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Understanding Screenwriting #57: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #57: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Dunkirk, I Was Monty’s Double, Rizzoli & Isles, Burn Notice but first…

Fan Mail: I think that it is only fair that since David Ehrenstein caught me misspelling Charles Walters’s last name as Waters some time ago I mention that in his comments on US#56 he misspelled Robert Rossen’s last name as Rosson. It is an honest mistake, since there was a family of Rossons connected with the business, the most notable being Harold, who was a great cinematographer from 1915 to 1967. I am not as crazy about Rossen’s Lillith (1964) as David is, but I agree that They Came to Cordura (1959) is a very interesting film, and I had thought about mentioning it in the item on Edge of Darkness, since it deals with the issues of heroism and cowardness. As for Rossen’s Alexander the Great (1956), it is not without its interest, but Rossen runs into the same problem Oliver Stone did in his 2004 film Alexander: Alexander had an epic life, but not a very dramatic one: He conquered the world and then he died.

The Concert (2009. Screenplay by Radu Mihaileanu and Alain-Michel Blanc in collaboration with Matthew Robbins, adaptation and dialogue by Radu Mihaileanu, based on a story by Héctor Cabello Reyes and Thierry Degrandi. 119 minutes.)

Worth the wait: This was the film that my wife and I intended to see when we ended up at Get Low (see US#55), and it is certainly more lighthearted than that film. This is one of the most purely entertaining movies of the year, and it’s also more than that in some rather sneaky ways. Before we get into all of that, I do need to warn you about the plot. As Michael Brooke so elegantly put it in his review in the August 2010 Sight & Sound, the “premise alone generates enough plot holes to accommodate an entire fleet of articulated lorries doing three-point turns.” A former conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra, now working as a janitor, intercepts a fax to the company director requesting the orchestra play a concert in a theater in Paris. Alexi, the conductor, rounds up a collection of his old musician friends, goes to Paris and gives a triumphant concert, with no rehearsal and with a young French violinist, Anne-Marie, playing a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto she has never played before. Watch out for those articulated lorries!

Why does it work? It’s funny. As I tell my screenwriting students, you can get away with almost anything if you make us laugh. The writers are great at nailing down in the shortest possible time the peculiarities of the many characters, both Russian and French. They are perhaps even better at getting humor out of the cultural differences between the Russians and the French. Yes, sometimes those are cliches, but as Crash Davis reminds us, cliches are our friends. There is a running gag of two Jewish musicians trying to sell everything from caviar to Chinese cellphones to the French. It could be offensive, but by then we love the characters and want them to score big time. It is not just the cultural details the writers get right. Alexi was a top conductor thirty years ago, as was the man who fired him, Gavrilov. The musicians get Gavrilov to be their “manager” for the trip, but he is thirty years out of the loop as well. His demands alternately baffle the French (the restaurant where he wants to hold a dinner for the orchestra has gone out of business) and delight them (the theater owner, when he hears the fees the orchestra wants, notes to his assistant that those are “pre-Perestroika rates”). The film is very reminiscent of some of the late-‘60s Eastern European classics such as The Fireman’s Ball (1967), but with a definite post-communist slant. There is a great scene, a wedding given by a Russian mobster, that defines how Russia has changed in twenty years.

Another reason it all works is that the writers move the story along like the proverbial bat out of hell. The mechanics of setting up the concern and assembling the orchestra (this is a “mission” picture, just like The Guns of Navarone [1961] and The Dirty Dozen [1967]) start the picture off quickly, so by 45 minutes in the orchestra is lining up to go to the airport. And the details set up in the first half pay off in the second half. That wedding scene? It gives the orchestra its “sponsor,” a Russian mobster who thinks he is a cellist and assumes he is going to play in the orchestra. I thought the writers had forgotten about him until we see his situation during the concert. The Russian Gypsy violinist who arranges a lot of the “paperwork” turns out to make a musical connection with Anne-Marie that helps persuade her to do the concert. And when we get to Paris, yes, we are in Ninotchka (1939)-land, since Gavrilov is not as much an ex-communist as he wants people to believe. That gives us a simple but very effective contrast between the Party meeting he sets up in Paris, which is not well attended, and the concert, which is. Art triumphing over politics.

I mentioned earlier that it was more than just funny. We love these characters because they make us laugh, and when they are on-screen, stuff happens. So we will end up following them into a more serious storyline. Alexi asks for Anne-Marie as a soloist because he has her CDs, and we suspect there is some kind of connection. We begin to know for sure what it is when we meet her and her agent-manager. And then the writers pull the rug out from under us completely, taking us into darker areas than we have been. The connections are not what you think, and I will not spoil it for you by telling you any more than that.

The writers also pull of a great bit of sleight-of-hand in the concert. We will of course want to know what happens to all these people after the concert, and the writers give us a series of both verbal (Alexi telling Anne-Marie the rest of the story in voiceover) and visual (scenes of post-concert activities) montages. But they give them to us during the concert. If we had to watch the entire concert it might get visually monotonous, and giving us that information during the concert, we are then free to get the full emotional impact of the end of the concert.

My wife, who is a musician, often complains about actors pretending to play musical instruments. She thought Mélanie Laurent, who plays Anne-Marie, did the fingering brilliantly. Laurent was the one who blew up Hitler in Inglourious Basterds last year and I was too busy looking at her gorgeous and gorgeously expressive face to notice her hands, so we will just have to take my wife’s word for it.

Cairo Time (2009. Written by Ruba Nadda. 90 minutes.)

Cairo Time

Not as bad as Mademoiselle Chabon: You may remember from US#55 that as bad as Mademoiselle Chabon (2009), the French update of Brief Encounter (1945), was, I wondered if it was even possible in our time to do a story about people in love who split up because of duty and honor. With Cairo Time, the jury is still out on the question.

Juliette, a married magazine editor in her fifties, comes to Cairo to visit her husband, who works for the U.N. When she arrives, he is still in Gaza dealing with the situation there. He has asked his retired translator, Tarek, to pick up Juliette at the airport and take her to her hotel. She assumes he is going to be old and fat, and, boy, is he neither one. As Mark, the husband, continues to be stuck in Gaza, Tarek offers to show her around. He runs a café, but seems to have all the time in the world. So he and Juliette walk around Cairo. A lot. We see many pretty post-card shots of Cairo, but they are not very expressive. Look at the choices the writers made in Before Sunset (2004) as to where Jesse and Celine will walk in Paris, or to take an earlier example, how the Spanish Steps and the Mouth of Truth work in Roman Holiday (1953).

Juliette and Tarek talk a lot, but it is not very dramatic talk. We get very little of either person’s character. See the other films mentioned above on how to do it. Nadda also geeks one of the script’s more interesting ideas. At the airport, Tarek and Juliette run into Yasmeen and her daughter, who is getting married. Tarek and Yasmeen obviously know each other, but it takes forever for Nadda to get around to letting us know that Yasmeen was the love of Tarek’s life. She dumped him and married another guy, but is now a widow. Juliette and Tarek go to the wedding late in the picture. By that time we know they are attracted to each other, so it would make sense for Juliette, feeling guilty but wanting the best for Tarek, to push him to rekindle the flame with Yasmeen. Juliette suggests this, but Tarek says it wouldn’t proper. Maybe not in Egyptian culture, but wouldn’t that make it more dramatic? And then we could get a great scene of Tarek and Juliette sending each other off to their other loves. My tear ducts are swelling up just thinking about that scene. Instead, Tarek just passes her back to Mark when he shows up. Yes, that is a “happy” ending, except for the fact that Mark appears to have no character either.

A Film Unfinished (2010. Written by Yael Hersonski. 88 minutes.)

A Film Unfinished

Structuring the documentary, take one: The students taking my Screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College are required to have taken the History of Documentary Film class as a prerequisite. Nearly all of them take it with me at LACC, but sometimes there are people who had what was in theory the equivalent course elsewhere. One time there was a student in that situation in the class. We were discussing an idea another student had pitched for a documentary and the “elsewhere” student said, “Documentaries aren’t structured. You just go out and film real life.” Everybody else in the class, who had taken the documentary class with me, turned in unison and looked at him with a “What planet are you from?” look. We straightened the fellow out fairly quickly and painlessly.

Sometimes the structure comes from writing the script in advance, as in Night Mail (1936). Sometimes the situation pretty much dictates the structure, as in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963). And in Frederick Wiseman films, the complex structures (yes, plural) are worked out in the editing room. No matter how it is done, any good documentary has a structure.

The problem facing Yael Hersonski was this. She had a rough cut, without a soundtrack, of a Nazi documentary called The Ghetto. It had been filmed in the spring of 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, but not completed, apparently because the Nazis started shipping Jews out of the Ghetto into the camps. For years, various shots from the film had been used as historical clips in other documentaries. Then a reel of outtakes was found, which very clearly showed that many of the shots were staged by the German camera crews. So how do you organize all of that into a film, and what else do you want or need to make it into a complete film?

Hersonski’s solution is not as simple as it may seem. She generally runs the rough cut in what we assume—she never out and out claims it—is the order of scenes in that cut. For all we know, she may have changed the order. But what do you do for a sound track? Hersonski and her researchers have found several useful items. One is the diary of the head of the Jewish community in the Ghetto, which includes several references to the film being shot. Another is a series of reports by the German officer in command, also including material about the making of the film. The first part of Hersonski’s film primarily uses those two sources. But well into the film, she begins to show us survivors of the Ghetto that she has tracked down. She has them watch, as much as they can, the German rough cut and comment on it. One woman comments on a scene in what looks to be a nice apartment that it would never have had flowers, as we see in the shot, because somebody would have eaten them. Still later in the film Hersonski begins to introduce the outtakes. What appears to be the reason for the making of the Nazi film was to show that while some Jews were starving, more well-to-do Jews were living a normal life. The outtakes are mostly setting up those “well-to-do” scenes. The final shots of the rough cut show one well-off Jew standing next to a not-so-well off one, then another double shot of two different people, and another. Finally, we get all the “doubles” in one shot. One woman among the “well-to-do” has one of the most haunting looks on her face I have ever seen. She may not have “known” what was going on, but she knew.

Finally, Hersonski introduces the most problematical element in her film. She learned that one of the cameramen on the film, Willy Wist, was interrogated about his experience. She has the transcript, but handles it as a reconstruction, with an actor “playing” Wist. Given the “reality” of the rest of the film, the reconstruction seems artificial, although it is so well done that many people will “believe” it. It is never specifically mentioned in the narration or the titles that it is a reconstruction. On the other hand, that may have been the only way to include the material. And how different is it really from the other actors who read the diaries and reports that make up the rest of the sound track? Still, in a film that is showing us the difference between truth and fiction on film, I find myself a little queasy about it. Only a little queasy, though, since Wist’s statements add a lot to the film. See the moral quandaries dealing with the truth can get you into?

A Film Unfinished, by the way, is part of a tradition of the last thirty years of using older documentaries to call into question the “truths” those films showed us. Look at Radio Bikini (1987), which compares the footage shot by the U.S. Government about the atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Islands with the comments shot more recently from those who were there. Or look at One Nation Under God (1993), which uses the way old documentaries dealt with homosexuality to undercut the ideas of the past. And that’s not even mentioning the documentaries of the last ten years that undercut the mainstream media coverage of… oh, sorry, school’s starting and I got into my “teaching the history of documentary” mode there for a minute.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010. Written by Tamra Davis. 88 minutes.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Structuring the documentary, take two: What do singer Britney Spears, actor Adam Sandler and the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat have in common? Other than that they were all once virgins, or at least purported to be? All of them starred in films directed by Tamra Davis. Davis directed Spears in Crossroads (2002), which is not nearly as bad as you might think. The writer on that one, by the way, was Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy. Davis also directed Sandler in Billy Madison (1995), and she now turns to Basquiat. Or technically speaking, turns back to Basquiat. In the mid-‘80s, Davis was working in art galleries in Los Angeles and met Basquiat. Tamra was a film student of mine at LACC earlier in the ‘80s, and in 1986 she and friend got a camera and recorded about twenty minutes of interviews with Baquiat. After he died in 1988, she shelved the material until a few years ago when she put it together as an adjunct for a showing of his work. That led to the current film.

The structural problem she had to solve was this: the interview was not enough material for a film by itself. The IMDb lists her A Conversation with Basquiat (2006), which was the short version done for the showing, as running 99 minutes, at least in France, but that’s why you should not believe everything you read on the Internet. So what do you do to turn it into a feature? The interview material is simply one structural element of the current film, and quite frankly it is not as compelling as the footage Hersonski has for A Film Unfinished. Basquiat is cute, but guarded in his responses, and not as articulate as one would hope. So Davis has structured the film as more a conventional biography, although she does not begin in his childhood, but when he first came to New York City at the age of 17. We get a certain amount of stock shots from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, plus home movies by Basquiat’s friends. We also get a lot of his artwork, starting with the graffiti and on into his later paintings. What is even more useful, although in ways Davis may not even appreciate, are the interviews with gallery owners, friends, lovers, agents and others. They put Basquiat into the context of his time and place, but they also put the Basquiat interview into context. Several people talk about his ambition and determination to be famous, and we can see him in the 1986 interview using what he takes to be his charm to make himself into a star. The interviews with the others also give us a vivid sense of his development as an artist.

As fascinating as the movie is, and as good as the descriptions of his art are, I still am not that much of a fan of his work. I don’t mind that it looks like graffiti, but it’s uninteresting graffiti. Maybe I am just more in tune with West Coast, Mexican-mural-influenced graffiti art. In any case, I remained a little dubious about the gushing that goes on by his friends and colleagues. I particularly got a sense of how inbred the New York City art world can be, an echo chamber in which the trendy artist flavor of the month can seem more important than he may be. There are hints that Basquiat understood that the fame he was working for was rather empty. The Los Angeles people who talk about him sort of fall into that trap as well, although one person suggests that if Basquiat had stayed in Los Angeles (he lived here for a brief period), he might have survived. Now that’s a shift in cultural attitudes we will all have to think about for a while.

Dunkirk (1958. Screenplay by David Divine and W.P. Lipscomb, based on the book Dunkirk by Ewen Butler and J.S. Bradford and the novel The Big Pickup by Elleston Trevor. 130 or 134 minutes, depending on your source.)

Dunkirk

John Mills, action star, take one: We tend to think about the late, great British film actor John Mills for his dramatic roles, even when he was playing military figures, as in Tunes of Glory (1959). But in 1958 he made a couple of films in which he was almost an action star. Dunkirk is the bad one, and I Was Monty’s Double, which is discussed below, is the good one.

Dunkirk is one of the last films made by Ealing Studios, which was much better known for its comedies. Charles Barr, the author of the great studio biography Ealing Studios, calls it “very dull indeed.” Far be it from me to disagree with Barr. The intent I expect was to do a big tribute to the efforts of the Navy and small boat owners to rescue several hundred thousand British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. As I wrote about in US#48, Darryl Zanuck did a much better job covering D-Day in The Longest Day (1962). The producer here was Michael Balcon, who simply did not have Zanuck’s flare. Notice the script is based on both a non-fiction book and a novel. It is very easy to guess which scenes come from which source. The scenes with the senior military are very flat and on the nose, and Balcon has not helped by casting virtually unknown British actors. Zanuck knew you needed stars to make the audience remember the characters in a picture of that size. The script is also rather clunky. We follow a group of six surviving British soldiers, led by Corporal Binns (John Mills), as they make their way to the beach and eventually get picked up. Those scenes are intercut with not only the senior officers, but with several civilians who end up bringing their boats to help the rescue. Zanuck insisted on short, to-the-point scenes, very much in the American manner, but Balcon let the scenes in this script go on much longer than they should have. We keep losing the thread of the different stories. Binns and his soldiers do see action, and Mills is certainly convincing as an enlisted man forced into a leadership position. The director, Leslie Norman, whom Barr calls “the most stolid of all the Ealing directors,” slows the pace down, and the film editor does not help by leaving in parts of the takes before and after the action. Undoubtedly they were trying to make it as long as they could to make it seem big and important. Longer is not better.

I Was Monty’s Double (1958. Screenplay by Bryan Forbes, based on the book I Was Monty’s Double by M.E. Clifton-James. 101 minutes.)

I Was Monty's Double

John Mills, action star, take two: The storyline of this one is preposterous. The British are trying in 1944 to convince the Germans that the D-Day invasion is going to land anywhere other than Normandy. British Intelligence comes up with a hare-brained scheme to get an actor who is the spitting image of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to pretend to be Monty on a tour of North Africa. The real Monty is in England preparing for the invasion, but the hope is the Germans will think that perhaps Monty will invade the south of France from North Africa. The Brits succeed well enough so that Hitler holds units in reserve in the south of France when D-Day finally comes. And the story, if not the film, is completely true. The actor involved, M.E. Clifton-James, wrote a best-selling book about it in the ‘50s and stars in the movie as himself, and as Montgomery.

One big advantage this film has is that the screenplay is by Bryan Forbes. Forbes was an actor in British films since the late ‘40s (he plays the young officer who helps stop the kidnapping at the end of this film) who started writing in the mid-‘50s. He later turned to directing with such films as King Rat (1965) and The Stepford Wives (1975). So he knows how to write terrific scenes for the actors to play. Turner Classic Movies ran these two John Mills films on a day devoted to Mills in late August. I watched them in the order I am writing about them, and the change from the lethargic Dunkirk to this one was immediately apparent. Mills is Major Harvey and in the first few minutes he arrives in a boat on the coast of England, gets off a train in London, eludes a man following him, and shows up at what we have to guess (because no one says it outright) is an office in British Intelligence. Whereupon he has a wonderful scene with his boss, Colonel Logan, about what they can get up to next. Forbes not only knows how to write for actors, but to make it amusing. We get a lot of the wit that Mills showed as Pip in Great Expectations (1946). It also helps that the director is John Guillermin, who knows how to keep things moving.

Harvey sees Clifton-James do a music hall cameo (look at how Forbes gets him to the music hall in the first place) and comes up with the idea of doubling Monty. Clifton-James the character is wonderfully self-effacing, as is Clifton-James the actor, which lends a whole down-to-earth quality to the film. Clifton-James the character observes the real Monty and then trains to be him. But he tells Harvey he cannot do it. Harvey insists, and finally has to take Clifton-James to see the real Monty, who will persuade him to do it. Ah, a central scene in the picture. Except we do not see it; we just see Clifton-James go into Monty’s trailer and later come out. Was the scene never in the script? Was it in the script and they decided they did not need it? Did they shoot it and find it did not work? We don’t know.

So then it is off to Gibraltar for the first leg of the tour. Forbes gives us a great scene with the Governor of Gibraltar, who invites to dinner with Monty a German businessman whom he knows will tell the Germans. Great idea, until they are walking into the room and the German happens to mention he has met Monty before. Forbes sets this up to give the great British character actor Michael Hordern (none of those unknowns as in Dunkirk) as the Governor a terrific reaction shot, and then builds the scene from there.

In real life “Monty” made the North African tour without incident and was then brought back to England and held in seclusion. Not very dramatic, so the last 15 minutes or so are a kidnapping attempt that John Mills in his action star mode foils. The movie, with its wit and suspense, has built up enough good will that we won’t get too angry with it.

This film is not yet on DVD, but TCM may run it again. However, don’t look for it under its original title. Even though the print shown had this title, it was listed in the schedule by its godawful American title, Hell, Heaven, or Hoboken. I am not going to waste your time or mine trying to explain that.

Rizzoli & Isles (2010. “Born to Run” episode written by David Gould. 60 minutes.)

Rizzoli & Isles

Finally, a good one: This is their best episode yet, and oddly enough, it is because it is less like the others. There is very little banter between R&I, and most of that is at the beginning as they get ready to run in the “Massachusetts” Marathon. It’s obviously the Boston Marathon, but given the plot I can see why everybody wanted to change the name.

So they start to run, and at the three-mile mark they discover a dead body in the street. What do you do? Well, they pretend the body is still alive and get it in an ambulance, but the crowd is so big they can’t get out. So they take it to a medical tent. Rizzoli calls it in and then the question becomes, do you stop the marathon? The script handles the cops and politicians dealing with that very well. They agree not to stop the race because a) it will cause panic and probably a riot, and b) this is a TV episode and they cannot afford a riot. Isles has to do a primitive autopsy and they discover the victim had been shot. At close range. The police eventually identify him as a guy who has had several lawsuits filed against him. And then Rizzoli’s brother, also a cop, finds another body, shot in the same way, at mile twelve. Now do you close down the race? Nope, and needless to say, Rizzoli and the cops figure out who is killing the runners and why and stop the last one.

So, it’s a plot we have not seen before, nicely developed, and with minimal mediocre banter. But can you build a show on that?

Burn Notice (2010. “Blind Spot” episode written by Michael Horowitz, “Guilty as Charged” episode written by Matt Nix. Each episode 60 minutes)

Burn Notice

Jesse knows: I mentioned in my comments on this show in US#56 that Jesse had not yet discovered that it was Michael who burned him. So guess what happens in these two episodes and look at how much it ups the tension. At the end of “Blind Spot,” Jesse tells Fi that he has found a security tape from across the street from his building that clearly shows Michael leaving the building at the time Jesse was burned. Jesse pulls a gun on Fi, but just leaves when she closes her eyes, expecting to be shot.

In “Guilty as Charged” Michael is trying to work out a deal with John Barrett, the technology mogul, to return the Bible that has the code, in return for which Barrett is supposed to tell him what the code unlocks. Maddie and Fi get a nice scene as they try to talk Jesse into persuading him to work with Michael. Jesse is reluctant, but at a meeting at a diner, also a good tense scene, he agrees not to kill Michael until after Michael has gotten the information from Barrett. Needless to say, the handover does not go well, with all kinds of unwanted people showing up. Jesse shoots Michael, but Sam and Fi realize he was shooting “through” Michael to kill the hood behind him. Michael and Barrett escape in a van with the metal briefcase that now has the Bible and the material it decodes. Barrett has told Michael it includes the names and addresses of the people who not only burned Jesse, but Michael and Simon as well. Michael, bleeding, grabs the wheel and crashes the van. It looks as though Barrett is dead, and Michael is bleeding out when he sees someone pick up the metal suitcase. Needless to say, this is the half-season finale, and we will have to wait until November to get the outcome.

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: 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 aht 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.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

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

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.

Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.

A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.

Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.

There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror

We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.

Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.

Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.

Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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