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Understanding Screenwriting #81: Sarah’s Key, Bobby, Summer Cable TV, & More

My wife and I have been huge fans of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil since it first played in Los Angeles at an Arts Festival in 1986.

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Understanding Screenwriting #81: Sarah’s Key, Bobby, Summer Cable TV, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Iris (stage production), Sarah’s Key, Bobby, Shakespeare Wallah, End of the Summer 2011 Cable TV Season, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein commented that the collaboration between Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, which I discussed a bit in US#80, was worthy of further examination. It definitely is, as are the collaborations of not only the other writers I have written about, but many more. The historiography of screenwriting is not an area where a lot of film historians, especially academic ones, work. It’s not a smart career move for opportunistic academics, given the old guys on their dissertation committees who still believe that directors make their movies as they go along. I have been promoting the idea that screenwriters should be examined in more detail for decades now. Being the Midwestern optimist I am, I see the glass as half full. Well, maybe a quarter full. There have been biographies of screenwriters, and in US#82 I will be writing about Pat McGilligan’s Backstory 5, the latest in the gold standard of screenwriter interview books. On the other hand, I recently saw a list of the Ph.D. dissertations done since 1975 at UCLA on film subjects. There were more than you can shake a stick at on film noir and feminist theory, but not a lot on screenwriting.

Iris (2011. Stage production written by Philippe Decoufle. 135 minutes)

Half a disaster: My wife and I have been huge fans of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil since it first played in Los Angeles at an Arts Festival in 1986. If you have never seen a Cirque production, you should. It is a circus without animals, but usually with incredible athletic performers (gymnasts, contortionists, aerialists, and other people who do things there are no names for) and incredibly funny clowns. The atmosphere is more European than American, and some of the acts, especially the clowns, are existentialism in motion. The organization started in 1984 with a collection of street performers in Montreal and now runs 21 shows around the world, some touring, and some (several in Las Vegas) in permanent residence. Iris is the new Cirque production settling down for what they hope will be a long run at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. That’s where the Oscars are held, so it will not surprise you to learn that the theme of Iris is Cinema. Previous Cirque shows have subtly referenced film before. Their 2007 show Corteo was very much late-period Fellini, with elaborate surrealism and special effects. The 2009 show Kooza was early Fellini, without the special effects, and a bit of an Ingmar Bergman aura as well.

So you can imagine how disappointed I am that Iris is, if not a total disaster, at least half a disaster. Even though this is a column on screenwriting, I have in the past written about stage productions that connect with films in a variety of ways. Iris raises all kinds of questions about the relationship between theater, circus and film, and the differences of writing for them. Let’s start with the issue of structure. What, you fans of Cirque say, these shows do not have a structure? Oh yes they do. It is usually in the simple form of a sometimes innocent, sometimes not-so-innocent, character who gets involved with the circus, or whatever the circus in a given production represents. He reacts to the acts, becomes part of them, and comes out either a better person or else dead. The structure is minimal, but it makes the shows hold together in a way that most circuses don’t. Here the structure seems to focus on two characters. One is Buster, the young man. He is described in the free program (just get the free program; it is the only one that tells you anything about the show. The $15 souvenir program is all pictures and no information, part of the longstanding if irritating Cirque tradition) as “a lonely young man yearning for romance.”

Well, that sounds like typical Cirque, but as written and performed, we get no feeling that a) he is lonely, or b) he is yearning for romance. Now you would think that with a name like Buster, he remind us of Keaton, but he doesn’t. In the program photographs, but not in the show, he wears horn-rimmed glasses. The program says he resembles “such humble heroes of the silent screen as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd,” but he doesn’t. He looks and acts more like Donald O’Conner in the early numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, especially when he does the walk up the wall and backflip O’Conner does in the “Make ’em Laugh” number. If one got the sense that the show was playing around with a variety of icons, it might make sense, but here it just feels haphazard.

The other major character is Scarlett, the girl. Well, the only Scarlett we know is O’Hara, and the girl here is nothing like her. This one is a generic innocent girl who ends up becoming a movie star (although a photo spread in the September 18th Los Angeles Times makes it clearer than onstage that she is played by several different performers. If you are going to call Buster Buster and if you are going to call Scarlett Scarlett, we had better see the connection with their forebears, or else make it a non sequitur so we see there is no connection. In a film it would need to be more specific, but in a Cirque show you could get away with them being more abstract. An ongoing problem is that for all the money Cirque spent on the show and refurbishing the Kodak Theatre, they couldn’t be bothered to get the rights to portray real actors or use real film clips. The movies are a very concrete medium: Charlie Chaplin turns a corner in a different way than Keaton or Lloyd do. Cirque shows are often wonderfully abstract and movies are not (with the exception of certain art films). If you are going to do a show about Cinema, you may need to be more specific. On the other hand, they may just have had their “abstract” caps on and figured they could be more general. But then they shouldn’t call them Buster and Scarlett.

Even if you make Buster and Scarlett more specific, the next problem with Act One is that they very seldom show up. Traditionally the “access characters” relate to the performing acts, but that does not happen here. That would not be a problem if the acts themselves were better. I have always judged Cirque shows by how early in the show I think “A human body cannot do what I just saw a human body do.” Often it’s in the first ten or fifteen minutes. Here it never happened. Not in Act One, not in Act Two. It may be that with 21 shows running around the world, plus all the imitation Cirques floating around, that the world has run out of astonishing acts. If that’s true, the world is a much sadder place than I want to live in. The aerialists and the contortionists here are good, but they are never dazzling. It may also be that since Iris is in a big, 2,500-seat theater rather that in a tent, the audience (we were in the mezzanine) is perhaps a little too far away to be overwhelmed.

The best number in Act One is a “Filmstrip,” where there are seven panels, each representing a frame of film, with people in each one performing the same motions one after the other, so it looks like a Zoetrope strip. The supertitle over the set reads “In Motion We Trust,” which is a great motto for both Cirque in general and this production, but the show only fitfully lives up to it. Act One focuses on motion, and the show seems obsessed with the early motion films of the Zoetropes and Muybridge film series. One of the characters is a woman dressed in a device that appears to be sort of a hulahoop with a what the Times piece calls a Praxinoscope strip inside, so when she twirls we see two boxers fighting. At least that’s what I think it is. The characters work the main floor, but did not come up to the mezzanine. And even though the characters are oddly dressed, especially the clowns, they don’t look all that different from people you see every day outside the theater on Hollywood Boulevard. In the “pre-game” period before the show proper begins, it was hard to tell the “characters” from some members of the audience.

Fortunately Act Two gets better. Buster and Scarlett are a little more involved in the action, and the opening number should have been the opening number of the show. We are on a soundstage/location where all kinds of characters are running in and out, bouncing up and down, and swinging through the multiple levels of the set. It is an imaginative recreation of all those scenes you have seen in films set in movie studios where suddenly somebody in a weird costume walks by. Here everybody is in a weird costume, and they walk, swing, bounce and fly. That is matched by a later number called “Noir,” which is exactly what you think it is: There is a slinky dame, although it’s not clear if it’s supposed to be Scarlett. She is blonde like Scarlett, but played by a gymnast rather than the women playing her elsewhere. There is also a lot of bouncing around on trampolines that are the roofs of the buildings. Who knew somebody who was shot could bounce so high when they hit a “roof”? The show might be better off if it had more numbers like “Noir” that reference other genres like westerns, musicals, fantasy films, and especially for the Cirque tradition, sci-fi. The Chinese girl contortionists would fit nicely in the latter, and the two guys on ropes could be a twin Tarzan act in an Indiana Jones adventure ripoff.

I mentioned earlier that one of the glories of Cirque shows were the clowns. The clowns here are just not funny. That’s not helped by them being given some truly stale jokes about Hollywood and the Oscars. And the jokes are not even true enough to be funny. In the Act Two opener, somebody asks the “writer,” one of the clowns, what his name is. He replies “Alan Smithee.” Now in Los Angeles, even four-year olds know that “Alan Smithee” is the pseudonym directors use when they don’t want their name on the credits. What could he reply? How about “Joe Gillis”? Or “Robert Rich”? OK, “Rich” is a little too obscure for the masses (it was Dalton Trumbo’s pseudonym on the story he won an Oscar for when he was blacklisted), but “Gillis” would get at least as much a laugh as “Smithee” did, and a more comfortable laugh at that. Or. Given that the clown runs around, try “Aaron Sorkin.” One gets the feeling that this show was put together by people who have never seen a movie. I am not asking for everything to be historically correct, since in a Cirque show what we want is an imaginative view. With the few exceptions mentioned, we don’t get that. In an audience participation number mimicking the Oscars, they include a film clip that is a parody of the shower scene in Psycho (1960), but it is very amateurishly done. I have had first semester students who have done more imaginative rip-offs, including one who showed a murder in a lawn sprinkler.

Iris was still officially in previews when we saw it. Traditionally one does not review shows in previews, although the Broadway production of Spiderman having seven years of previews has pretty much killed off that tradition. Iris has been running since July and its opening date is September 24th, so by the time you read this it will have officially opened. Cirque du Soleil does have a long history of continuing to work on their shows after they open as acts come and go. The one thing they definitely ought to keep is Danny Elfman’s music, which I liked a lot better than most Cirque scores. It might be worth it to check in a couple of years from now, assuming it runs that long, to see what the Cirque kids have done. One bad show should not be enough for any of us to give up on Cirque forever.

Sarah’s Key (2010. Screenplay by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour, based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. 111 minutes)

Doing what The Debt does, but not as well: We are time-traveling with the Jews again, this time between 1942 and 2009, but with one exception we do not have to worry about multiple castings of the same character. We start in Paris in July 1942 as Jews are being rounded up to be sent to concentration camps. Sarah, a young girl, locks her brother in the closet of their apartment to keep him from being taken by the police. She then spends the first hour of the film escaping from the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where the Jews are being temporarily held, so she can rescue the brother. She does get back to the apartment, but it is too late. He’s dead. Meanwhile, we are intercutting with Julia, a journalist who in 2009 is writing a piece on the roundup of the Jews. It is she, in the second scene of the film, who tells some younger journalists that it was not the Germans who ran the roundup, but the French. The youngsters are shocked, but if you are familiar with history, it may not be that much of a surprise to you. The 1942 sequences are very dramatic, but in very obvious ways. There is a lot of yelling and crying, as you would expect, but it is all too much on the nose. There is no subtlety in the presentation of any of the characters. The filmmakers (Paquet-Brenner also directed) should have gone back and looked at the great Marcel Ophuls documentaries The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988) for richly detailed looks at the attitudes of the French toward the Jews. We have often talked here about how documentaries are often better at showing us characters than fiction films are, and that is true of these two. For a documentary that shows the attitudes of the Vichy government they should have looked at Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy (1993), a documentary made up entirely of excerpts of Vichy newsreel and propaganda films. It is a bizarre alternate look at the reality of German-occupied France, which, since it was put together by Cabrol, shouldn’t surprise you.

While we are following Sarah, we are also following Julia as she comes to realize that the apartment she and her husband have just rented, which is the apartment he grew up in, was where Sarah and her family lived. The husband’s family moved in in August of 1942, and Julia upsets the elders of the family by digging into the history. Her husband’s father admits he was there the day little Sarah showed up and they discovered what the smell in the place really was. That’s at the one-hour mark, and you could finish the film at that point. But Julia becomes determined to track down what happened to Sarah. Two problems here. The first is that the role of Sarah, who as a child has been played in a stunningly feral performance by Mélusine Mayance, is now taken over by an attractive but totally unexpressive actress in her twenties. Worse, the older version of Sarah is not given anything to do. And Julia discovers Sarah committed suicide in the mid-‘60s. Well, the movie could end there. But Julia keeps searching and eventually finds her son, William. It is awfully late in the film to introduce a new major character. She tells him Sarah’s backstory, which he did not know, and he is upset to learn he is Jewish. Now that, like so many other reactions in the film, is standard issue. What if he loves the idea? Or at least it means certain things in his life make sense, like his love of gefilte fish? A constant problem throughout the film is that the writers and director are settling on the most obvious reactions, rather than digging deeper into the characters and their attitudes. I don’t know how much of that problem is from the novel, but the filmmakers should have fixed it.

As the film goes on, the action becomes one damned thing after another, and the writers are missing wonderful opportunities to examine attitudes not only of the French in 1942, but of the French in more recent times as well as Americans. Granted this is something the novel may well have done better, but if you are telling the story on film, you ought to get the most out of it that you can.

Bobby (2006. Written by Emilio Estevez. 120 minutes)

Grand Hotel with politics: This is one I missed in theaters and caught up with recently on cable. It is a very ambitious movie that doesn’t fulfill its promise. We are in and around the venerable Ambassador Hotel on June 4th and 5th, 1968, the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. You know Estevez, who also directed, was aware of the connection to the 1932 classic, since a couple of character refer to it early in the film. Fortunately that is the only reference to it, since Estevez is more interested in the politics involved. Too much so, since he loads up the film with several montages of newsreel and television coverage of Kennedy campaigning. This pulls us out of the film, since it takes us away from the multiple storylines and characters we are following. Yes, Estevez obviously idolizes Kennedy, but that could be and is better expressed in the characters he selects. And there is a whole pile of characters, nearly all of them sympathetic to Bobby. Some don’t care much, but Estevez does not go so far as to throw an anti-Kennedy Democrat or even a pro-Nixon Republican into the mix. That certainly would have made the film a little less like preaching to the choir.

Estevez, being an actor, is good at writing and directing scenes, but often the scenes are more like acting exercises than parts of a complete film. The scenes could have been sharpened to focus as much on the ideas and themes of the film and still not have lost the opportunities they give the actors. And Estevez has put together a heavyweight cast. Sharon Stone, in ‘60s hair and makeup, is unrecognizable as the beautician in the hotel beauty shop. She gets a couple of great scenes, one with Lindsay Lohan, back in the day when Lohan was a real actress, and another with William H. Macy as her husband. Freddy Rodríguez holds the screen as a busboy who has tickets to the Dodger game that night but has to work. Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, and Helen Hunt played an established married couple with some personal problems, but their scenes are typical of the ones that don’t necessarily connect well to the Kennedy story.

As we get closer to the assassination, the tension naturally picks up, and the immediate aftermath is well handled by Estevez as both writer and director, but the ending is confusing. The way Estevez has directed the scenes, it looks as though several of “our” cast members have been killed. Given the blood that is coming out of them, I cannot see how they survived, but there is no indication in the scenes that they do. But an end title says that nobody but Kennedy was killed that night. I have the suspicion that Estevez wrote and directed those scenes intending the characters to die, but when somebody pointed out the reality of the night, the title was added later.

Estevez hadn’t directed a film after Bobby, which was not a commercial success, until The Way (2010). It sounds even more ambitious than Bobby. It is scheduled for release this month.

Shakespeare Wallah (1965. Screenplay and Story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. 120 minutes)

Near the beginning of a beautiful relationship: In 1961 the young team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory decided to make their first feature film. They bought the film rights to the novel The Householder by Jhabvala. Since they had never made a film before, they figured why not ask the novelist to adapt it into a screenplay. As Jhabvala later told interview Vincent LoBrutto (the interview is in Backstory 4), “We made a lot of mistakes.” But they all learned and went on to have a legendary artistic collaboration that included A Room With a View (1986), Howards End (1991), and The Remains of the Day (1993). Shakespeare Wallah was their second film.

Even before he met Jhabvala, Ivory had wanted to make a film about a group of traveling actors. He originally wanted to make them Indian actors, but then he met a troupe of English actors. Jhabvala read the diary of one of them and thought the story would give them an opportunity to show the end of the British Empire in India. Ivory was in America and Jhabvala was in India, so they collaborated by letter on the story and screenplay. Unfortunately, Jhabvala is still too much the novelist, and the film is long, slow, and very sluggish. She later learned that you do not need nearly as much dialogue in the film as you do in a novel, and she became a master of adaptation. The problem with a lot of the dialogue here is that it is very flat, as is the characterization of the actors. The head of the troupe and his wife are played by actors whom the film is based on. Their daughter in real life plays the daughter in the film. In spite of all that reality behind the scenes, the script simply does not give us the kind of backstage texture it should. Jhabvala does not begin to bring in the connection to the end of the Empire until midway through the film, but then in very literal chunks of dialogue in three or four scenes that are played one after the other.

The two characters who are not based on real people are more interesting to watch. One is an Indian playboy who falls in love with Lizzie, the daughter. He is rich enough to follow her around on her travels. The other is his mistress, who is a spoiled movie star. We meet her when she is filming a very “Bollywood” musical number and for a minute we think the projectionist had switched reels. The best scene in the picture is when the playboy convinces the mistress to come and see the troupe perform. She is bored out of her skull, and begins to call attention to herself. The crowd is more impressed that there is a movie star present than by the play. Unlike most of the other scenes, it has very little dialogue. Jhabvala was beginning to learn the difference between novels and film.

End of the summer 2011 cable TV season: I have been watching a bunch of shows over the summer, although I haven’t seen that much I wanted to write about. They were all doing reasonably well, and were certainly entertaining. What struck me over the last week or so is the different way they ended their half seasons.

Burn Notice has had Michael dealing with someone trying to frame him for the shooting of Max, his contact at the C.I.A.. Michael has managed to throw Pearce, the C.I.A. officer investigating the shooting, off his trail, but only by withholding information from her. He has tracked down the real killer, Tavian, but at the end of “Better Halves” (written by Lisa Joy) Pearce has finally figured out that Michael “is” Max’s killer and arrests him. At the beginning of the next episode “Dead to Rights” (written by Jason Tracey), Michael convinces Pearce to let him go to the meeting he has set up with Tavian, but with a wire. She agrees, Tavian admits he killed Max, and then commits suicide, so Michael is still at a dead end as to who has set him up and why. Pearce has cleared Michael, but we are early in the show. Who shows up but Larry, Michael’s mentor who had gone over to the dark side, not a long trip for him. He has managed to get out of the Albanian prison he went to several episodes ago, and he now wants Michael’s help to break into the British consulate. To do this Larry has kidnapped a psychiatrist, Anson, and is holding Anson’s wife with a bomb attached to her neck. Typical Larry. Anson has the access codes they need. On the way to the consulate Michael tells Anson how to escape, which he does and contacts Fi and Sam. We learn that it was Larry who got Michael burned because Michael “let” Larry kill a pile of people in Chechnya. Fi manages to attach one of her special bombs on the window of the room Larry is in and blows him up. At least we think he is dead. So that’s all to the—BOOM!—several other bombs go off around the consulate. When did Larry have time to set them? He didn’t. Who did? If you have not seen this episode, do not drink or take drugs before the last ten minutes or you will be completely lost. It was not Larry who planned all this. It was Anson, who was the one remaining person who set up the unit that burned Michael. He has manipulated all this to get a lot of nasty information on Michael that he can use to get him to do all sorts of nasty things in the next season. Oh, and he really is a shrink. And one of his patients is Maddy, Michael’s mom, which is why he knows a lot about Michael. We will see what happens when the show returns in November.

The Closer’s ongoing plot this season has been the civil case against Brenda and the LAPD on behalf of the family of Terrell Baylor, whom Brenda let out of a police car in front of his house knowing his gang would probably kill him, which they did. Brenda got herself a very smart and expensive lawyer, Gavin, who sometimes doesn’t seem as focused on the case as he should be. The Baylor family has hired Peter Goldman, and over several episodes we have seen the pre-trial events go for and against Brenda. In the season finale, “Fresh Pursuit” (written by Adam Belanoff), Gavin is asking for a summary judgment in favor of Brenda, based on Goldman’s failure to present evidence on the killing itself. That sounds like very shaky grounds for a summary judgment, but then I am not a lawyer. At the end of the episode the judgment is granted. But as with Burn Notice, that only makes things worse. Goldman comes to Brenda’s office during the celebration party and lays out the federal civil rights case he intends to file. He pulls a lot of files out of his box on a lot of Brenda’s cases where she may have cut corners. The series will end with the next set of episodes as we will see how the federal case works out. The word on the street is that there will be a spinoff series with Mary McDonnell’s Captain Raydor as the main character. Well, she has certainly developed into an interesting character, going from Brenda’s nemesis to a sort of partner. In “Death Warrant” (written by Steven Kane) she was involved in a chase after a bad guy. They had him cornered, but in a group of civilians. Raydor took a bean bag gun out of her trunk and hit with a shot right between the eyes. She told the other cops it was a “lucky shot,” and said the recoil on that gun was nasty. She’ll do.

Rizzoli and Isles, on the other hand, is just finishing up its second season, so its season finale did not have quite the elaborate continuing storylines as the other two. The finale, “Remember Me” (teleplay by Janet Tamaro, story by David J. North and Janet Tamaro), did bring back the serial killer Hoyt, who nearly killed Rizzoli on more than one occasion. Hoyt is in prison, but is somehow connected with the killing of a prisoner just about to be released on bail. When Isles does the autopsy on the prisoner, she finds a balloon full of teeth in his digestive system. Human teeth, which turn out to belong to a family Hoyt killed. Hoyt gets another chance at Rizzoli when she and Isles come to the prison hospital where Hoyt is dying of cancer. With the help of his newest acolyte, a prison guard, Hoyt nearly kills Rizzoli, but she manages to stab him with his own scalpel. So he really seems to be dead this time, although as with Larry on Burn Notice, I wouldn’t bet the farm on either one of them not appearing again.

Necessary Roughness has moved along nicely. It has not ladled on the psychobabble as much as it could have, for which much thanks. It has also kept Terence “T.K.” King, the New York Hawks football player Dani was treating in the first episode, as a recurring character, so we see that he was not immediately “cured” with his first set of treatments with Dani. A much more realistic approach than many movies and shows about shrinks. Dani has also had several very interesting other clients. For example, in “Whose Team Are You On?” (written by Antoinette Stella) Dani has to defuse fighting among the wives and girlfriends of the Hawks players. Since she is a psychologist, it all came down to an emotional problem with one of wives. By focusing on the individual, the episode passed on the opportunity to deal with the whole culture the wives of pro football players live in. In the season finale, “Goal Line,” Dani is back dealing with T.K., who has a mental block against the defender he has to deal with on the field. Dani also has to deal with Nico, the team’s Mr. Fixit. He always seems in charge and several moves ahead of everybody else, but he’s been asked by the boss’s lawyer to dig up whatever dirt he can on the boss’s wife, Gabriella (shades of the McCourt divorce and the L.A. Dodgers). One problem: Nico had an affair with Gabriella before she married the boss. Even bigger problem: she can still get him into bed. So, without telling Dani any of the details (nice writing in this scene: we know what he’s talking about, Dani doesn’t), he tries to get her advice. He decides his loyalties are with the team rather than Gabriella. T.K. actually performs selflessly in the playoff game. The cliffhanger is that he gets shot, but not killed, by an angry fan of the other team. Boy, is he going to have emotional problems for Dani to deal with next season.

Death Valley, a new show, popped up in the late summer on MTV. Here, I think, are the writing credits for the “Pilot,” which are more complicated than most television shows. It was conceived by Spider.com, developed by Erick Weinberg, created by Curtis Gwinn, the story was by Curtis Gwinn, and the teleplay was by Curtis Gwinn and Eric Weinberg. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz later. The setup is that it is another mockumentary, this time about police fighting supernatural beings. For all the writers involved, that was as far as the development went. Cops fight supernatural beings, photographed in a documentary style. The makers seemed to think that simply having a cop fighting a zombie was funny. The show was reminiscent of such movies as Date Movie (2006) and Meet the Spartans (2008), which assume that just mentioning what you are parodying will get laughs. Sorry, guys, but it does not work that way. The writing and the show need an attitude toward the material, which this show does not have. In style it is similar to the great Reno 911, but that show has plenty of attitude. It also has very specific characters. I have not seen Reno 911 for a while, but I remember the characters more vividly than the ones in Death Valley, which I only saw a couple of weeks ago.

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: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up

The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

1.5

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Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.

Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.

In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.

Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.

The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.

Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family

The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

2.5

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Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?

At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.

The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.

Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.

One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident

Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.

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The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.

It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.

As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.

While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.

Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón

Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.

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Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.

Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.

Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.

If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.

Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.

Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.

More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.

And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”

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Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects

Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.

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Maiden
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.

The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.

Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.

By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.

Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.

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Transit
Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown


3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac


Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac


The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg


Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti


Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same

By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

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Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.

The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.

It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.

Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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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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