Coming Up In This Column: Biden-Palin Vice Presidential Debate; Miracle at St. Anna; The Tall Target; How I Met Your Mother; Two and a Half Men; CSI: Miami; Boston Legal; Ugly Betty; ER; Desperate Housewives; You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, but first…
Fan Mail: And a tip of Viggo Mortensen’s hat back to Michael Peterson. I am looking forward to more of his Comics Column.
The Vice Presidential Debate (2008. Written by Joe Biden, Sarah Palin, and others. 90 minutes): While I will occasionally deal with documentaries in this column, as I did with The Order of Myths in US#2, I will generally avoid “reality television,” since the writing, especially the structuring of the shows, is so obvious and klunky. To take one guilty pleasure of mine, you always know that Carson will convince the woman of the week on How to Look Good Naked that she does look good naked.
However, what struck me about last week’s Vice-Presidential Debate was the subtle structure that emerged, which is a tribute not to Gwen Ifill and the debate sponsors, but to its two primary authors Biden and Palin and their anonymous co-writers.
Biden had the most difficult job, since he had to appear both knowledgeable without being overbearing and not condescending to Palin. Palin played right into his hand by asking if she could call him Joe. He agreed, then called her Governor Palin the rest of the evening, so that her “Joe” seemed shallow. It was, as Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live noted, Palin trying to set up her “Say it ain’t so, Joe” zinger, but as a performer she bungled the zinger, sliding it into Reagan’s famous “There you go again,” dulling the impact of both lines.
Palin wrote herself a folksy character, but her playing of it was forced, and in comparison with Biden’s integrated smoothness, she seemed artificial. Her lines became repetitive over the 90 minutes, as did her winks, nose wrinkles, etc. A better director than the McCain prep staff might have helped, but particularly in the last half hour, she had written herself out of the original freshness of the character. As I guessed after the Republican National Convention, she was going to wear out her welcome fairly quickly. (I may not be the only person who realized this: Have you noticed that none of the four major Democrats [Obama, Biden, and both Clintons] have mounted a full-scale assault on Palin? I assume that comes from Obama; it has been a brilliant, gutsy, and counter-intuitive maneuver: let her self-destruct.)
Biden restrained himself, particularly when he was not talking. As I have written before, reaction shots are the lifeblood of film and television, and the main set Biden wrote for himself was to listen to Palin. One of his sons has said that while Biden is noted for being a talker, he is also a listener. By at least appearing to listen to Palin, he appeared to be taking her seriously. It also eventually let him beat the Republicans at their own game, something recent Democratic national candidates have not done. The Republicans have focused on story and emotion rather than issues. Late in the debate, after Biden realized Palin couldn’t get beyond the character she had created for herself, he let his voice slightly break when talking about his family tragedy (and we may eventually find out whether that was planned or not). It made him more human than Palin. The look on Palin’s face was similar to the look on Dan Quayle’s face in 1988 after Lloyd Bentson unloaded his famous “You, sir, are not John Kennedy” line: she knew something had gone wrong, but didn’t know what it was.
On the other hand, remember that Quayle’s boss, George H.W. Bush, won that election.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008. Screenplay by James McBride, based on the novel by James McBride. 160 minutes): I have not read the novel, but James McBride’s screenplay is a mess. There appears to be no overall structure to the material. In the opening scene, one of the characters, Negron, is watching a bit of The Longest Day. Now there is a World War II movie with a structure: the Allies are going to land at Normandy on D-Day, the Germans are going to try to fight them off and lose. Or take The Guns of Navarone: a small band of allies try to blow up the huge German guns on the island of Navarone, meanwhile dealing with the traitor in their midst. Or The Great Escape: a group of Allied soldiers in a German POW camp plan and execute an escape, but are mostly captured.
Of, if you want a World War II film that deals with racism, look at the 2006 French film Days of Glory, which follows a group of Algerians through basic training and into their experiences in the Italian campaign. The scenes in that film are about the racism they face and what they do and do not do about it.
Miracle begins, after The Longest Day clip, with a postal clerk shooting a customer, which certainly grabs our interest. And the cops and a newspaper reporter find a stone bust worth millions in the shooter’s apartment. So far so good. Then we meet an American in Rome who specializes in antiques, but he is so busy making love to his Italian girlfriend that he throws the newspaper with the news of the bust out the window. We never see the American again. The paper lands near an Italian, who seems awestruck by the news, and he runs through Rome, the only shots of Rome in the film, and then we don’t see him again until the very end of the movie. We eventually get to the main flashback about a group of Black American soldiers in Italy, one of whom is carrying the bust with him into battle, which does not sound like good soldiering to me. Besides, we the audience know how much the bust is worth and every time it goes into battle we fear as much for it as the characters, if only because in McBride’s script the characters are so fuzzy they hardly rise to the category of stereotypes. (Look at how Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle, the writers of Days of Glory create and define their characters.)
Four of the soldiers are separated from their unit and get involved with a little boy, a village, partisans, as well as the Germans in the area. But at this point they have no mission: no guns to blow up, no prison break to make, no Normandy to take. They sit around and talk. Needless to say, they talk about racism in the U.S., but these scenes seem added on, not part of the story of the film. Very little that happens to them in the middle section of the film has to do with racism. At one point we get a flashback (yes, within a flashback) to an incident in Louisiana that has nothing to do with the stories the film is about. Meanwhile the scenes with the Germans and the partisans take us out of the soldiers’ story.
We do eventually find out why Negron shot the customer, but it is a long haul to get there. And just to make matters worse, the miracle, if I am reading the film correctly, did not happen at St. Anna, but at another place entirely. At least it is the bridge on the river Kwai, not some other river, that gets blown up in the film of the same name.
The Tall Target(1951. Screenplay by George Worthington Yates and Art Cohn, from a story by George Worthington Yates and Daniel Mainwaring, writing as Geoffrey Homes. 78 minutes): When they talk about those great little B pictures that were better than the A pictures, this is the kind of film they are talking about. It popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies, and if it does again, look at it. It is a great example of how much you can get into a tight little screenplay. And it was written to the sets, as a lot of B pictures were in the studio days. Every set in the picture was part of the MGM back lots (I was a bus driver/tour guide in 1968 when they had a very cheesy tour at the studio, and I saw all the since-destroyed back lot). The one true exterior, late in the picture when someone is thrown off the train, probably was filmed a couple of blocks away from the studio.
The plot is simple: A New York City detective named John Kennedy (yes, get over it) has uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln before he can get inaugurated. He gets on the train taking the assassins south, but then has to figure out who’s who. Look at all the characters Yates and Cohn set up and how they use them. Look at how they use the characters to comment on the politics of the time. All in 78 minutes, half the time of Miracle at St. Anna.
How I Met Your Mother(2008. Episodes “Do I Know You?” and “The Best Burger in New York,” both written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. 30 minutes): I have dealt so far with series pilots and series finales, or half-season finales. Now it’s time for opening episodes of returning series.
A lot of television series are originally set up with a gimmick. My Mother the Car (1965-1966) is the most obvious example: a man’s departed mother talks to him through his car. The gimmick can get tiresome very quickly; again, My Mother the Car. How I Met Your Mother began in 2005 with a doozy of a gimmick: many years in the future, a man is telling his kids how he met their mother, but as we watch his story in flashbacks, we don’t know which of the women is the future mom. The most obvious choice in the first seasons was Robin, but the writers wrote themselves into a corner early on when the older Ted’s narration refers to her as Aunt Robin. And the producers put themselves in another corner by casting the beautiful, charming, and funny Cobie Smulders as Robin. The writers and producers have eventually managed to extract themselves from Ted’s romance with Robin, and last season introduced another serious possible mother in Stella. Ted proposed to her at the end of last season.
So you would think the first episode of this season would deal primarily with her reply. We first see in the teaser several ways she could answer, and then her answer: yes. And then we jump ahead to the end of the summer after they have been dating for a while, skipping over the development of the relationship. Ted’s friend Marshall does raise the question of how well Ted knows her, and some minor fun is derived from him trying to find out more about her, including making her watch his favorite movie, Star Wars, which she has somehow never seen.
The B story of the episode, however, overshadows the A story. Barney, one of Ted’s friends who sleeps with any woman he can have (and as a clever scene shows us, he is able to get at least one at 3 A.M. by text messaging her “?” to which she replies “!”), slept with Robin at the end of last season. Now he realizes he is in love with her and he cannot deal with it. On the advice of Marshall’s wife Lily, Barney tries to behave like a nice guy to Robin, which merely baffles her. He seems to be going back to his bimbo ways, which leads to a wonderful speech to Lily in praise of bimbos, but the writers give us a moment of wistfulness at the end to let us know he is still in love with Robin.
Why spend so much time on Barney? I suspect that Barney is one of those characters whom writers love to write. Robert Ward, a writer on Hill Street Blues, told me no one wanted to write for the upstanding Captain Furillo and everybody wanted to write for the sleazy cop Buntz. And Barney, the original horn dog in love, has to be a wonderful character to write for. We have seen Ted in love. We are only beginning to see Barney in love.
The season’s second episode may well have been one of those written before the writers’ strike last spring and only now produced and shown. I suspect this because there is nothing in the episode about Barney and Robin: no jokes, no references, no longing looks by Barney. The Barney-Robin story made such an impact in the first episode, it was not until the second episode was over and done with that it finally occurred to me that there was no mention of Stella either.
Two and a Half Men (2008. Episode “Taterhead is Our Love Child” written by Mark Roberts & Don Foster & Jim Patterson. 30 minutes): The top-rated network comedy show comes back with an episode that shows its many strengths and one potential future weakness.
Charlie, the swinging bachelor, sees a former girlfriend in a coffee shop with a young boy who looks, dresses and behaves like Charlie. He is convinced the kid is his love child. He goes to his neighborhood pharmacist to ask him about the possible failure of condoms. Now how do you write this scene? First of all, they are smart enough to make him a neighborhood pharmacist, so it is someone Charlie knows. The pharmacist mentions that he gets Charlie a bulk rate on condoms. The pharmacist is surprised Charlie doesn’t know all this information about condoms. And he complains about losing sales to the big box pharmacies, asking Charlie to buy anything: “Maybe the little bastard would like a whiffle ball bat?” Now before you say that of course the pharmacist is funny because he is played by Martin Mull, notice how much character and attitude the writers give Mull to play. All in a scene that runs no longer than three minutes. The series’s writers have over the show’s five seasons created a great gallery of characters for the stars and guest stars to play.
Charlie goes to see the ex-girl friend with a whiffle ball bat for the kid. Did you think the writers had forgotten that detail? She kicks him out, but he eventually comes back, giving her a check for child support and saying one will be sent every month. As he is leaving, another woman comes to the door of the ex’s apartment to pick up the kid, which is hers. The ex has been babysitting him. So how do we know that the other woman is not another one of Charlie’s exes? One simple detail: Charlie is standing at the elevator as she arrives. She does not recognize him, and he does not recognize her. Sometimes, even in a sitcom, you have to make your points quickly and subtly.
The potential problem the show faces is that the “half” in two and a half is more than a half now. Angus T. Jones who plays Jake, the son of Charlie’s brother, started the show in 2003 as a kid. Now he is a teenager and appears to have had a growth spurt over the summer. Which means the kid jokes the writers have used for the last five seasons are not going to work, simply because we will want to see how swinger Charlie deals with Jake’s puberty. There were a couple of efforts last season, but the show cannot ignore it much longer. The problem is how do you write the raunchy stuff the show is known for (see the pharmacist scene above) in dealing with a 14 year old without it seeming creepy. My money is on the writers to find a way.
CSI: Miami(2008. Episode “Resurrection” written by Barry O’Brien. 60 minutes): The cliffhanger for last season was that Horatio Cane, the lead CSI, was shot. This episode opens with a replay of the shooting and then Horatio’s body being zipped up in a body bag. For those of us tired of David Caruso’s mannerisms and who watch the show in spite of him rather than because of him, this might be good news.
No such luck. Horatio has “arranged” his assassination so he can go undercover to … wait a minute. Do CSIs go undercover? One of the continuing problems, particularly with this series in the CSI franchise, is that the CSIs behave more like detectives than CSIs. They are constantly interrogating witnesses and getting involved in street shootouts, as they are in this episode. The other problem, and it is in all the CSI shows, is that the CSIs are constantly explaining to each other things they should already know about their techniques. You can sort of accept that on the mother show, CSI, since the characters are fresher and more original, here it gets less and less acceptable.
The plotting in this episode is incredibly complicated, since O’Brien is tying together and finishing off a large number of plotlines that were percolating through the last season or two. Like many series, this one assumes that audiences remember more details than less-than-devoted viewers may care to.
Boston Legal(2008. Episode “Smoke Signals” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes): This series left us with no specific cliffhanger, so it was free to start this season with whatever popped into David E. Kelley’s mind. So we get Alan Shore and Denny Crane in Coast Guard uniforms (they joined the Coast Guard Reserve several episodes previously) out in a boat finding a yacht full of babes in bikinis. Shades of CSI: Miami. The only follow-up to this character/comedy scene comes when Denny tells Alan he could not get an erection with the girls. Denny is convinced it comes from what he calls his “Mad Cow” disease, which leads to a line that nobody on television but Denny Crane would say: “My penis has Alzheimer’s.” He eventually “cures” it by getting ahold of a cheerleader costume Shirley Schmidt, one of the firm’s partners and one of Denny’s former lovers, gives him. Now what would you do with Denny and a cheerleader costume? Kelley’s solution: Denny and Alan take different parts and dance with it. We are certainly still in Kelley-land.
The main case in the episode finds Alan facing off against an attorney, Phoebe, with whom he was previously in love. We have come across his former girlfriends before, but not somebody he was in love with. Kelley shows us she means something to Alan long before we get, in several separate scenes, what she meant to him. This in turn leads to a charming scene where Denny asks him if he is still in love with her. Alan says he is not, but simply remembering what it was like to be in love. In Kelley-land there is subtlety as well as over-the-top excess.
Ugly Betty(2008. Episodes “The Manhattan Project” written by Silvio Horta and “Filing for the Enemy” written by Joel Fields. 60 minutes): This show’s cliffhanger was Betty being proposed to by Henry at the same time Gio asked her to go to Italy with him. Both of these plot elements are almost instantly disposed of when we find out she turned them both down and went off touring America by herself.
She comes back with ideas for Mode magazine, but in the meanwhile Willie has take over Mode and sent her boss Daniel to run Player “the third best-selling men’s magazine with no nudity.” Betty goes to work with Daniel and the clods that run Player. So what Horta, the showrunner, has done is split the focus of the show, and not in a good way. We now have to follow the machinations at Mode, which do not yet at least seriously involve Betty; watch Betty find her way at Player, where there do not yet appear to be characters as interesting as there were and still are at Mode; and deal with Betty moving into an apartment in Manhattan. The latter storyline comes from the move of the production from Los Angeles to New York, which Horta rubs in LA’s face by having scene after scene of Betty and the cast on the streets of New York. Does he really intend Ugly Betty to become another Law & Order franchise?
The second episode manages to get both Betty and Daniel back at Mode, but not without a lot of pushing and shoving. All of which leads to Marc, the gay assistant, saying to Betty, “Well, here we are, as if nothing’s changed.” We are, however, still on location in New York, and still dealing with several separate plot lines.
ER (2008. Episode “Life After Death” written by Joe Sachs. 60 minutes): The cliffhanger that this show left us with at the end of last season was an ambulance explosion in which Abby and Pratt may have been killed. We are relieved in the teaser to see they both have survived, although with injuries. But this is the beginning of the 15th and final season and nobody is safe. Pratt has complications that get more complicated and he dies, complete with a farewell party at the local bar. It is grim, but it is setting the stage for the final season.
Because the focus is on Pratt’s condition, there are fewer guest stars than usual as we pay more attention to the recurring cast. We want to see how they react to and deal with Pratt’s death. It also helps in a subtle way to remember who is who and how they are all related.
Desperate Housewives(2008. Episodes “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” written by Marc Cherry and “We’re So Happy You’re So Happy” written by Alexandra Cunningham. 60 minutes): Cherry made a HUGE leap in this show in the last season finale by suddenly jumping ahead five years. The writing problem he created for himself for the first episode of this season was, how shall we say this, HUGE. What he needed to do in the season opener was 1) show how the main characters and their situations had changed while at the same time reassuring audiences that 2) the particular delicate balance of snarky humor and over-the-top melodrama is still intact. Talk about degree of difficulty.
We get quick scenes that update us. Susan is carrying on with a guy we do not know (after a car crash that suggests, wrongly, that Mike is dead; he shows up again at the end of the episode). Bree is now a celebrity cook using Katherine’s recipes, which Katherine is not happy about. Lynette’s twin boys seem to have aged more than five years and are full-fledged juvenile delinquents. Gaby has become the mother of an overweight daughter and let herself go to seed (one side note of this: Eva Longoria Parker is so deglamorized now that audiences may realize she is a wickedly funny comedienne and not just one of the most physically luscious women on television). Edie has come back to town with a new husband, Dave. And that’s just the first act.
What appears to be the one development that will be the overarching storyline of the season is Dave. We see early that he is determined to live on Wisteria Lane. He seems to control Edie, much to the amazement of the other Housewives. And in the final scene we learn he was in a institution. He tells his shrink that he is no danger to himself and “As for the others, there’s only one person who should be worried.” So Cherry has solved one cliffhanger and set up another one. I’ll give him a 9.5 out of 10, but that’s only because hormonally I miss the original Gaby.
For the second episode, I’d lower the grade. The Dave überplot is moving along nicely as he kidnaps Mrs. McCluskey’s cat to get her to apologize to Edie, but the individual stories are less interesting. Lynette pretends to be a teen girl on-line to talk to her son, but the son falls for the girl. The outcome is flat and obvious. And Gaby is turning into a shrill. One of the joys of Gaby was Longoria Parker’s ability to change attitude at least twice and sometimes three times in a single line. Now her lines are one-note.
You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story(2008. Written by Richard Schickel. 300 minutes): Schickel’s history of the studio is fun, particularly in the first couple of hours, but the last hour, about the contemporary Warner Brothers, is so relentlessly self-satisfied as both stars and executives praise each other for their boldness and integrity.
The series is not deep, but at least there are a few writers mentioned. Darryl Zanuck, later a producer and head of 20th Century-Fox, started by writing Rin Tin Tin stories in the twenties. We do get a couple of smidgens of interviews with Julius J. Epstein and Howard Koch, two of the writers on Casablanca, although the Epstein interview does not get his well-known disdain for all the fawning over the film, which he thought was just another Warner Brothers melodrama. There are a couple of good moments with Frank Pierson on Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon. Robert Towne is interviewed about Bonnie and Clyde, although as he has admitted elsewhere, he made relatively minor changes to the original Robert Benton and David Newman script.
I suppose we should be thankful for small favors, but would it have killed Schickel to mention Casey Robinson? Captain Blood, It’s Love I’m After, Dark Victory, Kings Row, Now, Voyager and the Paris flashbacks in Casablanca. Yeah, that Casey Robinson.
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: Ophelia Wants, and Fails, to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon
Transforming Ophelia’s abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of Hamlet.1.5
Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein of the same name, Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of the troubled Danish prince’s would-be betrothed. Here, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) is a tomboy forced into court-life femininity, her tragedy rewritten as a triumph, but it’s hard to say that she comes out, in the end, either as a more full-blooded character or as a girl-power icon.
Given Hamlet’s sustained cultural influence, Ophelia might be described as the original “refrigerator woman,” the girlfriend or wife whose shocking death serves to motivate the male main character to action. In Shakespeare’s play, the vengeance-obsessed Hamlet callously drives her to suicide, first by spurning her as part of his insanity charade, and then by accidentally murdering her father, Polonius. Gone mad due to her lover’s too-perfect performance of madness, Ophelia drowns herself in a river, her death exacerbating both Hamlet’s anguish and his simmering feud with her brother, Laertes.
In the film, Ophelia recounts her side of the story in voiceover: how she, the common-born daughter of an advisor to the Danish crown, was taken in by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and raised as one of her handmaidens; how she became privy to Gertrude’s affair with the king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, glowering throughout from within a villainously matted Severus Snape wig); and how she fell in love with Hamlet (George MacKay), the crown prince with the awful bowl cut. But first, the film opens with a fake-out, the camera skimming along the water of a river until it lands on Ophelia’s floating body, surrounded by water lilies and other vegetation in a vision of tragic, all-natural femininity. It turns out that she’s alive, and that floating peacefully in the river is just a habit of hers, which has the unintentional effect of fooling us into thinking the film’s about to end every time Ophelia slinks into the water.
Ophelia looks and feels like a syndicated ‘90s television special, with its blandly lit sets, skeletal romance between the girlish Ophelia and its bro-ish version of Hamlet, and haphazard imagining of 15th-century speech and customs. The film can never quite decide whether it should be exploding or paying homage to Shakespeare’s text. What we see isn’t simply the events of the play from Ophelia’s perspective, but it also isn’t something radically new. Unintentional humor results: In the well-known scene from the play in which Hamlet first maniacally spurns Ophelia, they whisper secret messages to each other between simplified Shakespearean lines—margin notes as dialogue. Rather than an alternate take on the play, such moments simply shoehorn new material into the old. Other lines clumsily rewrite the play’s sexism by turning Hamlet’s verbal abuse into lovers’ code: When Hamlet advises Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s just telling her to hide out from the coming violence.
McCarthy’s film concocts an original plot involving a medicine woman in the woods outside the castle who’s a dead ringer for the queen (and is also played by Watts), which ultimately places Ophelia in the Danish grand hall as the bloody climax from Hamlet plays out. In this moment, Ophelia, who’s been known to everyone in the court since childhood, improbably passes as a male page because her shock of red hair is a few inches shorter. It might be argued that resonant whispers and unlikely misrecognitions are a part of the Shakespeare toolbox, but Ophelia otherwise makes few pretentions to replicating the tropes of the Elizabethan stage. Early in the film there’s some woeful faux-Shakespearean banter between Hamlet and Ophelia, but the filmmakers quickly abandon a dialogue-driven approach in favor of a plot-heavy structure of court intrigue and scandalous revelations.
Ophelia, in fact, ends the film at a nunnery, a twist which completes the process of transforming Hamlet’s abusive words—symbols in the original play of the blurry line between cruelty and its simulation—into the signs of true love. In the end, Ophelia’s no longer defined by her victimhood, but transforming her abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of English literature’s most well-known drama.
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George McKay, Tom Felton, Dominic Mefham Director: Claire McCarthy Screenwriter: Semi Chellas Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up
The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.1.5
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
Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family
The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.2.5
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
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.2
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
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.
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.”
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.2
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
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.
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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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
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.2
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
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
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
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.3
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