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Understanding Screenwriting #58: The Switch, Paisan, Black Bart, Mad Men, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #58: The Switch, Paisan, Black Bart, Mad Men, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Switch, Paisan, Black Bart, The Badlanders, A Cold Wind in August, Mad Men.

The Switch (2010. Screenplay by Allan Loeb, based on the short story “Baster” by Jeffrey Eugenides. 101 minutes.)

What would you do with head lice?: We have discussed on a couple of recent occasions the necessity of getting a movie off to a good start. This one, following the short story it was based on for the first half-hour, establishes a nice edgy tone right away. Not in the voiceover narration, which we don’t need, but in the first scene between longtime friends Wally, a Wall Street trader (yes, the story was originally written in 2000), and Kassie, a television producer. He’s grumbling about a homeless guy he ran into on the street and shows her a picture on his phone of a growth on his testicles. She’s telling him she’s decided to have a baby with a sperm donor. This is not a typical Hollywood romantic duo, although it is clear that Wally sort of hopes she’ll ask him to donate sperm in the old-fashioned way. Kassie and her friend Debbie have a party in which the donor, a married man named Roland, will make a deposit in a cup and then, well, you saw the title of the story the film is based on. Look at how uncomfortable Roland’s wife is at the party. Wally gets drunk and it’s clear to us if not to him that he replaces Roland’s sperm with his own. Which is where the short story ends. Well, it did appear in The New Yorker, after all.

The script now jumps ahead seven years. Kassie has left town, had the baby, and returns to New York. The rest of the film is Wally getting to know the son, Sebastian, realizing he is the father, and eventually telling Kassie. What was edgy in that first half-hour shifts to a slightly more conventional film. The characters still have some of their edge, and Sebastian is a wonderfully dry creation on the part of Loeb. On the other hand, look at the sequence that begins with Wally having to pick up Sebastian from a sleepover when Kassie is out of town. Sebastian has developed head lice and the sleepover mom wants him out of her house. So Wally has to take him home and de-louse him. It is written and played as gentle slapstick, missing a lot of edge Loeb could have given it. What does Wally really think about having to do this? A lot more could be done with this.

The story turns into a romantic triangle (well, quadrangle if you include Sebastian) with Wally, Kassie and Roland. Wait a minute, Roland was married. Yeah, but now he’s divorced. That’s a little lazy on Loeb’s part, and it makes the film even more ordinary than it started out. Loeb does write some good characters, especially Wally, for the actors to play, and Jason Bateman is as wonderful as you would expect. Jennifer Aniston is Kassie, and she’s not afraid to let Kassie’s flakier side show. Aniston has been accused of repeating herself, but I don’t think she does. My guess is that she is like Gregory Peck. People used to say Peck gave the same performance, but if you look at several of his films in a row, you can see how he makes them different. Try it with a bunch of Aniston’s films and see what happens. Unfortunately, the directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck, fall into the same habit that the director of Knight and Day did earlier this year (see US#50) by larding on the close-ups of the two leads. Let them breathe, guys. As for the supporting parts, Loeb has made Debbie a typical Juliette Lewis-ditz and that’s whom they hired. Wally’s friend Leonard is played by Jeff Goldblum, and I have no idea how much of what he says and does is in the script and how much is Goldblum. Let’s just say the script gives him opportunities.

Paisan (1946. Screenplay and dialogue by Sergio Amidei & Federico Fellini & Robert Rossellini and collaboration by Rod Geiger, story by Sergio Amidei & Klaus Mann & Federico Fellini & Marcello Pagliero & Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini (uncredited). 126 minutes.)


The really full version: When this neorealist classic was first released in Italy, it ran 115 minutes. When it was released in America, it ran 90 minutes. In the ‘70s, when I ran it in my History of Motion Pictures class, the longest version I could get was 85 minutes. I had read enough about the film to know that one entire episode (the Florence story) was missing, as were bits and pieces of the other episodes. It was not a satisfying experience, and I never ran it again. So imagine my delight when browsing on Netflix and discovering they had a 120-minute version. It’s from Criterion, and it actually runs 126 minutes.

The director, Roberto Rossellini, was coming off the enormous international success of Open City (1945) and was able to get money to make a slightly bigger film. Rodney Geiger was an American hustler who tripped over a cable during reshoots on Open City and later sold the film in the United States. He assured Rossellini he could get the money as well as big American stars. He came back to Italy with only some of the money and a bunch of complete unknowns. Meanwhile, Rossellini had been talking with a lot of people about stories for the new film. He wanted to show the relationship of the Americans and the Italians in the last year of the war, and he wanted to show how war was a corrupting influence. Many of the writers listed in the credits contributed stories or story ideas, but the script, such as it was, kept changing throughout the production. Fellini, who had worked in several capacities on Open City, did most of the screenwriting work with Rossellini.

There are six episodes in the final film. The first shows (through newsreels—Rossellini did not have that much money) the Americans landing in Sicily. A small group of soldiers take Carmela, a village girl, who leads them through a minefield. She and Joe, an American G.I., stay at a deserted castle while the rest of the unit goes on. Neither speak the other’s language, but they sort of connect, until the Germans show up. They shoot Joe, Carmela takes up his gun, kills some Germans and is in turn killed by them. The heart of the script for this episode is the Joe-Carmela scene, but it is not well-written. The scenes between the American and the French girl in The Big Parade 21 years before handle the same situation better. The American dialogue was probably written by Alfred Hayes, a young American writer in Italy, but it’s standard-issue. Another flaw in the episode is the acting. Unlike his neorealist counterpart Vittorio De Sica, Rossellini was not as good directing non-actors as actors. Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi blow everybody else off the screen in Open City, and we will see something similar in a later episode here.

The second episode is better. We start out with something of a cliché. A black American soldier is drunk on the streets of Naples, and a young kid keeps him from being mugged by the Italians or caught by the Military Police. The American sits down on a pile of rubble and talks about how wonderful everything is going to be when he gets home. As the scene evolves, he talks about how bad it is still going to be after the war. I have no idea if Hayes wrote this dialogue, or if the actor, Dots Johnson, improvised it, but either way, it is a striking scene. The soldier is eventually about to fall asleep and the kid warns him not to, telling him he will steal his shoes if he does. The script jumps ahead and we learn the soldier is in fact an M.P. and he catches a kid trying to steal from a truck. He eventually realizes the kid is the same one who stole his shoes. He chases him and eventually sees the squalor he lives in and lets him keep the shoes. Rossellini, the director, is on firmer ground here. He had wanted Paul Robeson for the part, but that was one of the many stars Geiger could not deliver. Johnson was not a star, but he had appeared in one film before this and went on to make a few more films. The scenes in the streets in Naples have the kind of immediacy we expect and love in neorealist films.

Episode three takes place in Rome. Six months after the liberation conditions are still bad. The prostitute Francesca picks up Fred, yet another drunk G.I., and takes him back to, well, not exactly a bordello, but a cheap hotel where the owner rents out rooms, probably by the hour if not the quarter hour. Fred talks about arriving in Rome during the liberation and meeting a sweet young Italian girl. In the flashback we see she was a much more innocent Francesca. He is so drunk he does not notice she is finishing his sentences about their first meeting. When she sends him on his way, she writes down an address he is to go to. In the morning he is getting on a truck to leave town. He looks at the address and throws it away. At the address, a more innocent-looking Francesca is waiting for him. The structure of this episode is inventive, as the writers let us know things the characters do not. It also helps that Francesca is played by Maria Michi, who played the actress in Open City. She is great here reacting to what the soldier is telling her. The episode handles both of Rossellini’s stated themes (communications between the Americans and the Italians and the corruption of war) in more subtle and interesting ways than the other episodes.

By episode four, we are up to Florence. Harriet, a U.S. nurse who lived in Florence learns that what we take to be her lover is now with the partisans fighting the Germans and the Fascists. With the help of another man, she tries to find him in Florence. This episode came from Fellini doing research on the battle for Florence, talking to partisans who had been part of the battle. Of all the episodes, it is the closest to an outright action sequence. There are not the twists of the Rome sequence, nor the characterization of the Naples sequence. Rossellini’s direction (and there are rumors that Fellini directed some of the sequence—my source for that and a lot of the information in this item is from Hollis Alpert’s solid if somewhat stolid 1986 biography Fellini: A Life) captures the immediacy of the battle, but also the elegance of Florence.

When I first saw the truncated version of Paisan, I felt episode five was probably most influenced by Fellini. It felt the most Felliniesque. The tone is lighter and funnier than the other episodes. Three American chaplains ask to spend the night in a monastery. The monks agree. The chaplains give the monks food and Hershey bars. The monks are horrified to discover only one of the chaplains is Catholic; the other two are Protestant and Jewish. Should they allow them to stay and have dinner with them? The head of the monastery asks the Catholic chaplain if he has tried to convert the other two. He says he has not and cannot. Dinner is served, but only to the Americans. The monks fast, but why? Are they upset at the other two chaplains? At the Catholic chaplain for not converting them? Or are they just being humble monks? We are never quite sure. The Catholic chaplain is impressed by their humility and tells them it reaffirms his Catholicism. But he does not say he will try to convert the others. Fellini did indeed write this episode, based on a monastery he found on the film company’s travels and remembering his own youth dealing with the Catholic church. But looking at this episode now, it also seems to be very much the work of Rossellini as well. After all, Rossellini took a lot of flack from his left-wing friends for making a priest the hero of Open City, and he later returned to more serious looks at religion. Well, more serious than Fellini, anyway.

Episode six is one of the weakest of the film. It follows a group of partisans and Americans fighting the Germans and the Fascists, but it does not have the shape of the Florence episode, and we learn virtually nothing about the characters, either American or Italian. The Americans and Italians do speak the same language by now, but it does not do them that much good, since they are all killed by the Germans at the end. Wait a minute. We drove the Germans out of Italy and won the war. I suppose the point is that war kills and corrupts even the winners, but the film has made those points a lot better earlier.

Like most episodic films, Paisan is uneven. This usually happens because of the scripts, and that is true here. Open City, based on two true stories (the kids and the priest), is a much more satisfying dramatic whole, but there are more than enough strong elements here to earn Paisan its place in film history.

Black Bart (1948. Screenplay by Luci Ward and Jack Natteford and William Bowers, story by Luci Ward and Jack Natteford. 80 minutes.)

Black Bart

Is that little Willie Goldman sitting in the dark taking notes?: Either individually or in collaboration Luci Ward and Jack Natteford wrote about half the B-westerns Hollywood every made. Natteford started as a screenwriter in the early ‘20s, Ward in the ‘30s. I do not know when they got married, but they started collaborating in the mid-‘40s. One of their first joint efforts was Badman’s Territory (1946), and it was so good and so successful they followed it up two years later with Return of the Bad Men. They did seem to have a fondness for outlaws and in 1948 they wrote the story and first draft screenplays for Black Bart. There was a real stagecoach robber in California in the late 19th-century nicknamed Black Bart, but as the website for him notes, the only things we know about him for sure are that he lived, he robbed stagecoaches, and he went to prison for it in 1883. In Ward and Natteford’s version, he splits up with his former partners Lance and Jersey and goes off to California. He gets some inside information on the Wells Fargo stage runs and starts robbing them. Lance and Jersey show up and end up working for Wells Fargo. Meanwhile, Bart and Lance both fall in love with Lola Montez, now on an American tour. Well, sure, why not? Bart turns Lance back to the dark side and they collaborate on one more robbery. They are trapped in a cabin and killed. Standard western stuff: stage robberies, shoot-outs and Yvonne De Carlo as Lola Montez. You may prefer Ophuls’s Martine Carol, but I prefer De Carlo. She was in her young, luscious stage, before anybody thought to ask her if she had a sense of humor, but still, very watchable.

So what makes this one special? That third name on the screenplay, William Bowers. Look at his Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Or the first twenty minutes of The Sheepman (1958). While Bowers could do serious (The Gunfighter [1950] or Split Second [1953]), he was best at funny. And it’s a very dry kind of funny. In the opening of Black Bart, Lance and Bart are about to be hanged. Not because of their robbery, but because the handsome Lance was diddling the sheriff’s daughter. They are saved by Jersey. He blows up the tree they are about to be strung up on, figuring that if there is no tree there is no hanging. And so it goes. In the final scene, Bart and Lance are trapped in a cabin with townspeople, deputies, etc firing away at them and setting the cabin on fire. And Bart and Lance are exchanging witticisms about their situation.

Some filmmakers, like Brian De Palma, are so obvious about borrowing from other films that you just want to vomit. Screenwriter William Goldman is a lot subtler. As you were watching Lord Larry as the sadistic dentist in Marathon Man (1976), did it ever occur to you that he was stealing from the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much? As Butch and Sundance jump off that cliff in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), did any of you remember the horse jump off the cliff in Jesse James (1939)? Before you watch Black Bart, get out your DVD of Butch Cassidy and look at the final scene.

But then Goldman, like any great artist, steals from everybody. Charlie Chaplin actually meet Oona O’Neill at a dinner party. Read my biography of Nunnally Johnson, which tells how he met his third wife, Dorris Bowden. Then watch Chaplin (1992) and see how Chaplin meets Oona in Goldman’s script. When my wife jokingly asked if I was going to sue, I was reminded of Chaplin in another context. When his Modern Times came out in 1936, more than a few people noticed similarities between the factory scenes in it and those in René Claire’s À Nous la Liberté (1931). Some of those people were lawyers, who encouraged Claire to sue. He replied that if an artist as great as M. Chaplin stole from him, he could only be honored. End of lawsuit.

The Badlanders (1958. Screenplay by Richard Collins, based on a novel by W.R. Burnett. 85 minutes.)

The Badlanders

And what novel would that be?: This is a western, and Burnett wrote mostly urban crime stories, like Scarface (1932) or This Gun for Hire (1942), but his credits do show up on an occasional western, like San Antonio (1945). So what’s the story of this film? Peter gets out of the territorial prison and comes up with a scheme to rob a gold mine he had been an engineer on in the past. He gets a tough fellow ex-con, Mac, and an explosives expert Vincente to help. Peter’s plan is to sell the gold back to the mine operator privately so he can use it to pay off his debts. The plan goes awry, but the Mexican-Americans turn their annual celebration into a defense of the robbers, who get away. Sound like any Burnett novel you know?

This is officially an adaptation of…wait for it…The Asphalt Jungle. It bears so little relationship to either the novel or the great 1950 film that I am not sure why they even bothered to list it as an adaptation. And Collins’s screenplay has none of the characterization of the earlier film, which has one of the best balances between character and plot of any thriller I know. Being a western, it is lot more expansive, which cuts down on the suspense. On the upside, the producers hired the great John Seitz to photograph it. Seitz was a master of mixing light and dark (look at his work on Sunset Boulevard [1950] if you don’t believe me) and puts that to work here in the juxtaposition of the mine and above-ground scenes. Seitz did not shoot that many westerns, but the cinematography adds a lot.

The big finish, where the Mexican-Americans protect the outlaws, appears to want to be a political statement, but it is rather half-hearted. You may understand why when you learn that Collins was one of the Hollywood Nineteen first called by HUAC in 1947. He did not get a chance to testify then, but after years of unemployment he became a friendly witness. He admitted to Victor Navasky in Navasky’s book Naming Names that he handled his testimony badly and regretted it. It obviously took some of the fight out of him, but there was enough left for the finish of this film, as cautious as it is. After The Badlanders he worked mostly in television as both a writer and producer on such shows as Bonanza and Matlock.

A Cold Wind In August (1961. Screenplay by Burton Wohl, based on his novel, treatment by John Hayes. 80 minutes.)

A Cold Wind In August

Not living up to its reputation: I saw this film when it first came out and like many people I was impressed with it. A stripper in her thirties flirts with a seventeen-year-old boy, has sex with him, falls in love, and then is dropped by the boy when he discovers she is stripper. It seemed so wonderfully sleazy and serious at the same time, with what everyone agreed was a knock-out performance by Lola Albright as the stripper, Iris. In her notes on the film in her 1968 book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Pauline Kael mentions that when people in the industry talk about little offbeat movies that seem to promise what can be done on that scale, this movie usually comes up in the discussion. In their 1979 book on American television directors, The American Vein, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi consider this film the one that defines its director, Alexander Singer, who later had a long career in television. Let’s just say the film does not hold up well.

The problem begins with the script, which is definitely not as “economical” and “well-organized” as Kael thinks. Burton Wohl appears to have been primarily a novelist, and it shows. The opening scene has Iris’s ex-husband and manager drop by her apartment to ask her to do a week’s gig as a replacement for a stripper who bailed on him. The scene goes on and on and on. We eventually get to the son of the building super coming to her apartment to fix her air-conditioner and the affair slowly begins. Wohl does not really make it clear what Iris or Vito’s motivations are. The relationship is simply not that sharply observed on either side. Singer’s direction does not help much (this was his first film and he obviously got better), since like some directors we have talked about it (see above) he lards on the close-ups. That’s OK if the script gives the actors specifics to play, but Wohl’s script does not. His dialogue is also way too on the nose. Albright was much better in the more suggestive role as Edie in the television series Peter Gunn, which she was starring in at the time.

The production does not help. The story is supposed to take place in New York City, but it is obviously shot in Los Angeles. Iris’s apartment looks much more LA-1961 than NYC-1961. The cinematographer is the great Floyd Crosby, but there is not much he can do with the shots Singer gives, although he captures some of Albright’s heat. The jazz score on the soundtrack simply emphasizes the melodrama rather than playing against it. The film is an early example of “Cougar” films, and the ones that came later, such as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone the same year, The Stripper (1962), and of course The Graduate (1967) do it much better.

A recent viewing (on TCM, which seemed to have a “Cougar Night” one Saturday) did answer one question Pauline Kael had. She criticizes a scene where Vito’s father is sitting reading a book and giving him advice. The scene has very little texture to it, but Kael’s question was: what book could the father possibly be reading? If you listen closely to one of the earlier scenes, Vito mentions that it is Boccaccio. Which is why the father does not seem particularly concerned about his son’s fling with Iris.

Mad Men (2010. “The Suitcase,” written by Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes.)

The Suitcase

Easy: I’ve always said that making movies is easy. You get a great script, great actors and a director smart enough not to get in anybody’s way. This episode is exhibit one for the prosecution.

I have not written much on Mad Men so far this season. Partly that is because Luke De Smet is doing such a nice job covering the episodes. Partly it is because, unlike many writers, if I don’t have anything particular to say, I tend not to say anything. But this episode was too good to pass up. Excuse me if duplicate some of what Luke did in his coverage.

This episode is what is known in the trade as a stand-alone episode, meaning for it to work for you, you do not have to have watched and memorized all the previous episodes, as most of us Mad Men fans are wont to do. Unlike most episodes, we are not going to get a lot of the large cast in a lot of scenes that advance a lot of stories. The setup is simple: Most of the agency guys are going off to the Clay-Liston fight on closed-circuit TV in a theater. Don earlier received a message about a call from Stephanie in California, but he has not returned the call, since he knows it means that Anna, the wife of the real “Don Draper,” has probably died. So he gives Peggy a hard time for not having come up with any ideas for Samsonite luggage. The “guys” she works with have been less than useless. Don insists she stay and work with him. So what Weiner has set up is a mano-a-mano with Don and Peggy.

And boy, does he deliver. Peggy is pissed because it is her birthday, although it is way late in the episode before she tells Don. Duck Philips has tried to a) get her to come to the new agency he is starting, handling women’s sales, and b) get her back into his bed. Peggy is smart enough to realize a) Duck is drunk as a skunk, and b) is more interested in the bed than the job. She was headed out for a nice birthday dinner with Mark, her new boyfriend, but she calls and tells him she will be a little late. Another call, a little later. Another call, and, whoops, Mark has arranged to have her whole family at dinner as a surprise.

Don, meanwhile, is just pissed, in both senses. He has been drinking most of the day, avoiding calling Stephanie. He is irritated that Peggy cannot come up with something. Peggy breaks up with Mark on the phone and takes it out on Don. Maybe it is because we know and like both Peggy and Don, but I found their argument one of the scariest moments I have ever seen on television. They are like family and they go at each other like a truly dysfunctional family. Both are drawing blood, and Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are spectacular, going well beyond what they have shown us in these roles before (yes, as Luke suggests, it’s very likely this episode will be Weiner’s effort to get Hamm and Moss Emmys next year). And then the writing and the acting get even better. Both Don and Peggy cool down, as happens in family arguments, and they have what is for them a personal discussion, a much subtler scene. Hamm and Moss handle those turns beautifully. Don and Peggy also listen to one of the tapes Roger has been dictating for his memoirs. Who knew that Bert Cooper lost his testicles in an operation? And surely nobody knew that Miss Blankenship, the old shrewish secretary Joan has wisely assigned to Don, was a real hottie when she was younger. Well, if you know the actor playing her is Randee Heller, who was Daniel’s MILF in The Karate Kid (1984), you might have guessed.

So Don and Peggy go out to dinner. At a diner, not a fancy restaurant. And Don barely gets back to the office when he has to vomit. Peggy takes him into the men’s room—look at both her hesitation about which restroom to enter and her perusal of the graffiti on the walls while he is praying to the porcelain god. And Duck shows up, as drunk as Don, and wants to literally shit in Don’s office. But as Peggy points out, he is in Roger’s office. Duck and Don get into a fight, which Duck wins. Peggy sends him out and does not go with him, although it has come out he has offered her a job. She returns to Don’s office, and they fall asleep on his couch. He wakes up and calls Stephanie. Anna has indeed died. Don cries, telling Peggy that she was the only person who truly understood him, which we know is true. Then Peggy puts a hand on his shoulder and tells him that is not true, i.e., she understands him. And she’s right. Luke De Smet and others have talked about the similarities between Don and Peggy (both outsiders trying to make a place for themselves in the world), and this episode and this scene nail it down. Their relationship is both the same and changed after this night.

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.




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.




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.




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.



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.




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.



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.




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.




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.




Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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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