Coming Up In This Column: Contagion, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Drive, Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s (book), Up All Night, Free Agents, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls, Castle, but first…
Fan Mail: I was rather disappointed that none of you folks took the bait and commented on item in #81 on the Cirque du Soleil production Iris. I figured some of this column’s readers would feel strongly one way or the other on my whacking the Canadians, but as I have learned over the years doing this column, you never know what people are going to respond to.
For our Korean fans, the Korean language version of my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays has just been published in South Korea. Given the interest by some people in the North Korean regime, I am sure a few copies will drift across the border.
Contagion (2011. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes)
The (cough, cough) feel-bad movie (cough, cough) of the fall: There is no narrator here. Thank goodness Scott Z. Burns got that out of his system, for now anyway, with The Informant! (2009, see US #54). Here is he is telling the story with the same speed and skill that he brought to The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and it works for about the first three-quarters of the movie.
where Henry gives Karen a gun to hide. Karen has no reaction either. Surely there could be shock, awe, sexual excitement, something. And in Drive, we never find out what happens to the body of the guy. It was left in a public elevator for God’s sake. Somebody would have noticed.
The picture really goes downhill in the last half hour, when characters are turned into bodies at a furious clip, so fast that it begins to get funny. The film is so portentous, not unlike The Driver, that we can’t help laughing. Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend understood we sometimes need a relief from the suspense, as in Marion’s car sinking partway into the swamp…and stopping. Better the filmmaker provide the laugh than risk the audience laughing on their own.
Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s (2010. Book edited by Patrick McGilligan. 252 pages)
How did I not know about this?: I have mentioned the Backstory series of books a number of times in this column. I quote from them all the time, since they are the gold standard of screenwriter interview books. The series has been going on since in 1986, organized and edited by Pat McGilligan. Pat rounds up a great bunch of interviewers and turns them loose on groups of screenwriters. Given how highly I think of the series and how much stuff about screenwriting I read, you would have thought I would have known about the book as soon as it came out. But I didn’t. Why not?
Well, it may just have been that I am slowing down in my old age, but I think it also has to do with the way the recession has hit the publishing business over the last three years. This is especially true for serious books about screenwriting, as opposed to the “Write a Screenplay Following My Rules and By Tuesday You Will Make a Million Dollars” type. My friend, the Austrian film scholar Claus Teiber (see US#20), has now published two books in German on screenwriting, the last one about screenwriting in silent film, but has been unable to get an English language version of either one published. I know other authors and would-be authors having the same problem. There is also the question of the lack of advertising. Often I have learned about books from ads in assorted magazines and journals, but there is less advertising now. There are also fewer reviews in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, which dropped its Sunday book section a few years back. Pat and I email back and forth from time to time, but he probably assumed, like I did, that I would know about the book.
So I finally came across a reference to it while looking up some information on Pat’s book on Fritz Lang (see US#79). After I got over the shock of not knowing about it, I got my favorite film bookseller, Jeff Mantor, the owner of the Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood, to round up a copy for me. And it is, not unexpectedly, wonderful. It has one of the best interviews I have ever read with John Sayles. It has a rare interview with John Hughes. You want dinosaurs and gorillas? David Koepp, who wrote the first two Jurassic Park films, tells you what it’s like to work with an 800-pound gorilla like Spielberg. Barbara Turner tells about working with another 800-pound gorilla, Robert Altman, who deliberately cut out Turner’s favorite scenes in her script for The Company (2003). The book collectively gives you a sense of the collaboration that goes into making films, and the screenwriters’ role in that. Koepp also tells you why directors all wear baseball caps.
Pat has more non-American screenwriters this time around, so we get Tom Stoppard on Spielberg as well. I am glad Pat found an interview with the great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. In 2006 I mentioned to Pat I was going to Italy and England and he asked me if I wanted to swing by Paris and interview Carrière. I told him I would have to pass, since I felt I couldn’t do justice to Carrière without spending at least a year reading all his stuff. Pat and I have talked about my doing an interview or two for the series, but so far it has not worked out. So far.
Ah, one other thing. Richard LaGravenese is the only, the ONLY, screenwriter interviewed to mention the hero’s journey. And it is without capitalization. He does not mention Joseph Campbell at all, but a psychologist named Robert Johnson, who wrote about Jungian archetypes. Johnson’s work helped LaGravenese get a grip on The Fisher King (1991). None, and I mean NONE, of the other writers mention the Hero’s Journey. And these are writers who written some of the best and most successful screenplays of the last thirty years. If you really want to understand screenwriting, forget Joseph Campbell, and read all five of the Backstory books. And this column, too, of course.
Up All Night (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Emily Spivey. 30 minutes)
Not that funny: The idea for this new series could be funny, but it’s not. A couple in their thirties, Reagan and Chris, have just had a baby. He is going to be a stay-at-home dad and she is going back to work as a producer on a daytime TV talk show with a star, Ava, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Oprah. In the pre-credit sequence they are talking to the baby, but swearing, which is bleeped and a fuzzy patch is put in over their mouths. OK, it’s NBC, not cable, but why bother bringing up the language issue at all if you cannot deal with it? It gives us a bad first impression of the couple.
They don’t make a better impression later. When Reagan and Chris argue, the arguments are not funny. Then they decide to have a night on the town like they used to have when they were young, karaoke and all that. And they are hung over the next morning. Well, duh, of course you are. And you still have the baby to take care of. We think Ava is going to be a bitch with Reagan, but when Reagan has to pull out of a celebrity BBQ to be with her kid, Ava/Oprah perfectly understands. Yeah, right. Where’s a little Billy Wilder ruthlessness when you need it?
Free Agents (2011. “Pilot” developed for American television and written by John Enbom. 30 minutes)
That funny: This new show was based on a British series of a couple of years ago. BBC America ran the first two episodes (written by Chris Niel) of the British series in early October, just about the time NBC cancelled the American version after just four episodes. The first episode of both versions opens in the same way. Alex and Helen wake up in bed together. He’s a bit put off by all the pictures of her late fiance. He starts to cry about his kids; he’s recently divorced. Obviously these are two strangers who stumbled into bed by accident.
No, they aren’t, in either version, and that was what made the American version so promising. They are co-workers in an ad agency (a talent agency in the Brit version) and in the American version have been friends for a long time. The Brits are more just co-workers. This is the first time they have slept together, and they both feel very uncomfortable about it, since they both bring the baggage we learned about in that first scene. So they go to work, but Alex is enough of a mess that the guys in the office assume he has had sex. In the British version it is just his boss who asks. Since they know this is his first time since his divorce, they want all the details. He obviously cannot tell them it was Helen, so he makes up an outrageous tale of wild sex. Here is where the American version is better: Helen joins in just like one of the guys asking him questions. It’s not only a funny scene, it is charming because Alex and Helen are long-time friends trying to protect each other as well as themselves. While Up All Night does not use the charm of its two leads, Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, this one gets the most out of Hank Azaria, who can probably do anything, and Kathryn Hahn, who like Azaria has been mostly a character actor. And they both bring great acting chops as well as charm to the show. We believe these two as real people. The two actors in the British version are a bit more “real,” i.e. scruffy, but they are not as charming as Azaria and Hahn.
In both versions, Helen tells Alex she does not want to continue the sexual relationship, but go back to being friends, as they were before they slept together. She thinks he is “a mess,” but we see she is not much better off. The British version pretty much leaves it at that, with them talking about sex. A lot. The British version has tons of very explicit language, more so than I think they need. And when BBC America showed it, they bleeped a lot, which made some speeches incomprehensible. The language simply took away from the humor of the characters and the situations.
In the American version, Helen helps him pick out new clothes so he can start dating again. He disagrees with her choices, pointing out that one shirt “would be great if I was going to an Armenian gangster’s acquittal party.” The line is off the wall, but not so far that we would not believe these characters would say it. They are obviously still attracted to each other and decide they need a “safe word” if one or the other is getting too romantic. What would you pick as the safe word? The choice here is “potato,” which, like the characters is down to earth. So later they are staring at each other and he says, “Potato.” Guess what we cut to. They are in bed and he says, “We need a new safe word.” There is no safe word in the British version.
Up All Night got huge ratings and Free Agents didn’t and was cancelled. I suspect Up got huge ratings because Christina Applegate is a beloved TV star and the show’s franchise is more immediately clearer than Agents’. I wish NBC had held onto Agents a little longer. The other three episodes were not quite up to the pilot, but the show still had potential.
How I Met Your Mother (2011. “The Best Man” written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas, “The Naked Truth” written by Stephen Lloyd. 30 minutes each)
Nope, still haven’t met her: The last episode in the spring left us with a flashforward to Barney’s (of all people) wedding. So we pick up at that wedding in “The Best Man,” but in keeping in the grand Bays/Thomas tradition, we never find out whom he is marrying. The setup is just bringing us back to the present, with some flashbacks to Ted’s disastrous best man speeches, then on to Punchy’s wedding, where people have come from Finland to see Ted screw up the toast. His best man speeches have made him an Internet star to them. This time he cries when he makes the toast, since he and the gang have just learned that Lily and Marshall are pregnant. In “The Naked Truth” Marshall is up for his dream job at an environmental law firm run by Garrison Cootes, but is afraid You Tube videos of his streaking in college will lose him the job. They don’t of course, since Cootes is played by Martin Short, who may be a lively addition to the cast. Meanwhile Ted has gone of to the Architect’s Ball where he’s insisting to Robin he wants to see someone and be swept off his feet. He spots…Victoria. Yeah, except she’s been around the show for several years, so she’s probably not Mother.
Two and a Half Men (2011. “Nice to Meet You, Walden Schmidt, Part One” written by Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronson, Eddie Gorodetsky, Jim Patterson. 30 mintues)
Nice Funeral: The question before the house is: when your leading man leaves a series, how do you handle it? Assuming the network wants the show to continue. Given the way Charlie Sheen left Two and a Half Men, it does not surprise us to learn the creators, whom Sheen did not have kind words for, have killed off Charlie Harper. So do you mention his death in passing, as some shows have done, or do you get some comedy mileage out of it? You can guess which way Lorre, the showrunner, goes. We open on Charlie’s funeral, with Alan trying to say nice things about Charlie. The crowd is not having any of it. The crowd is made up mostly of Charlie’s old girlfriends. From a sheer production standpoint, I was in awe of the show being able to assemble in one place and one time, presumably at a semi-reasonable cost, an incredible number of the actresses who had played those parts over the last eight years. Courtney (Jenny McCarthy) is irritated that the casket is closed, depriving her of the chance to spit in his face. Spitting on a casket is not the same thing. When Alan mentions that Charlie was a giving person, different women talk about the sexually transmitted diseases he gave them. Then there is one who says Charlie used her panties to strain tea. I would have loved to have been there the day that was shot, and I trust that on the DVD there will be a lot of outtakes of the scene. In the middle of the funeral Evelyn, Charlie’s mom, starts promoting the sale of his Malibu house, telling the crowd to pick up brochures on the way out and come to the open house. Where can you go from there? Well, Alan introduces the last person to see Charlie alive, a woman dressed in black with a veil. The veil comes up and it’s Rose, Charlie’s stalker. She and Charlie had a great time in Paris until she found him in the shower with another woman. She was with him when he fell in front of a Paris Metro train. We can tell from the crowd’s reaction that nobody believes Charlie “fell.”
It’s a great opening. But then…well, some other good stuff. At the open house the first person we see is an unnamed guy played by John Stamos, who realizes he has been in the house before. He and Charlie had a threesome with a girl and when she fell asleep they continued. Well, we never saw that on the show. Maybe more payback to Sheen by the writers. Next up is a couple, Dharma and Greg, from the 1997-2002 series of the same name co-created by Chuck Lorre. Played by the stars of that show, the couple’s marriage has completely fallen apart. OK, you could replace Charlie Harper with a married couple, but would they let Alan and Jake stay there? Nope.
So, halfway through the episode, morose billionaire Walden Schmidt shows up at the window to the patio. He just tried to kill himself by walking into the ocean, but it was too cold. Obviously he is going to be a barrel of laughs. Not. I think the idea is that he is even worse off emotionally than Alan, who takes pity on him. The writers don’t appear to find much humor in that. Alan takes Walden out to a bar, where Walden and Alan pick up two bimbos (we are miles from the smart women in the funeral scene) and take them home. Walden is depressed over his wife leaving him, and the bimbos sympathize with him. They take him off to bed upstairs while Alan is making drinks. Alan comes back into the empty room, hears sounds from upstairs. He says, “This is depressingly familiar,” then picks up the Dustbuster he has used to clean up Charlie’s ashes and says to it, “Shut up.” Well, there are some laughs with Walden, but not very many. It is not clear now where the humor sweet spot is going to be with him. There is also the problem of Ashton Kutcher as Walden. Earlier this year I thought he was OK in No Strings Attached, but here he is just stolid. That might not matter much if he were not walking into a show that functions at such a high level. Jon Cryer is working Alan all he can, but Kutcher is not yet getting the ball back across the net. In spite of the scenes where Walden is stark naked, the writers have not given Kutcher the right balls to play with.
2 Broke Girls (2011. “Pilot” written by Whitney Cummings & Michael Patrick King. 30 minutes)
Now those are some balls: In the opening minutes we learn Max, a waitress in a small diner, is a tough cookie. She verbally takes down a couple of obnoxious guys in one booth. The Russian waitress screwing in the walk-in fridge doesn’t seem to bother her. OK, who are you going to pair off with her to make an interesting show? The Russian waitress gets fired and the boss, “Bryce” Lee hires the thin blonde Caroline. It is immediately apparent to Max that Caroline has NO experience as a waitress. Well, of course not. She’s a rich girl, whose father pulled a Madoff-type scam. Caroline cannot get at any of her money, and none of her friends will let her stay with them. Now given that Max is so smart, obviously Caroline will be dumb. Here is the intelligence of the show: she’s not. She went to college and studied business. Now she is just not in the world she’s lived in. She reminded me of Annabelle Lee in Keaton’s The General (1926). Annabelle Lee is a nice Southern belle who happens to find herself on a train driven by her former boyfriend Johnny as they are escaping the Union soldiers. What does she know about trains? Nothing. She tries to be helpful by tying a rope between two trees to stop the trains chasing them. Johnny is exasperated; the rope can’t stop the trains. But it does. It pulls the trees it is tied to onto the tracks and into the wheels of the engine. Annabelle is not stupid, she’s just inexperienced in Johnny’s world. The same is true for Caroline in Max’s world. Max makes cupcakes she sells to the diner. Caroline tells her she can charge more than she does. Max doesn’t believe her, until Caroline pulls out the money she made selling the cupcakes to customers at the higher price.
By the end of the pilot Caroline has moved in with Max and come up with a scheme for them to save money and start their own cupcake shop. Of course, she’s also stolen her own horse and is hiding it in the exceedingly minuscule back yard to Max’s apartment…
Castle (2011. “Rise” written by Andrew W. Marlowe. 60 minutes)
Darker: At the end of last season Beckett was shot by a sniper at Captain Montgomery’s funeral. As she lay seriously wounded Castle told her that he loved her, a big step up for their relationship. This episode picks up with Beckett being brought into the hospital, where her boyfriend doctor works on her. She eventually recovers, but tells Castle she cannot remember anything after the shots were fired. Whew, they dodged a bullet there. Because this episode is dealing with Beckett’s near-death experience, it is a lot darker in tone than their usual episodes. And it’s darker visually as well. Beckett eventually gets back on the job, although she freezes the first time she has to face a perp with a gun. Not the second time, though. The new captain, Gates, has stopped Beckett’s partners from continuing the investigation into the shooting, since no new information has come up. They of course have not told her about Captain Montgomery’s involvement and the connections to Beckett’s mother’s death. So Beckett and the guys have to investigate that on their own. Castle convinces Beckett she’s a little too emotionally fragile to work that case, but indicates when the time comes he will help her. He goes home, opens up his computer and we see he has all the information on the mother’s death and related stories on it. Beckett goes to the department shrink and admits she lied the last time. She remembers everything about the shooting. So we are going to be dealing this season with the mother’s case and how Beckett deals with Castle. And the next-to-last scenes bring back a bit of the light touch we love in the series.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: 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.3
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
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.1
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances
The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.2.5
If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.
Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.
A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.
Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.
There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror
We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.1.5
The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.
Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.
Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.
Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.
Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Our Time Doggedly, Elliptically Considers the Costs of Partnership
The film elides politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.3
Filmed in low, awesomely wide angles, the series of vignette-like scenes that make up the lengthy opening sequence of Carlos Reygardas’s Our Time are a sociological survey in miniature, observing the nature of the interactions between people of the opposite sex at various ages. Young girls fuss with a broken beaded necklace as boys, sticks in hand, go marauding through a shallow, muddy lake surrounded by distant mountains. “Let’s attack the girls,” one of them says, as they disrupt a gossip session among pre-teen girls on a large innertube. With a slipstream rhythm, the action pivots to older teens experimenting with alcohol and drugs and maneuvering sexual attraction and frustration. After a while, we arrive at the grown-ups, a set of urbane, cosmopolitan ranchers who haven’t left any of this behind.
The backdrop of this sequence, which lasts from bright daytime to well past dusk, recalls the simultaneously transcendent and frightening opening of Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, depicting a child alone in the wild. In his first collaboration with a new cinematographer (Diego García, who shot Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendour), Our Time retains some of the director’s penchant for specialized lenses—like fisheye—and prismatic lens flare, but their effect is muted relative to the sometimes outrageous transcendentalism of his previous work. Reygadas’s latest unfolds more in the mold of recent work by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, relentlessly probing the more stubborn and outdated aspects of modern masculinity.
Reygadas himself plays Juan, a renowned poet and the owner of a ranch outside Mexico City, and the filmmaker’s wife, Natalia López, stars as Juan’s spouse, Esther, who manages the ranch. (Their children, Rut and Eleazar Reygadas, play Juan and Esther’s two younger children, with Yago Martínez in the role of their teenage son.) The family is rarely alone, and they retain domestic help and numerous cowboys to manage the bulls and horses on their property. At the party that opens the film, Esther connects with an American horse trainer named Phil (Phil Burgers) and begins an affair that gradually undoes her marriage. Our Time is, by all accounts, a pretty faithful biographical account of Reygadas and López’s recent marital troubles.
The conflict between Juan and Esther, which elevates from a gentle simmer to physical outbursts over the course of the film, isn’t merely about lust; it’s also about semantics and self-presentation. The couple have long had an open marriage—an allusion to Juan’s ex-wife suggests this decision was an effort to avoid past mistakes—so Juan’s feeling of betrayal is less about Esther sleeping with Phil than it is about her concealing the act, along with her continued communication with him. In his roles as writer and director, Reygadas crafts Juan as a self-styled progressive and empath. Unlike the patriarch in Post Tenebras Lux, who ran headlong into class warfare, Juan is exceedingly companionable with his hired help and open-hearted toward his children. Though class markers are everywhere in Our Time, from Juan’s clean chaps to his conversations with relatives of his workers (one requests that Juan “sponsor” him with the purchase of a new race car), the film elides these politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.
As politics drop out of his purview, Reygadas integrates nature—typically an external force of rapture and terror in his work—into his study of human behavior. Often, he does this in the most prosaic of ways, twice transitioning from arguments to instances of wild bulls picking violent fights. At the same time, the ranch is a haven in Juan’s very image, and he treats moments like these as violations of his peaceful dominion. Reygadas explores Esther’s psychology in more interesting ways, sending her to a timpani performance (by Mexican percussionist Gabriela Jiménez), which is shot with such urgency that it feels like a heavy metal concert, conjuring Esther’s turmoil as she texts with Phil in a symphony hall that would be pitch black if not for the slight glow of her phone.
With limited evidence that their affair is continuing, Juan’s fixation on Esther’s interest in Phil yields a handful of lengthy discourses on Juan’s fears for their future. His words are eminently judicious, but they wear Esther down, until she reacts to him with physical sickness and increasing desperation. Their distance yields Reygadas’s boldest narrative tactic, which is to effectively turn our time into an epistolary three-way romance for an entire act of the film. Juan, Phil, and Esther all dispassionately say their piece in voiceover monologues reciting letters and emails they’ve written to one another (one is recited over a bravura shot captured from the landing gear of a plane). In odd instances, a few of these communiques are read by one of Juan and Esther’s children, a suggestion that they understand what is happening or are perhaps fated to make the same mistakes as their parents.
Our Time’s foundation as a sort of Knaussgardian, auto-fictional overshare may account for both its curiously absent politics and what for Reygadas as unusually vibrant, dimensional characters. (Phil, an inane lunk trying to reconcile conflicting orders about whether or not to have sex with Esther, doesn’t achieve such depth.) Though the film suffers in its later scenes, as Reygadas turns Juan’s anxieties into actions and assures us that this auteurist self-portrait is appropriately self-excoriating, Our Time is remarkably balanced in considering both sides of its central marriage. As Juan’s mixed emotions unfurl in lucid, bountiful words, López reveals in simple gestures and shifts of position how Juan’s behavior has robbed Esther of her independence. Though artistically tame by Reygadas’s standards, Our Time doggedly pursues ugly truths about how partnership necessarily requires the sacrifice of one’s agency.
Cast: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Phil Burgers, Eleazar Reygadas, Rut Reygadas, Yago Martinez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 177 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Blue Note: Beyond the Notes Trumpets the Freedom of Jazz
The documentary proves that the history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself.3
The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.
Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.
The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)
Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.
If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.
Director: Sophie Huber Screenwriter: Sophie Huber Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Being Frank Is Cringe Comedy of the Most Nonsensical Sort
The film sends the curious message that any time spent with an abusive parent is time well spent.
Miranda Bailey’s Being Frank immediately homes in on the tensions that divide a perversely controlling father, Frank (Jim Gaffigan), and his moody 17-year-old son, Philip (Logan Miller). In this dark comedy’s early stretches, the filmmakers pay reasonably nuanced attention to Philip’s anger and frustration over his father’s domineering ways and constant traveling for work. But when the teen sneaks off to a nearby resort town for spring break and conveniently discovers that his father has an entirely separate family there—thus explaining Frank’s frequent work trips to “Japan”—the film quickly drops all pretenses of authenticity as it starts to seemingly lay the groundwork for a revenge comedy in which Philip wields his newfound knowledge against his hypocritical father.
As Philip works his way into the good graces of Frank’s second family, he delights in his father’s perpetual discomfort, particularly as the teen’s half-sister, Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), unaware of their blood relation, develops a crush on him. For a while, the screenplay by Glen Lakin is content to mine middling yet harmless cringe comedy from the awkward collision of two worlds that Frank had planned on keeping forever apart. Soon, however, Philip decides to not only forgive his father, who’s done nothing short of make his life a living hell, but to conspire with him to continue protecting his secret. It’s at this point that Being Frank takes a bizarre and completely unconvincing turn toward a conciliatory buddy comedy as Philip becomes an inexplicable co-conspirator in his father’s web of lies.
For a while, you may be willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, as Philip would appear to be motivated to protect his mother, Laura (Anna Gunn), and sister, Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander), from the truth, as well as make his father squirm. But after Philip chooses to remain in the resort town and subsequently endures the torture of seeing Frank appear happier and more laidback with his second family, his endgame becomes increasingly muddled. As his initial gratification at finally having the edge on his father morphs into pity and compassion, his actions become more senseless, as if driven solely by narrative demands that require him to stick around simply to set up the requisite show of father-son bonding.
Once Laura also shows up at the resort town and inevitably stirs up more trouble for her husband, Being Frank only leans further into its farcical elements, losing all perspective on the psychological damage Frank’s behavior has caused to those around him, especially to his son. As Frank’s carefully constructed double life begins to unravel, he’s eventually held accountable for his deceitful actions by at least a few people, yet his relationship with Philip somehow remains not only intact but also grows stronger. Although Frank’s frequent manipulation of his son is often couched in humor, the film’s celebration of their bonding through such toxic conditions is, at best, misguided, all but condoning bad parenting by suggesting that any time an abusive parent spends with a child is time well spent.
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Isabelle Phillips, Alex Karpovsky, Danielle Campbell, Gage Banister, Daniel Rashid, Jessica VanOss, Emerson Tate Alexander Director: Miranda Bailey Screenwriter: Glen Lakin Distributor: The Film Arcade Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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