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Understanding Screenwriting #74: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #74: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, Devil’s Doorway, Hangman’s Knot, Mildred Pierce (2011), Cinema Verite, but first…

Fan Mail: I am so sad that the discussion of my incompetence to deal with Uncle Boonmee and its ilk did not continue. But you may be able to take another shot at it on my comments on Meek’s Cutoff below.

On the other hand, I am so happy that I get a chance to correct David Ehrenstein, a rare occasion. He mentioned I did not include the most famous line of dialogue in White Savage, “How are you today, Tamara?” The reason I did not is because it’s not in the film. It showed up in a review of the film, and everybody has always assumed it was in the film. That character’s name is Tahia, not Tamara. “How are you today, Tahia?” is pretty silly, but just not as silly as the frequently quoted line.

The Princess of Montpensier (2010. Screenplay by Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau and Bertrand Tavernier, based on a story by Madame de La Fayette. 139 minutes.)

The Son of Intolerance: There are just not a lot of movies that deal with the civil war in 16th-century France between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. You can see why: you’d piss off the Catholics or the Protestants in the audience or both. There is the 1994 French film Queen Margot, about Marguerite de Valois, but most cinephiles know about the period from the French story in Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance. What, you forgot there was a French story in Intolerance? Not surprising, since it is not nearly as compelling as the Babylon story and the Modern story. It also suffered the most in the cutting of the film, probably because Griffith realized it just did not stand up to the other two.

The Princess of Montpensier does a lot of things better than Griffith, partly because the filmmakers (Tavernier is also the director) have more time. But they also seem more interested in bringing the time period alive. The film begins in the middle of a battle, and we see the Comte de Chabannes in the thick of it. But he kills a pregnant woman and decides to quit. Just as well, because he has at various times fought for both sides, and both have banished him. So a protégé of his, Philip of Montpensier, takes him in. We get a wonderful scene of Philip’s father hustling Marie’s father out of her marrying the younger brother of Henri du Guise and marrying Philip. Marie would be glad to be rid of the brother, because it’s Henri she’s in love with. But women are traded like chattel in those days. Philip is sort of clueless about Marie and women in general, undoubtedly not helped by a wedding night in which there are witnesses to the, uhm, consummation of the marriage. OK, the witnesses stand outside the fourposter with the curtains closed, but still. And the whole scene is treated like the everyday occurrence that it was.

Philip goes off to war, and leaves Chabannes to teach Marie so she won’t be such a ninnie when he takes her to the royal court in Paris. But Philip is really the ninnie here. In these scenes with Chabannes, Marie at least seems to have some kind of intelligence. The two seem to get along well, and we learn what she has to learn, as well as such others things as gathering herb for medical reasons. And Chabannes, an older man, admits to Marie that he loves her. Then never mentions it again. Marie doesn’t press the point, since she still has the hots for Henri. These scenes have not only a nice feel for the period (look at Marie trying to dismantle a dead boar), but also the French landscape. We know that Tavernier is a big fan of American westerns, and there is more horseback riding in this film than any 20 other French films you could name.

About an hour and twenty minutes into the film, Marie goes to court with Philip and the script begins to fall apart. We have been waiting for her to get there to strut her stuff, but very little of what Chabannes has taught her shows up. There has been much talk of her meeting the queen, and she does. But the scene does not live up to the buildup, and is not a patch on the scenes with Josephine Crowell and Virna Lisa as Queen Catherine in Intolerance and Queen Margot, respectively. We are not only inside a lot after all those previous gorgeous views of the countryside, but we begin to lose the period detail. The story threatens to become French bedroom farce, complete with people hiding in closets and slamming doors. Henri is at court, and Marie takes up with him, and there is the Duc d’Anjou, who has fallen for Marie as well. Marie, who seemed to have some intelligence in the first half of the film, has taken leave of her senses in the second half. Yes, she’s in love, and love fries the brain, but still. We get what I take to be the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, but Griffith made it clearer and more connected to his story. Lots of people die in both films.

Source Code (2011. Written by Ben Ripley. 93 minutes.)

Source Code

A sci-fi movie Stempel likes? Alert the media: So there’s this guy who suddenly wakes up on a train. Christina Warren, the woman sitting across from him, is obviously his friend, but he doesn’t recognize the name she calls him. He’s trying to figure out what’s going on and—BOOM—an explosion wrecks the train, killing all on board. But in that opening scene, Ripley has raised a lot of questions, always a good way to start a film (if you are going to answer them), but more importantly, he has given the two actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan, characters to play and stuff to do. Even in a sci-fi movie, never underestimate the importance of interesting characters.

Then Colter Stevens, as the guy thinks of himself, is in what looks to be a damaged cockpit of some kind. More questions. A TV screen shows us Colleen Goodwin, who appears to be Stevens’s guide? Handler? We don’t know. She gives him some information on his mission: there is a bomb on the train and he is “going back in” to try to find out who planted it. How can that be? Another question. It’s forty minutes into the picture before we get a techno-babble explanation of what the “source code” is and how Stevens can keep returning to the train before the bomb. And the crucial line in the explanation is not techno-babble at all. Dr. Rutledge, the head of the project, compares it to the slight glow of a light bulb after it’s been turned off. That reminds me of the dialogue John Sayles was hired to write for Apollo 13 (1995) to make the scientific language clear to audiences, e.g. “That’s not enough electricity to run a vacuum cleaner.” Writers of sci-fi always assume they have to give us a lot of techno-babble. They don’t. How is time travel possible? Easy. In Back to the Future (1985) it was the Flux Capacitor. Here it’s the Source Code. That’s all we need to know.

So Stevens ends up “going back in” several times, trying to figure out who set the bomb on the train, since the bomber has sent a message that he has also placed a nuclear bomb that will destroy Chicago. These scenes ought to be repetitive, but they are not, because both Stevens and we know more each time, including who is not the bomber. So each 8 minute sequence has its own dynamic. One of the problems I always had with the similar Groundhog Day (1993) was the repetition. Ripley obviously figured out how to avoid that problem. About an hour into the film, Stevens figures out who the bomber is and lets the controllers know. So now we’re going to have a big chase and shootout, right? Nope. We get the bomber’s arrest, but only in a long shot from the TV coverage. I have no idea how they got that past the “creative executives,” but Ripley and the gang were right to do it. If you have a big action scene now, anything else will seem anti-climactic. Because Ripley has involved us with the characters (both Gyllenhaal and Monaghan are given a lot of different stuff to do in each “insertion”—you can see why Gyllenhaal attached himself to the script very early in the process), we want to know what happens to them. Stevens is officially dead, but he convinces Goodwin to send him back, which shouldn’t work, either in the rules of the Source Code or for the audience. But the audience wants to know what happens to these characters. And Stevens discovers something about the Source Code that Rutledge and Goodwin don’t know…

Oh, for would-be actors: study Vera Farmiga’s performance as Goodwin until your head hurts. Almost her entire role consists of sitting at a console looking directly into the camera, talking and reacting. And you can’t take your eyes off her.

And for would-be directors: Look how smart the director Duncan Jones was not to tart up Farmiga’s role or performance. Less is more.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010. Written by Jonathan Raymond. 100 minutes by my count, 104 minutes on the IMDb.)

Meek's Cutoff

Cutoff indeed: Let’s see. This is a western, and you know I love westerns. This is about women in the old west and as you may have guessed, I love women. And in theory I should have been primed for this film. A few weeks before I saw it, I ran the 1960 NBC program The Real West in my LACC History of Documentary class. Gary Cooper is the narrator and he reads from diaries and journals of women during their journeys west. Then two days before I saw Meek’s Cutoff, I ran the 1961 National Film Board of Canada’s documentary Days of Whisky Gap. It has interviews with people who were around in the Canadian equivalent of the wild west, which naturally was not all that wild in Canada. The final interview in the film is with 90-year-old Sarah Card, and she talks about her trip by wagon train from Utah to western Canada. She is warm and funny and observant.

You can guess where this is going. Meek’s Cutoff begins with a shot of a covered wagon crossing a river, pulled by oxen. The shot goes on and on. Oh, crap, is this the feminist western equivalent of Uncle Boonmee? Thank goodness no, but the picture is slow, which makes sense because journeying by covered wagon was slow. We are with three wagons, being led by Stephen Meek, a guide with more hair than Bigfoot. The group has apparently decided to take Meek’s advice and go to Oregon a slightly different way. The travelers begin to grumble that he may have misled them. Then they discover/capture an Indian, who may or may not be able to find some water for them. Meanwhile, we get a lot of detail about the daily life on a wagon train, even a small one. What we do not get is a lot of characterization. The three women do their daily chores, but we don’t get as much about their characters as we got from The Real West and Sarah Card. And we get even less about the men. The men do argue, usually almost out of our and the women’s hearing. There is disagreement about what to do with the Indian, and one of the wives, Emily, actually speaks up for him. This surprises everyone, including possibly Emily herself. That’s pretty much it for her character. Meek is given more characterization, but he is the cliched desert coot. He is played by Bruce Greenwood, who is often wonderful in other roles, but he does not have the wildness the part requires. Imagine Jeff Bridges in his Rooster Cogburn mode and you can see what’s missing. When the director, Kelly Reichardt, does bother to give us one of her rare clear, well-lighted closeups of Greenwood, there is no madness is in his eyes.

So we do not have much of a plot, more like what I have referred to as a Plot-Like Substance. Will the Indian lead them to water before they kill him? They eventually go over a hill and into a shallow valley, where they find a tree. The settlers point out that where this is a tree, there has to be water, but nobody can see any water. The Indian walks off. Credits roll. And I heard a sound from the audience I can’t recall ever having heard before. They laughed, and they seemed to be laughing at themselves for having been taken in for 100 minutes by a movie that is not even going to bother finish telling the story it started out to tell.

Devil’s Doorway (1950. Written by Guy Trosper. 84 minutes.)

Devil's DoorwayDore Schary’s west: You may remember from US#22 that Dore Schary, who was the head of production at MGM in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, loved his message pictures. This is one of them. Lance Poole, an Indian who won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, returns home after the Civil War. All he wants to do is work his ranch in a beautiful valley in Wyoming (the film was actually shot in Colorado, near Aspen and Grand Junction). But lawyers and land sharks are promoting opening up those lands for white settlers, because, gasp, Indians are not allowed to own land. Poole tries to work with a, gasp, woman lawyer, but the evil white male lawyer, Verne Coolan, stirs up the white would-be settlers and Poole is eventually killed. I am not making the plot description any more heavy-handed than the movie is. Guy Trosper’s scripts, such as Pride of St. Louis (1952) or Darby’s Rangers (1958) were usually not this heavy-handed, which makes me think it’s Schary’s influence.

The same year this film came out Broken Arrow was released. It was written by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz and his friend and front Michael Blankfort had the onscreen credit. The film is also pro-Indian, as scout Tom Jeffords comes to know Cochise and appreciate the Indian way of life. Broken Arrow is a much better film, a bigger commercial hit and launched the pro-Indian films of the ‘50s. It was also in Technicolor and gorgeous to look at. Devil’s Doorway was shot (beautifully, by John Alton) in black and white. Now why, if they were sending the production all the way to Colorado, would they shoot it in black-and-white? Because in those days, it was assumed by filmmakers and critics alike that if you were making a “serious,” i.e., message, picture, it had to be in black-and-white. Black-and-white was considered more “realistic.” I am not joking. Color was for lightweight films, like musicals, comedies, and “non-serious” westerns, an attitude that existed well into the ‘60s. Obviously Fox did not think of Broken Arrow as a message picture, and it is all the better for its lack of pretension.

Hangman’s Knot (1952. Written by Roy Huggins. 81 minutes.)

Hangman's Knot

Not exactly a Ranown film: In US#17 and #18, I spent some time writing about the classic Ranown westerns of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. They were produced by Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott and starred Scott. They were written by either Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang, and directed by Budd Boetticher. They are rather minimalist, with rarely a wasted word or a shot, and the plots are very tightly wound.

This is a much earlier film, but you can see what’s coming. Scott stars, it is shot in the Alabama Hills where several of the Ranown films were made, and Lee Marvin is on hand as a not very nice person. Scott is a Confederate officer whose unit robs a wagonload of Union gold in the west, only to discover the war ended three weeks before. All sorts of folks are after them and a group of deputies get them trapped in a stagecoach stop. The deputies are not really deputies, but just out for the gold. The plot element of a gang holed up at a stagecoach stop may well have been borrowed from Dudley Nichols’ screenplay for Rawhide the year before. Nichols’s bad guys are bad, but Scott and his crew are a little more ambiguous, as well as prone to fighting among themselves.

The plotting is more complex than the minimalist Ranown films, with Huggins throwing in more twists and turns than Kennedy and Lang. The humor is also different. In the Ranown films, the humor is sardonic and dry and mostly given to the Scott characters. In Hangman’s Knot, the humor is slyer and given to a variety of characters. Both the trickiness of the plotting and the humor would serve Huggins better in his later career. After a few years writing B pictures (Hangman’s Knot is the only feature he directed), he moved into early studio filmed television, writing for the most of the series that Warner Brothers did in the early ‘50s. Like a lot of TV writers of the period he had a very quick mind, which combined with his ability to come up with plot twists led him to write a voluminous amount of material. When he got into producing, he often wrote the stories for his shows and passed them off to the writers. Early in his TV career he got tired of doing the same old westerns. He had been thinking of a slyer look at westerns and after seeing a young actor in one of the shows he wrote, he created a series for him. The actor was James Garner, the show was Maverick and it made the careers of both men. You can see the beginnings of both the Ranown westerns and Maverick in Hangman’s Knot.

Mildred Pierce (2011. Screenplay by Todd Haynes and Jon Raymond, based on the novel by James M. Cain. 330 minutes.)

Mildred Pierce

I wish I liked it better: I have never been all that much of a fan of the 1945 film version of the Cain novel, since producer Jerry Wald’s turning it into a film noir made it a lot more melodramatic than it needed to be. The idea of a longer version that can deal in a less flamboyant way with the story Cain told was appealing, especially since it had Kate Winslet as Mildred. I would much rather watch Winslet than Joan Crawford any day.

I had a hard time getting into the first hour. If the 1945 film moves too fast, this version moves too slow, especially in the first episode. We get a lot of detail about Mildred and her life, and as you know I really get on scripts that do not give us enough detail. See my comments above on Meek’s Cutoff (by the way, the Jonathan Raymond who wrote that is the Jon Raymond who co-wrote this; he can be a good writer and someday he will get the balance right). But here the story bogs down as we get scene after scene of Mildred trying to find a job in the middle of the Depression after she kicks her husband out. The scenes do show a lot about Mildred’s character, but almost too much. Winslet runs with what they give her, giving us all the detail the script has, but I am not sure we need to see so much here, since I for one am ready to get into the story.

Things pick up in the second episode. Mildred takes a job as a waitress, after saying she wouldn’t. She also starts bringing in the pies we have seen her baking since episode one, and begins to develop a side business in them. Then she gets the idea of having a restaurant. We see she is not just moping around the way she was in the first episode. She has some ambition, both for herself and her daughters. She also lets herself be seduced by a rich playboy, Monty Beregon. It turns out our Mildred has a sensual side we had not seen before (there is a nice scene in the first episode where she agrees to have sex with Wally, a former colleague of her ex-husband; it is not a pleasurable experience for her). Unfortunately while she is out canoodling with Monty, her youngest daughter Ray falls sick and eventually dies.

In the third episode Mildred opens her restaurant and it’s a hit. She is now having to deal with the little monster of her surviving daughter, Veda. Veda has always been a handful and by now Mildred undoubtedly feels guilty over the death of Ray. Mildred is determined that Veda will have the best and Veda certainly feels entitled that she should. One of the problems I have always had with Mildred in her many forms is why the hell doesn’t she just slap some sense into Veda? I know, I know, a mother’s love, but in the 1945 film Crawford could have taken out Ann Blyth in a New York minute. Here, because of the running time Veda gets more and more insufferable as the film continues. Here is a case where longer is not necessarily better. In this episode, Mildred and Monty break up and Mildred is determined to get a piano for Veda, who may or may not have musical talent.

In the fourth episode, Veda’s misbehavior gets more repetitive. She tries to blackmail the family of a film director by claiming she is pregnant with their son’s baby. She uses the money to leave Mildred, which is good riddance I would say, but she also begins to develop a singing career. At the beginning of episode five, Mildred is still in there pitching, telling a conductor who has worked with Veda that she will pay for Veda’s singing lessons, but the conductor says that she is “a grand talent, but a terrible girl.” We all know that, why can’t Mildred accept it? Mildred has been using money from her restaurant business to try to buy Veda’s love by sponsoring a concert. The concert is a success and Veda and Mildred seem reconciled. Veda feels she has what she’s entitled to, while Mildred feels her sacrifices have not been in vain. Some sacrifices, too. The restaurants have been taken away from her by Wally, her partner, and Ida, a waitress she brought into her business. They suggest Mildred go talk to Veda to see if she will kick in money. Like that will happen. And what does Mildred find? Veda in bed with Monty. Mildred strangles Veda, but not alas enough to kill her.

Then, after having dragged the script out as a long as they have, the writers try to wrap everything up too quickly. Mildred and her ex, Bert are together again, and she and Ida are buddies again. How and when did all those things happen? Veda shows up, but only to tell them she is going to New York. Monty is already there. Mildred finally yells at Veda to never come back, and Mildred and Bert agree to try to forget Veda. Good luck on that.

Having pointed out the problems in the script, let me say there are also some very good things in it. This version captures the whole issue of class in America much better than the 1945 version, and we see it worked out in Mildred and Veda’s attitudes toward, well, everything. The script also provides the opportunity for a lot of great actors to do some very good work. I particularly like Guy Pearce as Monty. Zachary Scott in the 1945 film was slimy from the word go; here Pearce gives us Monty’s charm as well. James LeGros is much more well-rounded at Wally than Jack Carson was. Morgan Turner is great as the young Veda, but Evan Rachel Wood lets down the side as the adult Veda. She is a little arch and one-note. When she is found in bed with Monty, her only reaction is a sullen stare. More could be done with that.

All in all, I think the solution is to do a version of Mildred Pierce that runs somewhere between the 111 minutes of the 1945 version and the 330 minutes of this one.

Cinema Verite (2011. Written by David Seltzer. 91 minutes.)

Cinema Verite

The title’s not necessarily as wrong as you think: In my History of Documentary Film class I make the distinction between Direct Cinema (the technique of using the lightweight cameras and sound equipment developed in the early ‘60s) and Cinema Verite (using the equipment to follow people around as they do what they do). It helps the students understand the difference and more importantly makes for great final exam questions. Now I will grant you that most people use the term Cinema Verite as a catch-all description for any documentary shot using hand-held cameras and sound equipment (and those even less in the know use it as a term for documentary in general). Cinema Verite is set in the early ‘70s when those distinctions were not as well established, so I suppose you can justify the title. But still…

The film is about the making of the now-legendary 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family. It is a semi-fictionalized account, the most notable howler being the suggestion that Craig Gilbert, the producer who came up with the idea for the series, and Pat Loud, the wife of the family, had a fling. Both Gilbert and Loud have denied it several times, and I am willing to take their word for it. This film does deal with the always interesting question of the relationship between fiction and reality, as well as the relationship between reality and documentary film. It starts with clips from the original series with the actual family, shifting to shots recreated with the actors for this film. We get the first meeting of Gilbert and Pat Loud, which obviously was not part of the original series, and then Pat talking it over with her husband, Bill. He turns out to like the idea, a surprise to Pat. One question that comes up in my class is how do documentary filmmakers convince people to appear in their films. Well, it’s easy. Like Bill here, people assume they will be more appealing and charming on-camera than they are in real life. And they are often quite happy when they see the results, until the critics and public weigh in on them. An American Family was a classic case of that.

Since Seltzer is focusing on Gilbert and Pat, we spend more time with them and see more of their character than we get of the other members of the family. Seltzer has given nice scenes, no matter what you think of their “truth,” to James Gandolfini as Gilbert and Diane Lane as Pat. Bill is sort of written as a one-note character, and Tim Robbins does not take him much beyond that. Near the end, there is a clip from the real Bill on the Dick Cavett show and he is a much more interesting personality than he is in this film. We have often talked in this column about how characters in documentary film are much more interesting than those in fiction films. The Direct Cinema/Cinema Verite approaches give us a much more intimate view of characters than traditional documentaries did. That was especially true of An American Family. Part of that was the filmmakers (Alan Raymond shot the series, and Susan Raymond did the sound). The Raymonds were less willing than Gilbert to invade the privacy of the Louds, but Gilbert pushed them into it. This may seem silly and outdated to you, but in the early days of CV/DC, filmmakers were actually concerned about issues like that. See my appreciation of Richard Leacock for the House for one of the earliest examples of that concern.

The series also got into the characters more deeply because it was twelve hours long, so we had side trips with other members of the family. The one we get most in Cinema Verite is the gay son, Lance Loud. Lance Loud was the first gay character on American television that viewers of the time spent more than a minute-and-a-half with. Seltzer also ends the script after the Raymonds shoot the scene where Pat asks Bill to move out. Unless you have seen the series, you may not know that it went on for several more hour-long episodes. The aftermath was in many ways the most fascinating part of the series, because there had really been nothing like it before. Unfortunately, because of time limitations, Seltzer can’t get into that. We only get a quick montage at the end of the reactions of the critics, cultural commentators, et al, about the show. There could be a whole 91 minute movie about the uproar the series caused. That’s the solution HBO, cut an hour or two out of Mildred Pierce and give it to Cinema Verite.

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: 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

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

3

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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