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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: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up

The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

1.5

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Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.

Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.

In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.

Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.

The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.

Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family

The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

2.5

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Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?

At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.

The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.

Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.

One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident

Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.

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The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.

It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.

As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.

While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.

Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón

Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.

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Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.

Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.

Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.

If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.

Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.

Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.

More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.

And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”

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Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects

Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.

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Maiden
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.

The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.

Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.

By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.

Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.

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Transit
Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown


3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac


Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac


The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg


Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti


Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same

By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

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Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.

The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.

It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.

Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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

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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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Film

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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