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Understanding Screenwriting #80: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #80: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, The Guard, Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks (book), The Spy in Black, Contraband, Escape, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein took grave exception to my observation that The Help was not just another “white person saves the day for black” viewpoint. My point was that the film goes beyond that. I realize there is a great split on that point, as about the film as well. I always love it when a film stirs up the kind on controversy The Help has. I think in this case it is because the film has gone some places other films have not, even if it has not gone as far as David and many, many others think it should. I’m looking forward to films that do go further than The Help, as much as I love that film.

“Denvercash77” asks what the “official opinion” of Slant is on The Help. My own view of that, and others who write and edit Slant and the House are free to disagree, is that both operations encourage a great variety of opinion about whatever we write about. That’s what leads to the kind of ongoing discussions David and I have had about nearly everything since he discovered “Understanding Screenwriting.” One of the things that writing my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing re-enforced in me was the enormous variety of responses people can have to a single movie. And how even a single person’s response to a film can change over time, as we have seen in some of the “Summer of ’86” pieces. There is no “official opinion,” especially in a blog like the House. If you want an “official version,” read the New York Times. They specialize in that sort of thing. We don’t.

Amigo (2010. Written by John Sayles. 128 minutes)

Are water buffalos this year’s Ishtar? Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war and sex. You would think with a resume like that, she’d be big in pictures. Unfortunately, no. She is one of the goddesses prayed to in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, which was not a hit. And she lent her name as the title for Elaine May’s 1987 disaster. Well, water buffalos are turning into this year’s Ishtar. First there is a long series of shots at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee (2010), which you may remember from US#72 did not put me in the contemplative mood the film intended. Then a couple of weeks later oxen, the American equivalent, showed up in the opening of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and that one ended badly, or rather didn’t end at all, but just stopped. So you can imagine my trepidation when one of the opening shots of Amigo has an honest-to-God water buffalo. Unfortunately water buffalo movies are 0-for-3 this season.

I love John Sayles, his scripts, and his films. His 1979 Return of the Secaucus Seven started the indie film movement of the last thirty years by being a fresh, inventive look at the ‘60s generation. Aside from a bad experience with Paramount on Baby, It’s You in 1983, he has avoided dealing with the major studios, except for doing script doctoring on films like Apollo 13 (1995). He writes and directs on his own films, selecting the kind of stories that nobody else is telling. The hallmarks of his films are his ability to write an enormous range of characters and his great ear for dialogue. The flaws in his films is that he is not as accomplished a director as he is as a screenwriter, and he can get overly preachy on the liberal side of the pulpit.

Amigo has none of his virtues and all of his flaws. It’s the story of the involvement of the U.S. Army in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. We are with a small group of soldiers who are asked to pacify a village in the middle of the jungle. The Americans are very standard-issue ugly Americans, or if not ugly, certainly naïve. None of them pop off the screen the way Sayles’s characters usually do. Nor do the Filipino characters. The head man of the village and the leading man of the film is Rafael, played by Filipino star Joel Torre with, alas, a very 2010 movie star haircut. Sayles is ordinarily good at getting into characters from other cultures, but not with Rafael. The rest of the villagers are not particularly distinctive either. Compare them to the ensembles in Sayles’s films such as City of Hope (1991), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002). So we spend a lot of time with the characters, both American and Filipino, but they are not very interesting to hang out with. The dialogue is alas Sayles in his preachy mode, and the insights Lt. Compton, the officer heading the unit, comes up with are about what you would expect and very bland.

Sayles’s direction does not make the best of what the script provides. I kept thinking of the hypnotic spell Terrence Malick cast with another group of American soldiers in the jungle in The Thin Red Line (1998). Were there any water buffalos in Thin Red Line?

So, John, sorry I didn’t like this one, but I will be there for your next one. Unless it is entitled The Water Buffalos of Ishtar. There are limits, even for me.

Circumstance (2011. Written by Maryam Keshavarz. 107 minutes)

Circumstance

Just your typical below-average Persian Lesbian romance: Although there are no water buffalos in this film, it still gets off to a bad start. We are in Tehran and hanging out with two teenage girls, Atafeh and Shireen. They are best friends forever, they dream of going away somewhere else where they will have more freedom (cue fantasy scenes), they flirt with boys, they flirt with each other. But their flirting with each other is written and more crucially directed by Keshavarz so that it seems more serious than it might be. So we get that there will be a lesbian romance. This is Keshavarz’s first feature as a writer and director, and she doesn’t get the tone right in this scene, which gives away way too soon what the movie is about. So the film then spends way more time than it needs to with the girls larking about while we are a good twenty to thirty minutes ahead of the movie. The first hour has a lot of stuff we don’t have to know. This is a typical first-timer’s mistake, assuming we need a lot more exposition than we do. How quickly do you think it takes Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson to do the following in the opening of Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Lawrence dies; there is service more him; we meet Brighton, Allenby, Bentley, the Medical Officer, and Murray; we learn they all have different views of Lawrence; and we get to Cairo? Five minutes and forty seconds, and that includes the credits.

We do get some amusing scenes with the two girls hanging out with sort-of boyfriends. The guys take them to a hidden video store where they watch Milk (2008), which leads them to a dubbing session (how? Not clear) in which they are dubbing the sex scenes of Sex and the City (2008) into Farsi. These are amusing scenes, but what movie are they from? They don’t seem to be from this one, at least as written and played. And they are not so good that you can’t not include them, although presumably Keshavarz thought so. You’ve got to kill all your darlings, kid. Several scenes give us a look at Iranian culture, but not with any depth or freshness. At the end of the film, some of the credits mention this was developed in the Sundance Institute. We know the development process in Hollywood can flatten out scripts for studio films, but the same thing can happen in indie development as well. The dubbing scenes probably played well in a workshop and the assumption was they would work in the film. Likewise, the assumption on the development level was that the story of two girls in Tehran who become lovers was going to be enough to carry the picture. It’s not, and a whole lot more sharpening of the script in terms of character and plotting needed to be done.

Having said that, the film begins to pick up in the last half hour. Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, has come out of either jail or rehab, and is now a member of the Morality Police. He rats out the girls (not for their lesbianism, but because they drive around in cars with boys) to the Morality Police. That’s even though he has the hots for Shireen (whom he has sexual dreams about—one nice shot in the film is his reaction to waking up from one of those dreams). Merhan manipulates the situation so that her family is glad to marry her off to Mehran to keep her out of trouble. Atafeh and Shireen are miserable about this, since it never occurs to them they can use their situation as sisters-in-law to continue their romance. Mehran has set up surveillance cameras in his house and he catches Atafeh being emotionally if not sexually intimate with Shireen. Atafeh finds the cameras and what he has recorded, but doesn’t do much with the information. She goes to Shireen and asks her to leave Tehran and go to their dream county, Dubai. (These are not worldly girls.) Their final scene ought to be a killer, but there is nothing there. Atafeh asks, Shireen doesn’t do or say anything, and we see Atafeh leaving in a car. I suspect part of the problem is that while Nikohl Boosheri, who plays Atafeh, has a lively presence on camera, Sarah Kazemy, who plays Shireen, is beautiful but completely unexpressive. She is not up to what should have been the demands of the scene.

The Debt (2010. Screenplay by Mathew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn, based on the screenplay for the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum. 114 minutes)

The Debt

Finally, I picked a good one to go see: I have no complaints about the first ten minutes or so of this one. We are introduced to the young versions of Rachel, Stephan and David, three Mossad agents in 1966, who have come back to Israel after killing the notorious Dieter Vogel, the notorious “Surgeon of Birkenau.” Then we get introduced to the same characters in 1997, who are celebrating the publication of a book by Rachel and Stephan’s daughter about the mission. At the celebration Rachel reads aloud the passage where Vogel is killed and we see it acted out in flashback. And we see the older David throw himself in front of a truck rather than go to the celebration. No nonsense about us being twenty minutes ahead of the film, it’s way ahead of us, and we are running to catch up.

Finally we settle into a lengthy flashback sequence of the mission in 1965-66. The Israeli version this one is based on has less of the flashbacks and focuses more on the older characters. (I have not seen the Israeli film, but Michele Gendelman, a screenwriter and colleague of mine at LACC—she has taken over my screenwriting course—has, and points of comparison come from her.) The three younger agents are in East Berlin (West Berlin in the Israeli version; the writers of the new version are making it more difficult for the agents), and Rachel, on her first field mission, is required to identify Vogel, who is now a kindly gynecologist. The examination sequences, also in the Israeli version, are even more squirm-inducing that the dentist scenes with Szell in Marathon Man (1976). The plan is to kidnap Vogel, put him on a trolley stop in East Berlin that is nominally closed because it is part of the West Berlin rail system. See the advantage of East Berlin? In a great hair-raising sequence not in the earlier version, the transfer goes wrong and the trio is stuck with Vogel in a small apartment. The pressure on all the characters, including Vogel, builds up until he escapes, as we saw in the earlier flashback. Except this time Rachel does not shoot him. He gets away, and the trio decides to tell their bosses that they killed him and got rid of the body. They come home as heroes, which they remain to this day, telling their story to future generations. Yes indeed, this is a classic “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend” situation.

Making a movie in which the same character is played at two different ages is enormously difficult. You have to write both versions of the characters so we believe them not only in their own scenes, but that the young ones will become the older ones. Movie after movie geeks that. In the 1994 version of Little Women, I just never believed that Kristen Dunst’s young Amy would grow up to be Samantha Mathis’s older Amy. The best example of it working is Kate Winslet as the young Iris and Judi Dench as the older Iris in Iris (2001). The Debt comes close to that standard, and does it with three sets of characters. The younger Rachel is on her first assignment, still a little green, but up to the job. The older Rachel is a tough cookie. We see the beginnings of that in the young Rachel, and the writers give us a one-off, a nice single scene set in 1970 in which we see the young Rachel, now married to Stephan, turning brittle. It helps of course that you have the fabulous Jessica Chastain (is there nothing this actress can’t do?) as the young Rachel, giving an even better performance than she does in The Help. It’s also useful to have Helen Mirren as the older Rachel, so that when we come out of the long flashback Mirren is there to grab us into the modern story.

The quality of the writing and casting extends to the two men. When I first saw Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington as the young Stephan and David, respectively, I thought they should have been playing the other parts. Worthington physically looks more like Tom Wilkinson, who plays the older Stephan, and Csokas looks more like Ciarán Hinds, who plays the older David. But the emotional temperature of the actors are perfectly matched. The casting works, as it does with Chastain and Mirren. The characters at both ages are so beautifully written (the film is as much a character study as a thriller) that we believe everybody at every age.

So then what happens? Why did David kill himself? Because he learned that there is an old man in a hospital in Ukraine claiming to be…Vogel. This happens a lot earlier in the Israeli version. Stephan, now high up in the Mossad, can’t go tie up loose ends because he is in a wheelchair. David is dead, and that leaves…Rachel. After all, she’s the one who had the gynecological exam from Vogel. So she goes off, breaks into several offices (I thought she was retired from the service, but once a sneaky one, always a sneaky one), and the hospital room and discovers the man…is not Vogel. Whew! Don’t get up to leave just yet…

The Guard (2011. Written by John Michael McDonagh. 96 minutes)

The Guard

And another entertaining one: You know a picture has you when you start laughing before anybody says anything. A carload of probably drunken young Irish kids are zipping down the highway, rock and roll blaring. Their car zips past a cop car. The camera stays on the cop in the car, Sergeant Gerry Boyle. He makes no move to give chase. We hear a crash off-screen. Boyle has no reaction. The audience laughs. He turns his car’s engine on and goes to investigate. There are bodies all over the road. He checks A) to see if they are dead, and B) their pockets to see which of their drugs he wants to keep for himself. What we have here is a small town Irish Andy Sipowitz, and he is going to be even more fun to watch.

John Michael McDonagh is the brother of playwright (Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman) Martin McDonagh. As a filmgoer you know Martin McDonagh best from his writing and directing In Bruges (2008). If that film’s combination of language foul and otherwise, comedy, and violence appealed to you as it did to me, you are going to feel right at home with The Guard. It helps that this McDonagh uses his brother’s favorite actor, Brendon Gleeson, to play Boyle. It appears that the McDonagh brothers and Gleeson are going to be one of those writer-actor combinations like Loos and Harlow (see US #79). Not only has this McDonagh written another great part for Gleeson, he has made it a little deeper than the ones his brother has given him.

Although it may seem like it at the beginning of the film, there is more to the film than just Boyle being a character and offending everybody with his language and behavior. We are afraid in the opening scenes this is going to be an old cop/young cop movie, but the young cop leaves the picture abruptly. Boyle is soon partnered up with a prissy—compared to him—African-American F.B.I. agent Wendell Everett. That produces scenes that are more interesting than the ones with the young cop. Everett is in Ireland investigating the possible landing of a drug smuggling boat with $500 million worth of drugs (and listen to the fun McDonagh has with that number in the dialogue). It turns out that for all Boyle’s vices, he is one of the few honest cops in the neighborhood, maybe in Ireland, which leads to a wonderful line about the impossibility of bribing Americans. At least compared to the Irish.

As the plot gets more complicated, we continue to laugh, especially at Don Cheadle’s reactions of Everett to Boyle’s excesses. McDonagh, who also directed, understands as did Buster Keaton that the reaction to something is just as funny or funnier than the thing itself. In addition, McDonagh is sneaking up on us. We begin to see that Boyle is facing some serious moral and ethical decisions, and since we like him as a character so much, we emotionally involved in his choices. He and Everett get into a shootout with the bad guys, and it appears that Boyle has either died in the fire on the boat, or else drowned. Except that a twerpy little kid reminds Everett of some stuff we thought was just one-offs and typical Boyle bullshit. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, and McDonagh leaves it very, very open at the end. Sometimes, and this time is one of them, not knowing is the most satisfying ending of them all.

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard Brooks (2011. Book written by Douglass K. Daniel. 249 pages)

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard BrooksA disappointment: In US#73 I mentioned this book when I talked about two Richard Brooks films that showed up in a retrospective of Brooks films at the UCLA Film Archives. I finally got around to reading it and I have to say it is second rate. But that’s not third, fourth, or fifth rate as so many film books are.

As the subtitle says, it is about Brooks’s life and films. The films pretty much were his life, since he was a workaholic from the get-go. He was a journalist, both in print and radio before World War II, then wrote a novel called The Brick Foxhole while still in the service. It was eventually made into Crossfire (1947), but with the murder victim changed from a homosexual in the novel to a Jew in the film. Brooks’s first big credit, as I mentioned in US#78, was Key Largo (1948), and he soon landed at MGM and began directing in the early ‘50s. His filmography includes Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967).

Daniel does give us a lot of details about the films, mostly about Brooks directing, since that produces lively quotes about him being a holy terror on the set. But there is also good material about the writing. Sinclair Lewis, the author of the novel of Elmer Gantry, told Brooks to read the reviews of the book, which Lewis thought had pointed out many legitimate flaws in the book. Brooks did and it helped him focus the material for the film. Daniel is good on the way Brooks dealt with the censorship of the time in adapting two Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), whatever you may think of the results.

Although Daniel had a researcher working on digging up stuff, Daniel, whose two previous books are about television, doesn’t seem that well versed in film history. He mentions that a minor Brooks script, To the Victor (1948) was filmed on location in Paris, “an extravagance for the time,” but that was a period when Hollywood was beginning to shoot on locations, particularly overseas ones, a lot. Daniel writes that “By the summer of 1947 the House Committee on Un-American activities…was preparing for hearings…” HUAC had been looking into Communism in Hollywood for several years, and in fact had some hearings in Los Angeles in the spring of 1947. And nobody seems to have caught the irony of Robert Black having a line in In Cold Blood about a bunch of trash being the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Blake appeared in the Huston film as a child actor.
Daniel is also a very sloppy writer. Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955. Daniel writes, “The biggest controversy erupted that fall when the Venice Film Festival selected Blackboard Jungle for exhibition. (It had been awarded a diploma of merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival the previous November.)” OK, what year did it go to Venice and what year did it go to Edinburgh? It’s not clear in the book.

This book is part of the Wisconsin Film Studies series from the University of Wisconsin Press, which produced the excellent Glenn Lovell biography of John Sturges I have mentioned. The series editor is Pat McGilligan, whom I think almost as highly of as I do John Sayles, but it looks like McGilligan and Sayles, like Homer, are nodding this time around. Make up your own water buffalo joke here.

The Spy in Black (1939. Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Roland Pertwee, based on the novel by Storer Clouston. 82 minutes)

The Spy in Black

The beginning of a beautiful relationship: Pressburger was a Hungarian screenwriter who worked in Germany before escaping to France in 1934 and then to Britain in 1936. He is best known for his long-time collaboration with director Michael Powell on such elaborate and exotic films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). But even they started small. This film is their first collaboration.

In the summer of 1938 Pressburger had already written one script for Alexander Korda, the Hungarian producer working in England. Korda called him into the office one day. Korda said he did not have any more work for him, unless (Pressburger later said, “I was soon to learn that with Korda there was always an ’unless’”) he might like to try to save a project called The Spy in Black. Korda and London Films had the great German actor Conrad Veidt under contract. Veidt’s place in film history was already secure with his classic performance as Cesare, the somnabulist, in the 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt had also left Germany in the ‘30s and ended up in London, but nobody could find a project for him. Korda and his American executive producer on loan from Columbia Pictures had tried to get a script, but nothing worked, probably because there was no obvious part in the novel for Veidt. Pressburger was given the latest script, by Roland Pertwee, and came into a meeting a few days later with Asher (the American), Pertwee, Korda and Michael Powell, who had already made a name for himself with the 1936 film The Edge of the World.

Pressburger proceeded to outline a totally new story that had almost no relationship to the novel. It not only was a better story, but it had a great part for Veidt. Asher and Pertwee were furious, but Korda assigned Pressburger and Powell to work on the script with Veidt. Pertwee’s name stayed on the credits, although very little of his work remained in the script. (This backstory is from Pressburger’s grandson Kevin Macdonald 1994 biography, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Macdonald’s comment on Pertwee’s credit is that “Throughout the Thirties the writing credits on British films are often better fiction than the films themselves.” True in America as well, as we have discussed.)

The story they came up with has Veidt as Captain Hardt, a German submarine captain in World War I. (There is no submarine captain in the novel; the spy is a minister.) He is assigned a mission to go to the Orkney Islands, off the upper tip of Scotland, and make contact with a woman who is a German spy (a variation on the minister in the book). She knows a drunken traitorous British Naval officer who will give her the sailing orders for the British fleet. She will pass this on to Hardt, who will then be able to torpedo the British ships. But the Brits have discovered the plot and replaced the German spy with a British one. And she and Hardt develop an attraction.

What Pressburger brings to the script is a wonderful light touch. The film is very much in the tradition of the British Hitchcock movies of the late ‘30s, but there is more warmth and feeling than Hitch managed. We first meet Hardt when he is coming off a long mission, and he and his First Mate go into a fancy restaurant in Germany hoping for a great meal. But the restaurant is out of everything they want. We get that Hardt is cool and sophisticated as well as in charge. We are then introduced to Anne Burnett, the teacher going to the Orkney Islands that Hardt is to meet. Unfortunately, either the writing, or the cinematography, or just the print TCM showed leaves us very confused as to what happens to her. She’s kidnapped, but by the Germans or the British? And when she shows up on the islands, is it the same woman? The actresses look a lot alike, but they are different. The explanation of what happened comes much later in the film, and makes even less sense than the kidnapping scenes in the dark, as well as not being particularly believable. But then Hardt and the teacher, now played by a young and glowing Valerie Hobson, meet, and the movie takes off. Powell, whose Edge of the World was acclaimed for its location filming, wanted to shoot on the islands, but Asher, watching the American money that made up some of the budget, refused. Powell was eventually allowed three days of shooting on the islands, but with none of the cast.

When it turns out the teacher is in fact an English counterspy, Hardt becomes a tough, but not mean, military leader, trying to escape, commandeering a ferry, and trying to rescue some trapped German sailors. He fails of course, and the teacher looks noble as she realizes she has done the right thing for King and Country.

The Spy in Black was shot in late 1938 and released August 12, 1939. Within a month World War II had started and what had been a light thriller was now one of the first wartime propaganda films. And sometimes you get even luckier: In October the British battleship Royal Oak was sunk, probably by a German submarine, off the Orkneys. OK, not lucky for the men on the ship, but for the box office. Let’s keep our priorities straight here, folks.

Contraband (1940. Screenplay and Original Story by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Michael Powell and Brock Williams. 92 minutes)

Contraband

We’ll always have the Three Vikings: Needless to say, after the success of The Spy in Black, Korda and everybody else thought the team should make another one. So Pressburger came up with the script for this. (I have no idea what the “scenario” credit is in this case. On Spy it was to give a credit to an earlier writer; here it may be something more like a shooting script that Powell worked out with Williams, a journeyman writer with no distinguished credits. See Macdonald’s comment above on screenwriting credits; he makes no mention of Williams in his book.) He could not make Veidt a sympathetic German after the war started, so he is now Captain Andersen, a Danish sea captain, whose cargo ship is stopped by the British Contraband Control. The first twenty minutes or so of the film is almost a documentary on the Contraband Control offices and how they work, part of the propaganda aspect of the film. Powell was now able to get outdoors, and the ship sequences are great to look at it. It helps of course that he has F.A. Young as his cinematographer. If you don’t know who he is and what he did later, look him up.

While the ship is at anchor, Mrs. Sorensen, a Danish woman who has been living in America, gets off the ship, along with Mr. Pidgeon, a talent scout who is always reading Variety. Mrs. Sorensen has snitched the leave papers the Brits gave to Captain Andersen. So Andersen goes ashore and tracks her down. We get a lot of scenes of Veidt and the still young and glowing Valerie Hobson doing all the charming stuff that Pressburger writes for them. By now the three knew each other well, and Pressburger put in stuff based on what he knew of them. The couple ends up at a restaurant called The Three Vikings; typical in-joke: Pressburger making fun of Veidt’s problem with English pronunciation, as he did in Spy, in this case with the word “viking.” The restaurant was a virtual duplicate of one Veidt and Hobson ate at in real life. The restaurant is run by the twin brother of Andersen’s first officer, although he and the staff seem more like natives of Pressburger’s Hungary than Danes.

About halfway into the picture, the spy stuff starts. Mrs. Sorensen and Mr. Pidgeon as well turn out to be spies, tracking down a German spy ring in London. Action ensues, including a fight in a warehouse filled with busts of Neville Chamberlain. Andersen uses one to knock out a bad guy, then says, “I always thought he was tough.” In both Spy and even more so here, Pressburger has written scenes that let Powell and his crew develop a German Expressionistic visual style. Well, if you have the star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it makes sense to surround him with a look that he will feel at home in. Here the film uses the fact that the blackouts have started at the beginning of the war to add to the visual subtlety. The film grossed more than Spy. Pressburger and Powell would move from these two into more expressionistic films. Hobson later went on to star in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and marry politician John Profumo, the swine. And what of Veidt?

Escape (1940. Screenplay by Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Ethel Vance. 104 minutes)

Escape

Round up the usual suspect: Veidt came to America. Contraband was released in England on May 11, 1940, but not in America until the end of November. In he meanwhile Veidt had made Escape, which was released in early November 1940. The film was based on a best-selling novel about an American who goes to Germany (although the country is never mentioned by name in the film; the Swastikas do give it away though) to try to track down his mother. She was German born, as was Mark, the American. She returned to Germany, but he has lost track of her. She is in fact not only in a concentration camp but soon to be executed. Mark makes friends with the Countess, an American woman who is the mistress of General von Kolb. Guess which part Veidt plays?

Arch Oboler was best known for the radio show Lights Out, which started in the ‘30s and continued through the mid-‘40s. Which may explain why the first hour or so of Escape, his first screenplay, is so bloody talky. The director is Mervyn LeRoy (see US # 79), who by this time had moved over to MGM from Warners. His directorial style had become more typically MGM: slow and stately, with lots of Jack Conway-type two-shots of actors talking nose to nose. LeRoy says in his autobiography Take One that Veidt was his original choice for the role, but was unavailable. LeRoy started shooting with Paul Lukas, but had to let him go, since the part was not right for him. Boy, that’s the truth. Von Kolb is a general, but not a Nazi, and is rather disdainful of the Nazis. In his earliest scenes, he shows the charm that Veidt showed in the two Pressburger films. Veidt was a hell of a lot more charming on screen than Lukas, who had other skills. The combination of charm and threat was necessary for the part, since the Countess was being played by Mrs. Thalberg herself, Norma Shearer. We have to see that von Kolb has some appeal, and Veidt gives him that. In terms of the balance of the film, he gives him too much. Mark is played by Robert Taylor, who never seemed more like a block of wood than he does here. Everybody else is livelier than he is, but Veidt especially. Pauline Kael, as she often did, pretty much got it right when she wrote that “the villain is so much more attractive than the hero that the whole thing turns into a feeble and overproduced joke.”

The film is a little better than that in the second half, which I suspect was written by Roberts, our old friend from Ambush (1950, see US#45) and True Grit (1969, see US#67). Mark, with help of assorted people, arranges to get his mother out of the camp. The camp doctor gives her a drug that makes her appear dead, then signs the death certificate. An old friend of Mark’s, who has been established as the person who carts the coffins out of the camp, arranges to take this coffin. Circumstances force them to go to the Countess’s house. Guess who shows up there? The scenes in the house should be a lot more suspenseful on screen than they are. Think of the final twenty minutes of Notorious (1946) and you can see what they could have been. I ping on Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend, but the son of a bitch could direct.

Veidt does get a nice death scene, with Shearer, livelier than usual, talking him into a fatal heart attack. MGM really was too genteel a studio for Veidt. He soon moved to Warner Brothers, where he went head to head with Humphrey Bogart, a more fitting adversary than, eew, Robert Taylor. And in his second to last film before his death at the age of 50, Cesare of Dr. Caligari got something not many actors get: a second role that secured his place in film history. He was Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).

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.

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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.

3

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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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