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Understanding Screenwriting #70: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

If you followed some of the Links of the Day about The Illusionist, you may be familiar with the controversy over it.

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Understanding Screenwriting #70: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, The Company Men, Mystery Street, Le Amiche, La Dolce Vita, The Write Environment, Downton Abbey, Fairly Legal but first…

Fan Mail: First, I want to thank “Biglil,” who wrote in on US#68 to correct some factual errors in Pirate Radio. In today’s world I’m all for getting one’s facts straight, since there is so little of it going around.

Second, David Ehrenstein got the impression in my comments on The Dilemma in US#69 that I somehow had a beef with The Kids Are All Right. I don’t, as my comments in US#54 make clear. My point was that The Dilemma did not handle the mixture of comedy and drama as well as Kids and other films.

Third, in today’s bullets can’t kill it category, “Samm” insisted in a comment on US#69 they (and I am not sure what “they’” he was talking about) are all Hero’s Journey films. Sigh.

The Illusionist (2010. Screenplay by Sylvain Chomet, adapted from a screenplay by Jacques Tati. 80 minutes.)

Fools rush in: If you followed some of the Links of the Day about this film, you may be familiar with the controversy over it. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that he was reluctant to talk about the film, and he provided a link to Roger Ebert’s site, which provided more detail. The gist of it is that Tati’s grandson, Richard Tatischeff Scheil McDonald, is objecting to the film of The Illusionist because of the way Tati treated McDonald’s mother and grandmother. Tati and the grandmother were not married, and Tati left her and McDonald’s mother in Paris during the Occupation in World War II. McDonald seems to think that we judge artists by their morals. Thank goodness we don’t, or we would have to forego a lot of great art. It is very naïve to assume that great artists must be highly moral. Some of them are, but many are not. Richard Wagner was not, and neither was Picasso. Film directors are notoriously not nice people. As terrible as they could be as people, I would not want to do without the films of Hitchcock, Lang, Huston and Ford. Dorris Bowden Johnson, Rosasharon in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), once said, “John Ford was a terrible human being. But he was a great director.”

Still, Tati’s abandoning his mistress and their baby to the Occupation certainly should make us queasy, and I can understand Rosebaum’s reluctance to deal with the film. I, on the other hand, am always willing to jump into a nice murky mess like that. Part of what complicates the issue of this film is that Tati’s screenplay was written in the ‘50s as a kind of letter to the child he left behind. He was obviously working out his presumably guilty feelings about his actions. According to the material McDonald provided Ebert, which one of Ebert’s readers wisely pointed out had not been fact-checked, Tati’s original screenplay deals with an illusionist traveling in Czechoslovakia. He meets a girl in her early teens, about the age of Helga, Tati’s daughter. She believes his magic is real, and a semi-father-daughter relationship develops. A young man exposes the illusionist’s tricks to the girl, and the illusionist and the girl part ways. Tati sent the script to Helga, and he may well have meant it only as a communication to her. He never made the film, and it is interesting that he never intended to star in it himself. It might have been too painful for him to do as an actor, or he may have intended it to be more dramatic than his comic films, or comic in a different style than his. His choice of a leading man was Pierre Étaix, just starting his film career, although with a background as a gag writer and nightclub performer.

Chomet is best known for his lively 2003 animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville. He got permission from the part of the Tati estate that controls the rights (not McDonald’s branch, obviously) to develop Tati’s script as an animated film. Well, Tati was known for his near wordless slapstick comedies, so that would seem to make sense. The basic story of The Illusionist, however, does not lend itself to that sort of film. The story, in both Tati and Chomet’s version, is more drama than comedy. I have no idea how much dialogue was in Tati’s script, but there is very little in Chomet’s, and it makes the film very confusing. We want to hear what these people say to each other. In Chomet’s version, the illusionist is French, but he is touring Scotland and lands in Edinburgh, so there is a logic in not having him and the girl being able to communicate verbally. Chomet unfortunately has not provided the visual characterization that would make up for that. He has modeled the illusionist on Tati: tall, wide in the middle, deadpan face and with a loping stride. Tati got a lot out of that as a performer, but Chomet does not with his animated version. Keep in mind that Tati did not intend to play the part himself. He may have recognized that his style as an actor was not going to work. Tati as a director worked more with long shots than closeups (with Tati’s body you want to see all of it), but this is a story that demands closeups. Chomet’s girl is bland, and we get none of the character animation with her that we got in Triplets of Belleville. There are one or two scenes (the illusionist working in a garage, and then later as a department store window model) that suggest classical Tati, but they are not central to the story, and Chomet’s animation is not up to Tati’s movement. Late in the picture, the characters are in a theater and we get a clip from Tati’s 1958 Mon Oncle. Chomet does himself no favors there.

The best thing about the film is the least Tati-ian thing about it. My wife, who spent time in Edinburgh in her youth, came out of the theater humming the backgrounds. Both the Scottish Highlands and the cityscapes are beautifully drawn. On the other hand, I have never seen as many buses in one film as we get here. My wife assures me that Edinburgh was like that in the ‘50s.

No Strings Attached (2011. Screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether, story by Mike Samonek and Elizabeth Meriwether. 108 minutes.)

It’s not Nora or Nancy: This is a so-so rom-com. The story may not seem that fresh to you. Boy and girl meet at summer camp, then again in college and yet again when they are young professionals. One is now a doctor doing a residency, the other a television production assistant hoping to become a writer. Because of their busy schedules, they agree to have sex with “no strings attached,” i.e., “fuck buddy”/“friends with benefits” sex. It’s so common in movies we have all these terms for it. And we know what is going to happen. In spite of their insistence they won’t, one of them falls in love with the other and complications ensue. Needless to say, they get together in the end. So why should we watch?

The doctor is the woman. And the production assistant is the guy. Well, that might be interesting for about a minute and a half. But the doctor is not what you would expect from a “woman screenwriter.” If this were a Nora Ephron script, Emma would be a neurotic ditz who loves food and whom we are encouraged to find “cute.” Emma is not neurotic and she is not a ditz. She eats fast food, when she can be reminded to eat. She is cute (Natalie Portman, given a lot more to do than she did in Black Swan), but not “cute.” Nor is this a Nancy Myers script. Emma does not live in a big house with a kitchen the size of James Cameron’s ego. Emma is a very modern professional woman, focused on her work. She lives in an apartment with three other residents, two of them women, the third a gay man. As happens when women live together, their menstrual cycles end up in synch, with even the gay guy having sympathetic pains. Which leads to the best joke in the film: Adam creates a “period mix tape” for Emma, with such songs as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The two other women residents are not ditzes either, but just as professional as Emma. The closest we have to a woman ditz in the script is Lucy, Adam’s supervisor, and she is too smart and hardworking to be a ditz. She is something of a flake, however, and Lake Bell, who plays her is getting back at Nancy Myers (see my comments on It’s Complicated in US#39), by showing that she has real comics chops. When it looks like Adam may get together with her, we are rather torn. Emma is appealing in her own tough way, but Lucy has her charms.

One of the truisms of the screenwriting business is that men often have trouble writing women characters and women have trouble writing male characters. Meriwether’s Adam is a little too perfect. He is handsome (Ashton Kutcher, beginning to grow up), not neurotic at all, and just devoted to Emma. He never puts a foot wrong, which gets a little annoying. Would a real guy make a period mix tape? It’s a funny idea, but still. He also has some buddies he hangs out with but they are standard-issue buds. The most interesting male character is Alvin, Adam’s father, a former TV star. He is something of a lech and spends most of the film with Adam’s previous girlfriend, a British tart named Vanessa. This upsets Adam, which I think is supposed to show his dark side, but it’s more logical than neurotic.

In addition to the fact we see where the story is going, it doesn’t get there in a particularly fresh way. In the summer we are scheduled to get Friends With Benefits and we will see if the writers of that one (Will Gluck, Keith Merryman, and David A. Newman) handle similar material in a better way. That one will have Mila Kunis as Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake as Ashton Kutcher.

From Prada to Nada (2011. Screenplay by Fina Torres & Luis Alfaro and Craig Frenandez, “From” the novel Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. 107 minutes.)

Menos Clueless: As you may remember from US#32 and #33, I am a fan of Austen’s novel and films made from it, particularly the 1995 version that Emma Thompson wrote. So I couldn’t resist when this Latino version was sneaked into theaters. After all, if Amy Heckerling could transpose Emma into the Beverly Hills high school world of Clueless (1995), why not Sense in East Los Angeles? Unfortunately, as Spanish readers already learned from the snarky sub-head, this one is less than Clueless.

The setup is that Garbriel Dominguez Sr., an apparently well-to-do resident of Beverly Hills, dies, leaving two daughters, Nora and Mary. (Their mother died years ago, so no Latina Mrs. Dashwood.) He also left them with no money, since he had huge debts. There is also a son he had by another woman before he married their mother, and the son and his bitchy white wife Olivia (the equivalent of Fanny Dashwood) take over the house in an unclear bit of plotting. They intend to remodel and sell it to pay the debts. Nora is the Elinor of the story, Mary the Marianne, although she is closest to Cher in Clueless in her devotion to shopping. So instead of a nice cottage out in the country, the girls go off to live with their aunt in Latino East L.A. In Clueless, Heckerling found the closed society of a snobby upper class high school a perfect fit for the limitations of Austen’s world. The Latino culture the girls move into is much more free and lively. The writers could have solved the problem by making the aunt, Aurelia, a more conservative and restricting person, but she is just generally nice and helpful. Great in real life but less so in drama.

Nora wants to be a lawyer and has blinders on about that, which matches reasonably well at the beginning with Elinor. Her Edward Ferrars is Edward Ferris, Olivia’s brother. He hires her as a legal assistant at his law firm, but they admit their love in the middle of the film, and she ends up leaving the law firm and setting up a legal counseling service in the barrio. Wait a minute, she’s not a lawyer yet. Isn’t this practicing law without a license? And as a law student shouldn’t she know this, especially if she is that smart? Edward then gets engaged to a friend of Olivia’s, but writers here do not get him out of it in the interesting way Austen does. He just shows up at the end of the film and tells Nora he’s not engaged. In a tribute to Thompson, he does indeed say “My heart is and always will be yours.” You may remember the line is not in Austen. It’s cute here, rather than heart-stopping the way it is in the 1995 film.

Mary meanwhile has fallen in love with her “Willoughby,” a college teaching assistant, while not paying attention to the writers’ most inventive variation from Austen. Their “Colonel Brandon” is a younger guy whom Mary first takes to be a gangbanger. He fixes car mirrors without telling her, and then he turns out to be a budding artist who teaches painting to kids. A much better match for Mary than Colonel Brandon would have been.

One of the writers of the screenplay, Luis Alfaro, is much better known as a playwright. His version of Sophocles’s Electra, the 2005 play Electricidad, shows a much more vivid view of East L.A. than we get here. In addition to the aunt being all-purpose good, the other Latino characters are not as well defined as they need to be. In Electricidad, Alfaro uses several residents as a Greek chorus, but the friends of the aunt here just hang around. I have no idea if Alfaro’s work on the screenplay was softened by others, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. The 2002 film Real Women Have Curves has better drawn characters and a sharper view of life in East L.A. It deals with life in a garment-sewing sweatshop as more than just a quick joke that this film does.

Still, From Prada to Nada is not worthless. There are a few good jokes, and Camilla Belle is charming as Nora, given the limitations of the writing. Alexa Vega, whom you may remember as Carmen in the Spy Kids movies, is now all grown up and has some good comic chops. Like Kate Winslet, Marianne in the 1995 version, Vega steals a bunch of scenes from her elders. One flaw in the acting is April Bowlby as Olivia. It is a thankless part, and the writing makes her a one-note bitch (as opposed to Thompson making Fanny a two-note bitch). Bowlby was great as Kandi on Two and a Half Men, but outright bitchery does not seem to be within her range.

The Company Men (2010. Written by John Wells. 104 minutes.)

Not airborne: This film premiered at Sundance a year ago and only just got into theaters in late 2010. The reason for the delay is obvious: the distributors were trying to avoid Up in the Air (2009; see US#37). And with good reason. The films have a similar subject (people being fired in corporate downsizing), and Up in the Air handles it much better. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, working off Walter Kirn’s novel, found a unique way to deal with the subject: follow the guy who is hired to go around firing people. We hadn’t seen that character before. Nor had we seen the young woman business grad who accompanies him. Both of those characters, and the woman he has the romance with, are fully developed characters with all kinds of interesting edges. So we focus on them, but we also get short bits of (real-life) interviews with some of the people being fired. Those bits are used as a counterpoint to the story, and the story a counterpoint to them so they do not become monotonous and depressing.

Wells takes a more literal approach. We follow three executives, each of whom is fired from the same company over the course of the film. The first is hot-shot sales guy Bobby Walker. He is the one who cannot believe he was fired, even after it happens. He is in denial for a long time. The second is Phil Woodard, who gets depressed and kills himself. The third is Gene McClary, who eventually realizes he can become a consultant and sets up his own firm. Wells has not made any of these characters as distinctive and individual as Reitman and Turner made theirs. Once you get a sense of what each one is like, they behave true to form. One small exception is Gene, who turns out to be having an affair with Sally Wilcox, the legal affairs person who is handling the firings. But she is not particularly well drawn either. We are not surprised when she shows up in Gene’s new office and tells him she thinks she is going to be fired as well. The wives of the men are also standard issue.

By focusing on the men who were fired, the film becomes very repetitive. Any new job Bobby tries to get does not work out, until he joins Gene at the end. We are supposed to get a sense that Bobby has opened up a bit as a result of this experience, but we get that in a very conventional touch-football scene with him and people he’s met who are trying to find work as well. I kept waiting for something fresh, and it never came.

The company that Gene founds at the end is supposed to be a consulting company, but it appears to be developing into a shipbuilding company. The company they were fired from was downsizing their shipbuilding division, so what makes Gene and the others think they can make a go of it? Especially in these times. And what bank is going to finance them? Part of our current economic problem is that banks and financial institutions are hoarding money rather than investing it. What Wells sees as a happy ending strikes me as a real pie-in-the-sky idea.

Mystery Street (1950. Screenplay by Sidney Boehm and Richard Brooks, from a story by Leonard Spigelgass. 94 minutes.)

No Grissom, no Horatio, no Bonasera: A pregnant bar girl gets herself killed and several months later her skeleton is found on a beach by a birdwatcher. What do the cops do? Well, they call in the CSI gang. Except this is 1950 and there are no CSI units, no DNA searches, no multi-colored equipment (we are in black and white after all), so who are you going to call? Well, if the beach is out on Cape Cod, why not try a Harvard professor of legal medicine who has begun to apply some science to criminal investigations? So the cops box up, no literally, they put all the bones in a cardboard box, and take them off to Dr. McAdoo. Even though it’s only 1950, he can tell them the skeleton belongs to a woman of a certain age and height, and that she probably was a ballet dancer once.

Leonard Spigelgass, who wrote the story for this, had been around Hollywood since the introduction of sound. Sidney Boehm was a terrific writer of films noir, as we saw in US#30 when we talked about his script for The Undercover Man the year before this one. He went on to write The Big Heat (1953) and Violent Saturday (1955) among others. Richard Brooks was just about to turn to directing, including such films as In Cold Blood (1967). So you know you are in good hands here. The introduction, where we meet the bar girl (Jan Stirling, in a warmup for her Lorraine “Kneeling bags my nylons” Mimosa the following year) and follow her to her death, seems a little slow to us now. That’s only because we are used to the discovery of the body in the pre-credit scenes on CSI. Boehm and Brooks are carefully setting up a lot of plot details, especially ones that will make it seem as though Henry Shanway is the murderer. They are also giving us the girl’s landlady, Mrs. Smerrling (the great Elsa Lanchester), who will complicate matters. And since this is one of those pseudo-message B-pictures that studio head of production Dore Schary was doing at MGM, the lead detective is a Portuguese-American who has to deal with a smidgen of racism.

Yes, you can look at it as a forerunner of CSI, but it is also a terrific film. And if that does not seal the deal for you, this is the film that John Sturges’s direction on The Capture (1950; see US#61) got him as a tryout at MGM. And if that is still not enough for you, the cinematographer was the greatest of all the film noir cameramen, John Alton, at the height of his powers.

Le Amiche (1955. Screenplay by Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Michaelangelo Antonioni and the collaboration of Alba De Cespedes, “freely inspired” by the story “Tre Donne Sole” in the book La Bella Estate by Cesare Pavese. Original running time 104 minutes, US cut 95 minutes, DVD cut 100 minutes.)

Italians, parte una: This early directorial effort by Antonioni showed up on DVD last year, and one reviewer described it somewhat facetiously as the neorealist version of Sex and the City. It is done near the end of the neorealist period (we do get several street scenes in Turin), and it is about a group of women and their romantic problems. There is of course more to do it than that. What it is not, however, is much of a forerunner to the later, great Antonioni films. It is very much what was called in those days a “woman’s picture” and it certainly does not have the light touch of all of the Sex and the City variations.

The film starts a lot faster than any other Antonioni movie you ever saw. Clelia, who has come from Rome to her hometown of Turin to open a branch of a fashionable store, is in her hotel room getting ready to go to work. The maid comes in and says the room next door is locked to the outside. The maid goes through the connecting door and discovers Rosetta has overdosed on pills. Clelia meets Rosetta’s friends, including Momina, a rich woman who has many affairs; Nene, a ceramic artist in love with Lorenzo, a painter; Mariella, a flirt; and Rosetta herself, who survives the suicide attempt. Rosetta is in love with Lorenzo, who says he will leave Nene but really won’t. As in later Antonioni films, the men tend to be rather enervated, especially in comparison to the women. The film takes these women and their problems seriously.

What sets it apart from other women’s pictures of the time is Clelia. She is focused on her job, although she does develop an attraction to Carlo, the assistant to the architect remodeling the store. The other women point out that Carlo is rather lower class. When she goes for a walk with Carlo through the less picturesque sections of Turin, we discover she was born in the area and has worked her way up. She decides to go back to Rome rather than stay with Carlo in Turin, and her reason is surprising, especially for a 1955 film. She tells him that “Working is my way of being a woman.” This may be why, even though they have cast the queen of lurid neorealist films of the time, Eleonora Rossi Drago, as Clelia, she is not allowed to be sexy in the part. Yes, the film is forward looking enough to give us a woman who lives through her work, but not forward enough to imagine, as No Strings Attached at least manages to do, that a working woman might be willing to have a little on the side.

La Dolce Vita (1960. Story and Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, and Tullio Pinelli, script collaboration by Brunello Rondi. 174 minutes.)

Italians, parte due: La Dolce Vita was a sensation in its day. It was loved and hated by the Italian critics and audiences, and it was one of the top-grossing Italian films of its era. It was equally argued about by critics in other countries, including America, where it became one of the top-grossing Italian films until then. It was written about then and since as much as any other legendary film, and both its title and the name Fellini gave to a photographer, Paparazzo, have become part of the cultural language.

Looking at it today from the standpoint of screenwriting, two elements stand out. The first is that for an episodic film, it has a structural unity that most episodic films do not have. This came from the way the script developed (according to Hollis Alpert’s biography Fellini: A Life). The first inklings of what became La Dolce Vita came from Fellini’s idea of making a film about his days as a young journalist in Rome. By 1958 he was an acclaimed filmmaker, noted primarily for La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957), two neorealist classics. He had developed a script earlier about his early days in Rome, but he realized Rome had changed by the late ‘50s with the arrival of Hollywood filmmakers making such films as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). With them came what were just then being called “the jet set.” So Fellini and his writers decided that the journalist should be in his mid-‘30s and covering “the sweet life” of the celebrity society. Marcello is the one through-character who appears from beginning to end. We not only watch what he watches, but we see him change. At first he is just a journalist, but then we find out he has ambitions to write serious books. He is encouraged in this by Steiner, an intellectual, who is the first person to ask him about the book he is supposed to be writing. Marcello attends an intellectual salon at Steiner’s apartment, a scene that always struck me as a little contrived, like a non-intellectual’s idea of what intellectuals sit around doing. After the salon Marcello goes off to the beach to work on his book. At least in the English subtitles we never learn what kind of book it is, although some sources say it is a novel. Steiner has seemed a happy man, with a wife and two children, but he suggests to Marcello that he is not content. In the next to the last major sequence Marcello learns that Steiner has killed himself and his children, and Marcello must help the police tell his wife. When she comes home via bus, Paparazzo and the other photographers swarm all over her. In the final episode, we learn that Marcello has given up not only the book, but his job as a journalist. He is now writing publicity about the kind of people he has previously reported on, and he is just as decadent as they are. Marcello’s arc, to use the Hollywood term for it, gives the film a unity it might not seem to have upon first viewing, helped enormously by Marcello Mastroianni’s great performance.

The second screenwriting element that stands out is that, unlike most episodic films, all the episodes are interesting. Sometimes that comes from the visuals, as in the famous opening scene of a statue of Jesus being carried by a helicopter past ancient Roman walls and over the modern city. Sometimes that comes from the satirical elements, as in the sequence with the visiting movie star, Sylvia, played by Anita Ekberg. That sequence, by the way, seems the most modern of all the sequences, with Paparazzo and the others of his ilk behaving no differently than they do today. Other sequences focus on characters, as in the sweet, sad sequence of Marcello and his father, who has come to town on business. There are also poetic moments in many of the sequences, as in the party at the house of a group of society people. The society folk live up to the comment of someone going into the house that the parties there are like funerals. The final orgy is rather tame by our standards (trust me, it was not in its day), but you still will not be able to look at feathers and fur wraps the same way after you see the film.

The Write Environment (2008 – 2011, Created by Jeffrey Berman. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Public Television, take one: Early this January, KCET, a Los Angeles public television station started running this series of interviews with screenwriters. Berman is particularly interested in writers of comics (he later did a similar series on comic book writers), and so he focuses on writers of comic book-type films and TV shows. In the first episode he interviews Joss Whedon, spending most of the time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Dollhouse (2009-2010). In the second, the interviewee is Tim Kring, and Berman spends much more time on Heroes (2006-2010) than he did on Kring’s more adult show, Crossing Jordan (2001-2007). The questions are fairly standard issue, and Berman does not dig that deeply. For example, he blithely accepts Whedon’s long-disputed claim that he wrote most of Speed (1994). Now you would think that a public television station might come up with something a little more serious, especially a station in Los Angeles (their studios are in East Hollywood).

For all of its forty years of existence, KCET has never made much of a connection with Hollywood. Partly it is they cannot afford to pay Hollywood prices (neither can indie film producers), partly it is that the bureaucracy in public television is worse than Hollywood’s, and partly it was simply that the leadership did not do it. I noticed when I watched the first two episodes of this show that even though it was being broadcast in 2011, it seemed to have been made several years before. Whedon, for example, talks about Dollhouse as though it was not yet on the air. A check of the IMDb shows that the series was produced in 2008. So why its KCET running it now?

In late 2010, KCET decided to split from the Public Broadcasting System. There was an ongoing dispute about fees, in which both the mandarins at PBS and Al Jerome, the head of KCET, behaved like idiots. They never came to an agreement, and as of January 1st, KCET became an independent public television station, losing access to the cream of the PBS shows. They have replaced them with old (Prime Suspect reruns) or second-rate (The Write Environment) material and botched setting up a new news unit. The station’s ratings have dropped by about half.

Downton Abbey (2011. Episodes one and two written by Julian Fellowes, episode three written by Julian Fellowes and Shelagh Stevenson, episode four written by Julian Fellowes and Tina Pepler. Each episode 90 minutes.)

Public Television, take two: More than one local Los Angeles television critic noted that KCET’s timing in leaving the Public Broadcasting System was abysmal. KCET went indie on January 1st, and on January 9th, PBS’s Masterpiece Classic started the four-episode run of Downton Abbey, a huge hit in England. In the Southern California area, the PBS shows were picked up by KOCE in Orange County, and they got off to a rousing start.

How good is Downton Abbey? I intended to take notes and do a full write-up of the series, but I got so hooked so quickly I never had time to pick up a pen. So I apologize if this item is not up to my usual standard. The show is created by Julian Fellowes, an actor and writer best known for his screenplay for Gosford Park (2001). According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, producer Gareth Neame asked Fellowes if he wanted to return to the world of Gosford Park, but Fellowes decided on an earlier period. The show begins in 1912 and ends in 1914. Fellowes was interested in a time close enough to our own where there were recognizable elements (telephones, electricity, votes for women), but that was also a time of change (telephones, electricity, votes for women).

Episode one begins with word that the Titanic has sunk. Look at how Fellowes uses that to take us into the life of a very grand English country house. Robert, the Earl of Grantham, the head of the family, is upset that two relatives have died on the ship. One of them was supposed to marry his eldest daughter Mary and keep the estate in family hands, a plotline that extends to the end of the four episodes. But note that Robert also has a moment of sympathy for those below decks who perished. I was about to reach for my pen when we began to get all the other characters introduced, and we hear reactions from those both upstairs and downstairs. Characters that we assume are certain types turn out to have all kinds of interesting backgrounds and secrets. Fortunately Fellowes does not have to deal with Altman as a director here, so we do not get the standard-issue Altman undercutting of the characters. Fellowes gives all the characters their dignity, even in moments when they might be expected to lose it.

The majority of the four episodes are taken up with trying to find a husband for Mary. The obvious choice is a very distant relative, Matthew Crawley, but he is a bit of a modern fellow and really has no desire to take over the running of Downton Abbey. He and Mary sometimes seem on the verge of getting together and then equally on the verge of not getting together. There are two other sisters, Sybil, who is interested in politics, and Edith, who seems willing to take any of the men Mary or Sybil’s castoff men. The downstairs characters are just as richly drawn, and we get involved in the maid Anna’s interest in the new valet, Mr. Bates, who served with the Earl in the Boer War. By the fourth episode she uses a trip to London to find out, a) he had confessed to stealing the regimental silver in the army, and b) he did it to protect his wife, who committed the theft. There is a Mrs. Bates?

And about then, during a garden party in the summer of 1914, the Earl gets a message that war has started. Fade out. But, but, what about Mrs. Bates? What about a husband for Mary? What about Maggie Smith, playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham; will Fellowes and the writers ever be able to write a line that Dame Maggie cannot get a laugh with?

The best news I had all month was the simple white on black title after the fade out: “A second series of Downton Abbey is now in production.”

Fairly Legal (2011. “Pilot” written by Michael Sardo. 60 minutes.)

Get your finger out of your mouth, baby: I almost did not watch this new show. It sounded at least a little fresh: Kate Reed has given up being a lawyer and become a mediator. We haven’t had one of those before. But on the day it premiered I was working on a column most of the afternoon. It will not surprise you to learn that I have a window open on the IMDb when I am writing this column. Every time I went back to it, at the top was an ad for the show, with a shot of its star, Sarah Shahi, looking seductive with a finger in her mouth. Well, crap, who needs another seductive lawyer?

Fortunately I overcame my aversion to infantilizing smart women and watched the show. Shahi did not put her finger in her mouth once in the episode, and the character Sardo has created for her is smart, charming (but not seductive), and sensitive (to others; that’s what makes her a great mediator). On her way to work from her late father’s boat, where she lives, she stops in at a coffee shop just as it is being robbed. She mediates the robbery, with the robbery getting $17.50 in beer and beef jerky and the storeowner not losing his money or his life. And you believe it, a credit to both Sardo and Shahi.

Kate gets assigned cases from the courts, but she is also dealing with her stepmom, who is not all that much older than Kate and is a smarter lawyer herself, a little colder (but not too much) than Kate. They are obviously going to have to negotiate running the firm set up by Kate’s dad, who has just passed away. In the second episode, “Priceless,” also written by Sardo, the will of the dad is read and the estate is divided four ways: Kate, stepmom Lauren, Kate’s brother Steve, and…David Smith. Who is David Smith? Neither of the three know. I’m staying tuned.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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

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

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.

A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.

Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.

Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here aht the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.

Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.

Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973

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Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman

In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.

Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”

Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.

The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.

Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story

Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.

As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.

As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.

Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.

Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.

The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.

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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Photo: Netflix

Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.

Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.

The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.

The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.

Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.

These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.

Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.

Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.

There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.

These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.

Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair

Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.

Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.

Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.

The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.

Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels

The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

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

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

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

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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