Coming Up in This Column: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works, Some Appreciations, Buffalo Bill, The Capture, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Second Glances at New Fall 2010 TV Shows, but first…
Fan Mail: I cannot tell you how relieved I was when Fritz Novak’s comments showed up in the comments section on October 8th. Here I’d gone at least a little out of my way to whack HBO, Scorsese, gangster movies, and New Jersey fanboys, and for the first few days after the column was posted, nothing. Bupkiss. So I was glad to see Fritz speaking up. As for paying attention to audiences, I certainly do, although not to the detriment of what’s up there on the screen. See my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing for further comments on movie audiences.
He gives me a hard time for dumping on gangster movies while continuing to discuss westerns, “the most played out genre of them all.” Yes, there is another western in this column. But a couple of things. First, I do tend to take an historical view of film and screenwriting, and I know that genres come in and out of fashion. I remember reading a paper at UCLA in about 1971 saying the gangster movie was dead. The Godfather came out the next year. The problem I have with Boardwalk Empire (and still have—you will later read my comments on episode two in this column) is that it is not doing anything fresh in the genre. Fritz says that the HBO style is slow because there is a lot of exposition. Well, in Boardwalk Empire, there really is not much exposition. In the first two episodes, I didn’t feel I was learning that much about the characters and the situations.
Fritz also tries to defend Scorsese’s sense of humor by bringing up Goodfellas (1990), which he finds “one of the funniest movies I’ve ever scene [sic].” I must admit I was not amused. Fritz points out that the characters in the film laugh at their own violence, but that does not make the film itself funny. Now, maybe if Lubitsch had directed it…
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010. Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone. 133 minutes)
Is this film necessary?: Oliver Stone, the co-writer and director of the 1987 film Wall Street, did not want to do a sequel. He avoided the writing of the new film and was not going to direct it until he read the script. He is not one of the credited writers and given that there are not any of the preachy monologues there were in the original, I am willing to believe his contribution to the script was minimal. He just directed it. And did such a good job that the picture is turning out to be one of his biggest hits in years. Hmm.
The order of the writing credits on the film suggest that Allan Loeb did the first drafts and Stephen Schiff did rewrites on it, but an article by Danny Munso in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting says it was the other way around. Schiff had done a script well before the 2008 economic collapse. Neither Stone nor 20th Century-Fox was interested. As the implosion happened, Fox got interested and approached Loeb, who earlier got a stockbroker’s license. Fox wanted the script to deal with the collapse. And so it goes. Except that what I would take to be Schiff’s original story has nothing to do with the collapse.
The main story of the film is about a young stockbroker, Jacob, who is living with Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie. Gekko is released from prison in 2001, carrying the manuscript of his memoirs he has been working on in the slammer. Fine, but then we jump to 2008 and the book is just coming out. What happened in the intervening years? I can’t imagine Gekko being turned down by thirty publishers. It’s a New York book and New York publishers would eat it up. Well, it obviously comes out in 2008 so Gekko could be around for the crash. Against Winnie’s advice, Jacob cozies up to Gekko to get ideas on how to get back at Bretton James, a Gekko-type senior stockbroker whom Jacob blames for the suicide of his mentor, Louis Zabel. Gekko is happy to help. And then the crash happens. People have meetings with government officials, sweat a lot, and then the story continues as though nothing had happened. Gekko turns out to be the Gekko we remember and uses Jacob and Winnie to put himself back in the game. You could take out the collapse scenes and the picture would work better. Loeb simply has not rethought the story enough. The collapse scenes are moderately interesting, but distracting from the main story. Since the movie, like the original, is an inside look at Wall Street, it can never get far enough outside the world to seriously critique the system. Yes, the stockbrokers sweat a little, but not that much. Yes, you can make a case that they were so obtuse they did not realize how bad it was—there are a few elements of that here—but the film could also make it clear, which it does not, that they were so arrogant that they assumed they would get out of it OK. Which of course many of them did. Many did not. We get very little sense of that in the film. It seems to come down to blaming Bretton James for the 2008 collapse, a very Hollywood thing to do.
Having said all that, there are some terrific elements in the script. Louis Zabel is a great part for Frank Langella, although we realize that he is given so many scenes early on that he is obviously going to be out of the picture fairly quickly. I particularly like Zabel’s discussion of a conversation he had with financial guys from Dubai in which he did not understand what they were talking about. James is a nice if conventional villain, and his boss, Jules Steinhardt, is one of Stone’s standard wise, moral old men. I was not sure until Steinhardt’s final scene why they bothered to get Eli Wallach for the part, but when you see the look on his face when the final deal goes down, you’ll understand. Tuco, anyone? Gekko is a wonderful character as always, although here he’s a little much of a good guy for too long before he resorts to being the real Gekko.
You’ll notice I have not mentioned Jacob or Winnie. Both are fairly standard issue parts. Jacob is not as innocent as Bud Fox was in the original. As Loeb told Danny Munso, they could not have another Bud because “The guys on Wall Street now have grown up there and were making hundreds of millions of dollars in their twenties. And that’s where Jacob is coming from. He’s not corruptible like Bud was because, perhaps, he may already be a little corrupted.” (Bud, by the way, shows up in a cameo, and he definitely has stayed corrupted.) Winnie is a straight-arrow type, but we do not get much beyond that. Stone has traditionally in his scripts underserved the women characters, but as a director here he does right by Carey Mulligan as Winnie.
Several people have complained about the “happy” ending in the final scene. I am on their side.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010. Written by Woody Allen. 98 minutes)
This year’s minor Woody: This is one of Allen’s ensemble films, and as usual he has gathered a great cast. Unfortunately, he has not given them that good a script to work with. Most of the storylines are ones we have seen before, nearly always done better. Alfie, the older man, leaving his older wife for a ditzy young girl and regretting it has been the subject of more films and television movies than you can shake a cane at. It’s not helped that the younger girl is a prostitute in the Mighty Aphrodite vein, although there is a nice scene when Alfie has his first appointment with her and does not quite know the etiquette of hookerdom. Ray, a younger guy, is having fantasies about Dia, the even younger girl across the courtyard. Brian De Palma has done many variations on that in his films. Sally, Ray’s wife, is dealing not only with Ray, but getting her career going. A modern woman’s multi-tasking was done much better in Callie Khouri’s great script for the underrated Something to Talk About (1995). Sally is the most interesting character in the film. She does get the best scene in the film where she tries to confess to her boss that she has feelings for him while he avoids the subject by only talking about their business relationship.
The most interesting storyline concerns Ray’s failed efforts as a novelist. A friend of his has, he thinks, died (wouldn’t he have checked? Or wouldn’t it have come out in the conversation with their mutual friends? ), leaving the only copy (yeah, right) of the novel he was working on with Ray. So Ray submits it as his own, and the publisher who hated Ray’s own novel loves it. And as it is going to be published, Ray discovers the original author is alive, but in a coma. And expected to recover. Reaction shot on Ray, end of story. But, but, what does Ray do about the situation? We never find out, which would have been much more interesting. Allen did something similar in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), where Hannah never learns that her husband Elliot and her sister Lee got it on. This is what I call the David Mamet flaw: the tendency not to complete the story. In one of his drafts for The Verdict (1982), Mamet didn’t bother to put in the verdict in the trial. In his script for the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, he dropped the plot twist that gave the story its name. Finish the story, guys.
Allen does use Voice of God narration here, but it’s not as annoying as it was in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008).
Whatever Works (2009. Written by Woody Allen. 93 minutes)
Last year’s minor Woody: Courtesy of Netflix I finally caught up with this one. It falls in the category of Allen’s obnoxious films. Sometimes his grumpy characters are funny and fun to be around for a couple of hours. For example, Alvy in Annie Hall (1977). Sometimes, particularly in the later years, the grumpy characters are like nails on a blackboard. For example, Harry in Deconstructing Harry (1997). Boris Yellnikoff is in the latter category, and Allen lets him go on and on and on. We just want to tell him to stuff a sock in it, even when you are agreeing with him. Allen’s idea is that he ends up letting a southern white trash girl named Melody stay in his apartment. I don’t believe for a minute that this Boris would do that, but as Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit. The next big problem with the script is that Allen as both writer and director simply cannot imagine a southern white trash girl. He and the film stay on the surface. She is played by Evan Rachel Wood, normally a wonderful actress, and here completely mis-directed. Since the script gives her nothing of substance to play, she just turns twitchy. I know Allen does not like to talk to his actors, but he really needed to get her to chill out. She is giving a performance that might have work if she was playing Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1996), but is wrong for this part.
And here’s the curious thing about writing and directing. Midway through the picture Marietta, Melody’s mother, shows up. She’s a ditz as well, better written than Melody, and Patricia Clarkson just knocks it out of the park. It may be that Clarkson is a more experienced actor than Wood and knows how to find the character, but my money is on the writing. As always.
It has not been a good couple of months for screenwriters. Here are a few words on some of those who have left us lately.
Claude Chabrol, the great French writer-director, died on September 12th. We assume he was not murdered by the upper class French, who in his films always seemed about to murder somebody. But it would not surprise me to learn they had a hand in his death, since he nailed their attitudes so remorselessly for nearly sixty years. Like Eric Rohmer, whom I wrote about in US#40, Chabrol defined his own universe in his films, and it was always a pleasure, yes, a perverse pleasure, to go and visit. Even though I am not sure I want to live there. You can see what I mean in my comments on his film A Girl Cut in Two (2007) in US#5. Or look at Merci pour le chocolat (2000) or The Flower of Evil (2003).
Irving Ravetch died a week later, on the 19th. In some ways, you might call him the anti-Chabrol. He could write tough, as in his westerns, such as his story for Ten Wanted Men (1955), which I wrote about in US#28. There is toughness too in Hud (1963), but also sympathy for the characters who have to deal with Hud. Hud, Paul Newman’s looks aside, is a real son of a bitch. Ravetch wrote most of his stories and scripts with his wife, Harriet Frank Jr., and you can see why stars like Newman, McQueen, Wayne, James Garner and Sally Field wanted to do their scripts. When Field got into producing after winning an Oscar for her performance in Ravetch and Frank’s 1979 script for Norma Rae, she said, “I take everything to the Ravetches. About once a week, every Wednesday, I call up and say, ’Hey, guys, I’ve got something else for you.’” They rewarded her with one of her most charming films, Murphy’s Romance (1985). See what I mean about being the anti-Chabrol?
Stephen J. Cannell died on September 30th. Cannell and Roy Huggins had differing versions of how The Rockford Files was created. Huggins took more credit in his version, and Cannell took more in his. Yes, Jim Rockford is very much in the tradition of Bret Maverick, whom Huggins created for Garner. But The Rockford Files also has a little satirical sense that may have started with Huggins, but certainly was developed by Cannell. Look at some of Cannell’s episodes on The Great American Hero (1981-83). One of my connections with the intelligence community and Washington bureaucracies says that show may be one of the most accurate shows ever made about the government. And if you want serious, check out Cannell’s 1987-1990 series Wiseguy, a forerunner of The Sopranos. I never met Cannell when I was writing my book on the history of American television writing, but it is obvious from his output that, like most great television writers, he had an incredibly quick mind. He was also dyslexic. So what is your excuse for not writing?
William W. Norton died on October 2nd. You may not recognize the name as easily as you did Chabrol’s, Ravetch’s or Cannell’s, but you should look at his 1968 script The Scalphunters for a funny, sharp western about an illiterate white trapper and an educated former slave. He tended to write westerns and action-adventure movies like The McKenzie Break, a 1970 film about German prisoners of war trying to escape from a camp in Scotland. Norton had an adventurous life as well, according the Los Angeles Times obituary. He served in the Army in World War II, later joined the Communist Party, and when he retired from screenwriting at age 60, he got into gunrunning in Central America and for the IRA, which landed him in prison. He eventually sneaked back into the U.S. and died in Santa Barbara.
Buffalo Bill (1944. Screenplay by Aeneas McKenzie, Clements Ripley, and Cecile Kramer, based on a story by Frank Winch. 90 minutes)
Too many cooks: William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was one of the legendary figures of the American West, and it would probably take a twelve-hour miniseries to do justice to life and legend, which were inseparable. Ninety minutes isn’t going to cut it, and it doesn’t here. Sometimes when there are a lot of writers, the results can be fun. Most of the time, no. This one is in the most of the time category.
We get a nice entrance for Buffalo Bill. Indians attach a stagecoach carrying a senator and his daughter, but Cody arrives and drives them off. The occupants of the coach are unharmed, and being this is a studio (20th Century-Fox) production of the time, not a hair is out of place on the daughter, nor has her makeup been smudged, even though the coach overturned. Naturally Cody and the daughter are going to get married. But at the fort is an Indian girl with the incredibly Hollywood name of Dawn Starlight who is mooning after Cody. Nothing comes of this and she eventually dies in one of the battles. There is an old geezer sergeant in the Army named Chips who seems to have wandered in from a later John Ford movie and we spend more time than we need on him and his retirement. Cody does take the Grandduke Alexei on a buffalo hunt, but nothing much is made of this. Cody does end up killing his Indian friend Yellow Hand at the battle of Warbonnet Gorge in 1876, although the film leaves out Cody’s scalping the Indian and calling it “the first scalp for Custer,” who had just been killed at Little Big Horn.
The real Cody got into show business portraying himself in plays while he was still working on the frontier, spending his winters in theaters and his summers on the plains. Cody as portrayed in the film is just a stalwart American outdoorsman, without a hint of the showmanship of the original. We only get a snippet at the end of the film of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (“Show” was never officially part of the title).
Obviously the script was done at Fox while Darryl Zanuck was off in the Army making war documentaries. He would never have let such a messy screenplay get made while he was there.
The Capture (1950. Written by Niven Busch. 91 minutes)
Sometimes mediocre writing can still help a director: Niven Busch is probably best known as the author of the novel that became Duel In the Sun (1946), but he had a long string of credits as a screenwriter going back to the early ‘30s. In the ‘40s he began to produce as well as write so he could maintain some control over his films. Probably his best film from that period is the 1947 noir western Pursued. The Capture is in somewhat the same vein, but the script is not particularly sharp.
Lin Vanner is an American working in a Mexican oil field. The payroll is robbed and he goes the opposite direction from the posse and finds a man he thinks pulled the robbery. He shoots him and the man dies, and Vanner begins to have second thoughts as to whether the man was the robber. He leaves his job and ends up meeting the man’s widow and working on her ranch. When he figures out who really did the robbery (an official with the company), a posse pushed by the official comes after him.
Busch has been credited with bringing psychology to the westerns of the later ‘40s, and that’s true with this film. The most dramatic scene is not any of the chases, but a confrontation between Vanner and the widow in which he tells he has realized that she and her late husband were not in love. Because the film is produced by its writer, the entire film is a lot talkier than it needs to be. The dialogue scenes tend to go on longer than they should. The story is told in flashback as a wounded Vanner hides out with a priest, so we get a lot of voiceover narration, not all of it needed.
Soon after this film Busch gave up on Hollywood and went to live on a ranch. He found he spent six weeks writing a story, another six weeks doing the screenplay, and then a year producing the film. He figured he would rather spend his time writing novels, which he was very successful at. Meanwhile, in spite of the flaws in the script, the film was a turning point in the career of its director. The dramatic scenes are well handled, and the exteriors are good looking (although not in the DVD currently available, which looks as though it was transferred from a bad Super 8 print). The director is particularly good at setting up scenes. When Vanner arrives at the widow’s ranch, we know the layout of the ranch within a few shots. Dore Schary, who had been at RKO and was now taking over at MGM, looked at footage from The Capture at his screening room at home. One person there recalled, “Somebody in the room said, ’God, he’s good.’ He seemed to have a great deal of ability.” So the director went to see Schary and started moving from B pictures like The Capture to A pictures like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). He was John Sturges.
(The story about Schary and Sturges is from Glenn Lovell’s Sturges biography Escape Artist, and the other material about Busch is from an interview with him in Patrick McGilligan’s first Backstory collection of interviews.)
The Good Wife (2010. “Taking Control” written by Robert King and Michelle King. 60 minutes)
“The Face” is back: We last left Alicia trying to decide whether to talk to Will on her cellphone or go up and support Peter. She goes up to support Peter, unfortunately leaving her cellphone with Eli Gold, never a smart thing to do. Peter calls and leaves a message that yes, they should call off their budding affair. Then he calls back and leaves another message that he loves her and wants to continue. Any guesses as to which message Eli deletes while Alicia is up there being the Good Wife? And that has consequences all the way through this episode and certainly future ones. Will obviously does not understand why Alicia is not talking to him about his second call, and she thinks they are broken up. Look at how the Kings play that off in the last scene of the episode, where Bond, the new partner, tells Alicia he is going to be her mentor. Because of the mix-up of the phone calls, we know she is wondering why Will is “dumping” her on Bond.
Bond is bringing with him a new staff, which includes a new investigator. We first meet him when Kalinda goes out to try to find some evidence in a house a potential witness has abandoned. The landlord is cleaning out the house and reluctantly lets Kalinda in after she flirts with him. She seems him dumping a bag of trash outside, goes out and finds the witness’s cellphone, but without the SIM card. She gets back to the office and discovers that the “landlord” is the new investigator and he has the SIM card. In other words, Kalinda is going to have to up her considerable game to play with him. That ought to be fun for us, if not for her.
And on the murder case Alicia is assigned by a judge, the current states attorney, Johnson, assigns Cary to take over first chair, since Cary thinks he can beat Alicia. He can’t, which ups the ante for both of them.
In other words, The Good Wife is back and on track.
Modern Family (2010. “The Kiss” written by Abraham Higginbotham. 30 minutes)
The perfect second-season episode: OK, in the first season we met the family and got a sense of where the pressure points are that are going to lead to hijinks. Now it’s time to expand and develop the characters and the situations. This episode does it as well as can be done.
Cameron and Mitchell are discussing public displays of affection, something that several viewers have been wondering about. After all, the straight characters get to kiss, but we have not seen Cam and Mitchell kiss. Obviously some of this comes from the network afraid audiences will go “Eeew!” and change the channel. But we love Cam and Mitchell and the audience for this show can probably deal with it. Mitchell points out that Jay, his dad, never kissed him. So when they all have family dinner, this comes up for discussion, and the big kiss we get is Jay kissing his son. On the lips, no less. And then in the background of a following shot we see Cam and Mitchell kiss.
Meanwhile Alex, Phil and Claire’s youngest daughter, is growing up and has a crush on a boy. Her slightly older sister Haley suggests she goes and confront the boy and tell him she wants to kiss him. Alex knocks on his door and says her piece when the boy opens the door. When Alex finishes, he opens the door further and reveals his team is standing there, listening all the while. Later Alex and the boy discuss it again and agree to kiss…later.
Meanwhile Gloria has decided to cook some of her grandmother’s Colombian recipes for the family dinner. We know Gloria is from Colombia, but aside from a few drug jokes, it hasn’t really been dealt with on the show. Now it is. Gloria has convinced Jay that tradition requires that he slap the meat before she cooks it and that he wears his shoes around his neck when the guests come. He buys it, although later Manny tells him that Gloria made up those “traditions.” I don’t know if I am just used to Sofía Vergara now or if she has grown a little more restrained or if the writers are not pushing it as much as they did in the first episodes. In any case, her Gloria seems less and less a cliched hot-blooded Latina. Not that she’s not still hot…
Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010. “Hollywood” episode written by Blake Masters, story by Dick Wolf. “Echo Park” episode written by Peter Blauner. 60 minutes each)
Chung-chung, with palm trees: In the pilot “Hollywood” episode, we are definitely in Los Angeles. It starts with a car zipping through the streets of LA, with a crowd of paparazzi taking pictures of the starlet types who get out of the car. We see a lot of beautiful people, beautiful clubs, beautiful houses. The setup, about the robbing of houses of young starlet types, is inspired by a recent rash of such LA robberies. But we are also in Law & Order country. The setup is indeed from a real situation, but one of the things I have always loved, particularly about the mothership, is that while the setup is based on real events, the development starts almost immediately taking us into a fictional story. Here the robbers are not just a gang of kids, but people set up in a complicated plot by the mother of one of the starlets for reasons having to do with greed, lust, and all those other great motivations. The cops are fairly standard L&O issue, but nicely played by Skeet Ulrich and Corey Stoll. The deputy D.A. is played by the always-welcome Alfred Molina.
“Echo Park” introduces us to the detectives’ boss, Lt. Arleen Gonzalez, the equally always-welcome Rachel Ticotin, channeling her inner S. Epatha Merkerson. The District Attorney is now played by Peter Coyote, channeling Sam Waterston’s hair. The Deputy D.A. in this episode is played by Terrence Howard, who had the inspired notion to play him as soft-spoken. When was the last time you saw a soft-spoken lawyer? This episode’s story deals with the murder of a woman who was a former member of a wannna-be Mansion family sort of gang. The case has less to do with the gang than with the woman’s stay in prison and her release because of terminal cancer. The episode is another very Los Angeles story.
And a special shout-out to Dylann Brander and Megan Branman. And who are they? They are the casting directors for the series, and they follow in the great tradition of the L&O franchises of casting real actors, not just pretty faces. Look at the casting of the women in both episodes, or Jim Beaver as the father of the one of the robbers in “Hollywood.” There are a lot of great actors in Hollywood who don’t work in film and television that much, and I hope Brander and Branman continue to dig deeply into that pool, in the way the casting directors did for the original series.
Second Glances at Some New Fall 2010 Television Series
Boardwalk Empire: The second episode, “The Ivory Tower,” (written by Terence Winter) had all the problems I mentioned in writing about the first one in the last column. It is still slow, without any compensating rewards in terms of character or plot. I would have thought by the second episode the characters would have begun to show a little life, but F.B.I. Agent Van Alden is still a block of wood and Mrs. Schroeder is still sad.
The Defenders: Neither of the second two episodes got into specific Las Vegas crimes. In “Nevada v. Carter” (written by Peter Noah), Nick is defending a stripper accused of solicitation. OK, but it’s a story that could take place anywhere there are “gentleman’s clubs.” The “Blood Moon” episode (written by Treena Hancock & Melissa R. Beyed) of CSI the next night dealt with a vampire convention in Vegas, which was very Vegas. The showrunner of The Defenders is Carol Mendelson, who wrote 49 episodes of CSI, so it’s not like she doesn’t know Vegas.
Undercovers: “Devices” (written by J.J. Abrams & Josh Reims) was the third episode, and the production values were much more limited than they were for the pilot. Even so, the script is still bicker-and-banter. The script does mention several times that Sam and Steven have been out of the game for five years, but nothing is ever done with it. And the supporting characters are not being developed.
The Whole Truth: I am a bit surprised this one is not doing better in the ratings. But it may be that its basic gimmick is a turn-off for audiences. It follows a legal case, cutting back and forth from the prosecution to the defense. So it’s not emotionally clear who we are to supposed be rooting for. As soon as we think the prosecution has the suspect nailed, we get evidence to the contrary. I like the idea, and it’s been reasonably well-handled, but it may bother audiences who want things a little more clear-cut. The Defenders are obviously going to defend those who are innocent, while the L&O cops are going to track down the bad people. Maybe The Whole Truth would be a better fit on cable. It’s not ponderous enough for HBO, or light-hearted enough for USA, but how about TNT or FX?
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: 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.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here aht the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.2.5
Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.
Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”
Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.
The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.
Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story
Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.3
At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.
As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.
As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.
Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.
Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.
The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.3
Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.
Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.
The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.
The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.
Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.
These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.
Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.
There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.
These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.
Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019
Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair
Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.1
Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.
Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.
Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.
The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.
Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.
Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen
18. Monsters University (2013)
It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson
Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels
The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.3
It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.
Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.
Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).
Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.
Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).
Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.
Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.
So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019
Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life
The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.1.5
Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.
Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.
So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.
Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.
From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.
The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances
The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.2.5
If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.
Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.
A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.
Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.
There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror
We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.1.5
The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.
Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.
Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.
Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.
Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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