paul affair in The Kids Are All Right. In regard to Phil Dunne’s comments on Jacques Tourneur, David returns with a quote from Fritz Lang from Contempt that “…on screen it’s pictures. Moving pictures they call it.” That’s absolutely true, and it is indeed the director’s job to find the pictures that will tell the story. Later on in this column you will get a nice demonstration of a director who doesn’t quite handle it right. In one of the great Kevin Brownlow documentaries (I think it is Hollywood: The Pioneers) he has an interview with Byron Haskin, a cinematographer and later director. Haskin is making fun of Michael Curtiz, of whom Peter Ustinov said in his memoir Dear Me that he “never learned American, let alone English, and he had forgotten his Hungarian, which left him in a limbo of his own, both entertaining and wild.” Haskin says that Curtiz used to walk around the set saying, “We visualize! We visualize!” Haskin thinks this is funny, but it struck me that it is the heart of directing.

“Doniphon” thinks the script for Way of the Gaucho (1952) was not very good, and Phil Dunne, who wrote it, would agree with him. Fox decided to produce the film primarily to use up money they had earned in Argentina, which Argentina had frozen. When Dunne and company got to Argentina, he discovered the book he had based the screenplay on was completely inaccurate. He also had to deal with Juan Peron’s “censors” who insisted on changes. Having heard about what happened, I am surprised the screenplay makes any sense at all. Doniphon says that Tourneur’s direction is the only reason people watch it today. It may be why Tourneur’s fans watch it, but people generally watch movies for all different kinds of reasons. The director is usually the least of those reasons. See my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, especially the chapter on directors, for a detailed discussion of that issue.

Life During Wartime (2009. Written by Todd Solondz. 98 minutes.)

Life During Wartime

But I LIKED Happiness: I have always had mixed feelings about Solondz’s films, which I expect is exactly what he wants. There is always a nasty side to his work, but the dark humor makes it work in the best of his films. That was particularly true of the 1998 film Happiness, which dealt with three sisters and their family. The script for that film built to a powerful, creepy scene in which a pedophile talks about what he does. Life During Wartime is a sequel of sorts to Happiness, which immediately raises the question: do we really want to check in with these people twelve years later? Well, as Raymond the butler says in Citizen Kane, umm, yes and no.

These are not characters you would probably want to hang out with in real life, but they can be interesting for 98 minutes on screen. In the opening scene, Joy and her boyfriend Allen are having dinner, but she seems to be upset about something. The waitress comes to take their order, but when Allen asks about the specials, the waitress gets furious with him, since she recognizes him as a phone stalker. Then we go to another scene of a couple talking over food, Trish, the oldest sister, and her new boyfriend, Harvey. And then we get a whole lot more two people scenes, often over food. You would think Nora Ephron co-wrote the script. Some of the scenes are interesting and the acting is terrific in all of them, but visually if not verbally they are very repetitive. We are caught in Solondz’s world in which the one person who smiles, Tish, is seen as in denial. Solondz’s films are hermetically sealed universes, and in this case it gets rather tiresome.

The film is about forgiveness and whether it is possible, but the dialogue spells that out in the most obvious ways. Solondz can write nice, subtle scenes, but he can also be a rather clumsy writer. He does break up all the dialogue scenes with some nice wordless ones featuring Bill, Trish’s husband and her kids’ father. He is just getting out of prison and he comes down to Florida, where Trish has moved, to try to reconnect. We see him walking around, following people, and in one scene breaking into Trish’s house to see where she and his kids live. Eventually he tracks down his oldest son at college and confronts him. I think structurally this is supposed to be the equivalent of his admission scene at the end of Happiness, but it just does not have the same power.

Much has been made of Solondz’s recasting all the major roles. Looking at the two films together, which I have not done, I suspect you will get a master class in what different actors bring to the same part. For example, in Happiness, Joy is played by Jane Adams with a wonderful deadpan expression. Shirley Henderson’s Joy in the new film emphasizes the neediness of the character, which gets tiresome. Dylan Baker was astonishing as Bill in the first film, but Ciarán Hinds brings a totally different quality to the part. Hinds embodies the emotional exhaustion that Bill has developed as a result of his years in prison. As much as I love Baker, I am not sure that quality is in his range.

The title is a bit baffling. Yes, there are occasional references to the War on Terror, etc., but they seem more like throwaway lines than any serious attempt to make the issue part of the film. After all, Solondz is not really interested in social issues except as they impinge on his universe. One review I read suggested the “wartime” is the war within the family, but these folks are just rather grim as opposed to warlike.

Get Low (2010. Screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, story by Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke. 100 minutes.)

Get Low

Well, it’s not as depressing as Is Anybody There?: The night before my wife and I saw Get Low, we watched a 2008 British film called Is Anybody There? on DVD. I’m not doing a full item on it because it was a real downer. Written by Peter Harness, it stars Michael Caine in another of his great performances. Caine plays Clarence, a retired magician who comes to stay in a retirement home, where he sort of makes friends with Edward, the 10 year-old-son of the owners. Edward has a morbid fascination with the dead and dying and hopes to communicate with Clarence when he dies. Clarence dies and appears to come back as a badger. The film is relentlessly dreary. So when we went out to a movie the next night, we were looking for something a little more lighthearted. Unfortunately the one we were aiming for was in a small auditorium and only had seats in the front row, and we know enough about the auditoriums in this theater to know we would both have cricks in our necks if we sat there. Get Low, which was on our list to see, started at the same time, so we gave it a shot instead.

The script is based on a story told to Seeke by his wife’s family about a hermit in Tennessee in the ‘30s who arranged his own funeral while he was still alive. You can see why we might not want to see this after Is Anybody There? Seeke and his friend Provenzano could not find any background information on the story, which meant they could make it up as they wanted to. Provenzano developed the first drafts of the script ten years ago and eventually it found its way to producer Dean Zanuck (yes, of that family; he is Darryl’s grandson and Richard’s son) in 2002. Zanuck got Robert Duvall to play Felix, the hermit. The director selected, Aaron Schneider, did a draft and then when Provenzano was unavailable, Mitchell was brought on. (The background is from an article by Peter Clines in the July/August Creative Screenwriting. You can also look at a WGA interview with Provenzano and Mitchell who, unlike a lot of “collaborators,” actually seem to get along even though one was rewriting the other.)

So Felix wants his funeral while he is still alive so he can hear the stories people tell about him. And in Frank Quinn, who runs a funeral parlor, he finds somebody who is willing to do it for him. Two things right away: the film is promising us we will hear a lot of people’s stories about Felix, but it welches on that deal. We occasionally get some suggestions of stories about Felix, but not that many, since it turns out Felix wants to tell his story to a crowd. This not only gives Robert Duvall, who makes Felix different from all the other older curmudgeons he has played recently, a wonderful aria to play, but it keeps the film from dribbling away with a lot of unrelated talk. The writers set up a lot of mysteries about Felix, giving us hints of his past, so that we are perfectly willing not to hear the stories of others as long as we get his story.

The second thing is the character of Frank Quinn. He’s funny. There is no equivalent character in Is Anybody There? and it makes all the difference. Whatever depressing elements there are in Get Low, and there are more than a few, they are lightened by Quinn. Especially since Bill Murray plays him. Duvall and Murray, whom you might not think would have great chemistry, do since, in these roles, they both fight to see who can underplay the other. You have to watch and listen closely to get everything they are doing, but it the results are very rewarding.

The downside of the film is its director, Aaron Schneider. He was the co-writer and director of the 2003 short film Two Soldiers, which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. He is primarily a cinematographer, working in both theatrical films and television. Get Low is very good to look at, but often his choices of where to put the camera in relation to the actors are not the best. A shot may be a great shot, but it may not tell the story as well as some other angle. And the coverage he got leaves Schneider, who also edited the film, with some odd cuts. Every cinematographer I have ever known always thought he could direct the picture he was working on better than the director. But direction and cinematography are two very different crafts. Some people, like Steven Soderbergh, can do both. Schneider can’t yet, but he may learn.

Flipped (2010. Screenplay by Rob Reiner & Andrew Sheinman, based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen. 90 minutes.)

Flipped

Much less depressing than Life During Wartime: Writing about The Informant! in US#54, I discussed its use of the unreliable narrator. Here we have two narrators, both of them reliable, even though they are telling us very different things about the same events. If you think that makes for a lot of narration in this film, you are absolutely right. And every screenwriting textbook in the world will tell you to avoid narration. They are right. And the multiple narrators and piles of narration work perfectly here. Go figure.

The setup is simple: we are going to follow Bryce Lotski and Juli Baker through about six years of their lives, starting in grade school and ending in junior high. They live across the street from each other and sometimes he likes her and she doesn’t like him, and sometimes it is the reverse. What the script does (and I assume they get this from the book) is have Bryce and Juli narrate the film. Separately. In the opening scene we see Bryce and his family moving in and we get him telling us how he did not like Juli from the first time he saw her. Then we get Juli’s version of what happened. Yes, this could get very schematic, but it doesn’t. What the writers have done is make sure each time that Julie tells us her side, that tells us something more we, and Bryce, did not know. When we see one version, we look forward to seeing and hearing the other version, because the writers establish that pattern from the opening scenes. Late in the picture, there is a sequence where the junior high boys are raffled off as “basket boys,” complete with picnic baskets for a lunch with whichever girl bids the most for them. Bryce assumes because Juli has a pile of money with her that she intends to bid on him. Her version is very different.

The double narration works here at least partly because of the ages of the kids. They are, as kids those ages usually are, willing to change their minds on a dime. So we sort of need the narration to keep up with where each one of them is emotionally. The writers are also very, very good at setting up reactions for the actors to have that add to, or at least reflect off, the narration we hear.

In addition to Bryce and Juli, we also get their families and the writers give the family members a lot to play in their scenes. And a lot of variety to play, unlike Solondz in Life During Wartime. Flipped is intended as a much lighter film than Wartime, but the writers have given us a few surprising moments of depth with the older generation to help anchor the film.

The novel is set in the indeterminate present, but Rob Reiner, who also directs, wanted it set in a more innocent time. The film takes place from 1957 to 1963, and the writers and the production do not beat us over the head with the period detail. The costumes and cars are right, and even though I am not a particularly musical person, I appreciated the choices for the music of the period used on the soundtrack. It is not the usual relentlessly nostalgic stuff we have traditionally had in pictures like this.

So. There is no incest. No pedophilia. No car chases. No explosions. No “Rock Around the Clock.” Nobody dies. It stops before the Kennedy assassination. Enjoy, enjoy.

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009. Screenplay by Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vigon, based on the novel by Eric Holder. 101 minutes.)

Mademoiselle Chambon

I was so in the mood for this: The first ten minutes of this film is one of the worst openings of a movie I have ever seen. Every screenwriting textbook and every screenwriting instructor make the same point: the first ten pages of the script are crucial to get an agent to read it, to get a studio reader to read it, to get actors and directors to read it, and to capture the audience when the film is made. John Sayles once said you can do anything in the first ten minutes of a film, because you are establishing the world of the film. Brother Sayles and I should have a little talk about that “do anything” after he sees this movie.

We open on Jean, a construction guy, using a jackhammer. The particular sound effect they use this first time for the jackhammer is so obnoxious you want to scream. The other times we hear the jackhammer, the sound effect is less harsh. OK, that may be a directorial mistake. (Brizé directed as well as co-wrote.) But then we pick up on Jean, his wife Anne-Marie, and their son Jérémy on a picnic. Great, picnic on the grass, happy family. Jérémy is trying to understand his lessons on the direct object in a sentence. So they talk about it. And talk some more. And talk some more. About the “direct object,” for God’s sake. Well, I suppose Sayles is right: this first ten minutes establishes the world of the film: a long, talky, and slow world.

Needless to say, if the family is that happy at the beginning, bad stuff is going to happen. When Anne-Marie is unable to pick up their son at school, Jean does and meets the teacher, Véronique Chambon. Ah, sparks fly. Well, no, they don’t. She asks Jean to come to the French equivalent of career day and talk about his work. He does. Ah, sparks fly. No, but the camera slowly dollies in on her. This would suggest she is interested in him, but neither her expression nor his lecture justifies our imagining she is getting the hots for him. Later, we do know what makes him first interested in her. Then they jump into bed. Well, no they don’t. This film has been promoted as a French Brief Encounter (1945), in which a couple falls in love but manage not to consummate the affair. Except that Noel Coward’s lovers struggle over the effort they have to make not to sleep together. Jean and Véronique never break a sweat. And then, 85 minutes into the film, they do the nasty. That’s either too late (if they were going to do it, we want to see the outcome, as in Jules and Paul in The Kids Are All Right) or too early (leave it for the big finish). Jean has Véronique bring her violin to play for his father’s wedding, and hearing her play, Anne-Marie understands there may be something between Jean and Véronique. This is virtually the only scene in the entire film where we get a reaction that tells us about the emotions of any of the characters in the film.

When Véronique decides in the end to leave their town, Jean says he is going to come with her. She waits at the train station for him, but when he does not show up on the platform, she gets on the train and leaves. He has come to the station, but loses his nerve and does not join her. He goes back to his wife. Now go back and look at the similar train station sequences in Casablanca (1942), Brief Encounter, Love in the Afternoon (1957), and this year’s The Secret in Their Eyes. Enough said.

As you may gather from that list of train station scenes, I am a sucker for great romantic movies, particular when the lovers have to part because of duty and honor. One of my favorite lines in Roman Holiday is the Princess reacting to one of her staff reminding her of her responsibilities after she’s had her fling with the reporter: “If I were not completely aware of my duty, I would not have returned tonight. Or, indeed, ever again.” We don’t get a lot of romantic dramas like that much any more, which is why I had high hopes for Mademoiselle Chambon. It is not a good movie, but it may also just be the times we live in. I long since stopped trying to show Brief Encounter in my film history class at Los Angeles City College. The younger generation’s reaction to it was, “If they had the hots for each other, why didn’t they just, you know, do it?”

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009. Written by Serge Bromberg. 94 minutes in the American release.)

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

Welcome to the ’60, take one: Henri-Georges Clouzot was one of the great pre-New Wave French film screenwriters and directors, with at least three certifiable classics to his filmography: Le Corbeau (1943), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), and another, Quai des Orfèvre (1947), that comes close. He was a master of putting the screws on his characters, who usually were not very nice people. In Diabolique, for example, a wife and a mistress collaborate on killing their husband/lover. Or so we think, but it turns out to be even worse than that. Both The Wages of Fear and Diabolique were international hits, and in 1964 he was one of a number of foreign directors of the time given more money than he was used to by American sources to make a film. L’inferno was to star one of the biggest European stars of the time, Romy Schneider, as Odette, a young wife whose husband Marcel (Serge Reggiani) grows increasingly convinced in his fantasies that she is being unfaithful to him. Sounds like material that was right in his wheelhouse. The film was never completed.

Several years ago, Serge Bromberg, a French documentary filmmaker, found himself stuck in an elevator for two hours with Clouzot’s widow and they got to talking about the film. Reels of footage that were shot still existed, mostly without the accompanying soundtracks. What Bromberg has done is make this documentary about the making and unmaking of the original film, using the original footage, interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, and a couple of contemporary actors acting out scenes from Clouzot’s script. It is the best “unmaking of a movie” documentary since Lost in La Mancha (2002).

At the risk of sounding like a complete auteurist, the fault for the production falling apart was completely Clouzot’s. As his former crewmembers point out, in the past he had been a perfectionist, but a disciplined one. Now he had the money not to be. He kept shooting material, particularly for the fantasy sequences, that was not in the script, always a danger sign. He also had three complete film crews, with the idea that one would be setting up the next scenes while he shot the current scenes. That did not work out because he was by nature obsessive about detail and would not let anything be set up unless he was there to personally supervise it.

The other problem was that he had seen the New Wave films, the films of Antonioni, and especially Fellini’s 8 ½. Like most directors and would-be directors, he was fascinated by the way Fellini was playing around with cinema, including flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies. Clouzot recognized the great change that was taking place in international films and he wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at that. The scenes in the footage that work best are the black-and-white “realistic” scenes where Marcel is growing more and more psychotic. There is a good Clouzot movie in those scenes, but the fantasy scenes, shot in color, are bad late-‘60s hippy LSD trip scenes. Unlike Fellini he had no feel for that kind of imagery. The most stunning image in the film is one of the black-and-white shots involving Romy Schneider, nude, on railroad tracks with a train bearing down on her. And it’s not rear projection. It is a bad Fellini shot, but a perfect Henri-Georges Clouzot shot.

Clouzot drove the actors so hard that Serge Reggiani, who had worked with him before, walked off the film. Clouzot had a heart attack, and the film was never finished. Clouzot’s script, however, was eventually sold to Claude Chabrol, who was closer in artistic temperament to Clouzot than any of the other New Wave filmmakers. Chabrol made it into the 1994 film Hell, which I alas have not seen. Maybe Todd Solondz will do an American remake.

Caprice (1967. Screenplay by Jay Jayson and Frank Tashlin, story by Martin Hale and Jay Jayson. 98 minutes)

Caprice

Welcome to the ‘60s, take two, or, why are we watching a Doris Day movie?: Since we have been talking about spying and intelligence work a lot recently, I thought I would give this one a watch. It deals with industrial intelligence, one company spying on another, not a traditional subject in films, although last year’s Duplicity handled it very well, much better than this one.

The critical word on Caprice has been all over the map. Leonard Maltin lists it as a “Bomb” in his movie and video guides, but Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema puts it in italics in his listing of director Frank Tashlin’s film, Sarris’s designation of quality. Most of the user comments on the comment board on IMDb are not good, but Leslie Halliwell in his film guide gives it a star indicating there are some positive aspects to it. Halliwell’s thumbnail critique is “Incoherent kaleidoscope which switches from farce to suspense and Bond-style action, scattering in-jokes along the way. Bits of it however are funny, and it looks good.” I’m going to go with Halliwell on this one, although I like it less that I suspect he did. There was at least one scene in the middle of the picture that has stuck in my mind since I saw the film for the first time in 1967, so it was time to look at it again.

The film opens with very “Bond-style action” as two skiers zoom down the slopes of Switzerland, the one in black shooting at the one in white. The one in white dies and we go to an imitation-Maurice Binder credit sequence. Then Patricia is arrested by the French Sécurité and at the end of the scene we learn she has stolen plans for…a new underarm deodorant. The subject, as Frank Gilroy knew when he wrote about cosmetic thievery in Duplicity, is ripe for satire. But we do not get satire here. I don’t know what the original story was like, but subtle satire is not in Frank Tashlin’s wheelhouse. He got into films writing and directing cartoons, and he is best known for his slapstick comedies of the ‘50s with such living cartoons as Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield. Patricia is played here by Doris Day, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Her specialty was perky, and nobody gave better perk than Day. The film is co-produced by her husband, Martin Melcher, and he made sure the film looked good. It is gorgeously photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, maybe a little too gorgeously. And Day is wearing very fashionable, mid-‘60s clothes. Fashionable if you were in your twenties, but Day was 45 the year this film was made. Her kind of perk at age 45 is a little hard to take. While she could do serious, as in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and light comedy, as in the 1959 Pillow Talk, being a serious spy in a partially serious film was not in her wheelhouse. And speaking of wheelhouses, her co-star was Richard Harris, trying to make a Hollywood career for himself, but light comedy was not what he did well. Day and Harris try, but there is no chemistry between them. The script does not help, since we are not sure in the beginning whether they are attracted to each other or not.

I suspect the script problems came from Tashlin trying to make it into something he felt comfortable with. On the one hand it is a big, glossy vehicle for a major female star, but her costumes are trying to be trendy. On the other hand, it is obviously influenced by the Bond films. The slapstick calls to mind the Pink Panther films. And one of the in-jokes involves Patricia going to a movie theater that is playing Caprice, starring Doris Day and Richard Harris, which is the sort of self-reflexivity the French New Wave would love. I suspect that Tashlin was just as confused about the changes in film in the ‘60s as Clouzot was.

The action scenes, particularly the two skiing scenes, are rather ordinary, although that may be because we are now watching them after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and the current Inception. The slapstick comedy sequences work the best. One involves Harris’s Christopher trying to get Patricia to admit she is working for her former boss against her current boss. She realizes he has a microphone in a sugar cube at an outdoor restaurant and does everything to drown out the sound, while Tashlin cuts away to her current boss trying to listen and reacting apoplectically to the other sounds.

Another slapstick scene is the one that stuck in my mind all these years. Patricia is trying to get a strand of hair off Su Ling, the sexy Chinese secretary to Stuart Clancy. Clancy has invented a water-resistant hair spray and Su Ling uses it. Patricia follows Su Ling to her home in the hills, and while Su Ling sunbathes on a deck built out over the hills, Patricia tries to cut a bit of her hair. This involves climbing out on the underside of the deck with a pair of garden shears, dealing with Su Ling’s large dog, and assorted other problems. Tashlin and his fellow writers have come up with a great slapstick scene, although, since Day was not particularly good at slapstick, it depends more on the writing and direction than it does the performance. The juxtaposition of Day’s stunt woman scrambling around as opposed to the nonchalance of Su Ling in her bikini is both funny and sexy at the same time, the sort of thing that Tashlin could bring off well. The rest of the script is the same sort of hodgepodge we have already discussed. It even ends up with a man dressed as a woman, possibly a nod to Psycho (1960).

There is another reason the deck scene stuck in my mind over the years. Su Ling is played by a young Chinese American actress named Irene Tsu. While I had seen a couple of pictures she had done before, this scene firmly implanted her in my mind. So much so that, five years later, when she enrolled in my History of the Motion Pictures class at LACC, I recognized her right away. It was the second semester I was teaching the course, and at the end of the semester I took some of the class time and had her tell the class about her experiences. She had worked with John Ford on 7 Women (1966) (Ford not only intimidated Irene, but Anne Bancroft as well) and Buster Keaton on the How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). She said she was near tears when she saw Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) in class because she knew nothing about his early days when she had worked with him.

Irene was fun to have as a student, both in that class and in my Screenwriting class. When I talked to her a few years ago, she asked me if she had been a “brat” in class. I said I would have described her instead as feisty. In the ‘60s she was one of only three Asian-American actresses who worked regularly in Hollywood. If you wanted dramatic/tragic, you went with France Nuyen. If you wanted perky girl-next-door, you went with Nancy Kwan. For glamor and humor, you went with Irene. One day I was walking on campus and saw her coming down the path towards me. When she got close, I put on a fan-boy face and said, “It’s, it’s…Nancy Kwan.” Irene, who is a friend of Kwan’s, may well have just lost a part to her. Anyway, she hauled off and slugged me in the arm. When I encouraged her to write scripts that dealt with her Chinese heritage, she eventually turned on me and said, “What do you want from me? I’m just a girl from New Rochelle, New York.” She was born in Shanghai, but came to this country when she was a small child.

I continued to follow Irene’s career after she left LACC. In 2006 my intrepid projectionist at LACC, Amos Rothbaum, scored a print of the 1996 Hong Kong film, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, in which Irene gives one of her best performances as an auntie to one of the major characters. I persuaded Irene to come to class and talk about the film and her career. Most of the men in the class fell in love with her, even though, as I reminded some of them later, she was old enough to be their mother. MILF. She still acts occasionally, although as she said that night, the only parts she gets offered these days are “Mothers, either with or without accents.” Which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about ageism, racism and sexism in Hollywood. You can check out Irene and her career on the IMDb.

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: 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.

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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.

3

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

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

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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