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Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More



Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More

Coming Up In This Column: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, What’s Your Number?, A Single Man, The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Prime Suspect, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Whitney, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes, David, I am definitely trying to take Hero’s Journey Soup off the menu. And you will get no argument from me about Jean-Claude Carrière’s status as a screenwriter. As far as I can tell, his nonfiction book The Secret Life of Film has not, alas, been translated into English.

50/50 (2011. Written by Will Reiser. 100 minutes.)

Tone, nuance, restraint: When Casey Robinson researched cancer for his script for Dark Victory (1939), he became determined to make it as medically accurate as he could. Between Warner Brothers and Bette Davis that didn’t last very long. The film ended up being probably the first in which the leading character gets Movie Stars’ Disease: they look great until late in the picture when they cough once and die. See Love Story (1970) and Terms of Endearment (1983) for later variations. And all the thousands of television movies that have come along since. What makes 50/50 so fresh is that it avoids all, and I mean all, the cliches of the genre.

Part of that comes from the fact that Reiser, a writer and producer, got a particularly bad form of cancer when he was in his mid-twenties. So he is writing about it from the inside (see the comments below on The Playboy Club for an example of a show that is researched rather than felt), but with a very clear eye about the experience. He owns this world in the way Hecht and MacArthur owned newspapers when they wrote The Front Page. His surrogate, Adam, is a NPR producer working on a story on volcanoes when he gets the diagnosis. Reiser does not beat the volcano symbolism to death, and the volcanoes have a great, quiet payoff later in the film. The diagnosis comes from a doctor who seems to be unable to look him in the eye. Who of us have not had a doctor who is not very good at delivering the bad news? The cancer is a tumor on the spine, which is tricky to operate on, so Adam begins with chemotherapy. At this point the film could go the traditional way.

But Adam’s friend Kyle is a different sort of best friend. Kyle is based on Reiser’s friend Seth Rogen, who plays him in the film. Like a Seth Rogen character. Kyle is raunchy, with all kinds of semi-inappropriate ideas for Adam, like using his cancer to attract women. Kyle is not above using his helping his friend to score with women. Kyle’s function in Adam’s life and in the film is to bring a raucous counterpoint to the illness, which keeps the film from getting too maudlin. When my wife had breast cancer in 1987 (don’t worry; she is 24 years cancer-free now), I was put In Charge of Hugs and Humor. And the humor was very, very dark. Generally films avoid that, and this one doesn’t, which helps both Adam and us get through this. The tone of the film is serious, but not solemn, and you never know what outrageous thing Kyle is going to say or do. For a long time in the film we assume Kyle is behaving this way because, well, he’s Kyle, but look at the small detail of a book Kyle has that tells us he is consciously doing this.

Kyle and Adam are great roles, and Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt act the shit out of them. This is Gordon-Levitt’s best performance; he runs with all the little nuances that Reiser gives him. Look at his reactions in the scenes with his counselor Katherine the different times she touches his arm. One thing I particularly like about Reiser’s script is that unlike a lot of male writers, he does not underserve his women characters. Katherine is not a middle-aged maternal figure, but a 24-year-old student just working on her Ph.D. Adam is just her third patient (and look how Reiser tells us that), and she really doesn’t know how to do all this yet. She’s also not yet completely clued in on the professional ethics involved in the question of how much she can get emotionally involved with Adam. One element I have grown to hate over the years is the storyline where the professional falls in love with his/her client/student/patient. (How I Met Your Mother has a nice running storyline now about Robin’s involvement with a therapist she was seeing that deals with the issues in a nice, if more sitcomy way.) In Reiser’s case, making Katherine a beginner makes her scenes livelier than just the standard shrink/patient scenes. It also helps that they have the great Anna Kendrick to play her.

But she’s not the only well-written woman in the film. There is Adam’s mother, who seems when she learns about his cancer that she has stepped in from a more melodramatic cancer movie. Not true. That is just her character, and we see more sides of her as the film progresses. It also helps that they have the great Anjelica Huston to play her. Adam’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film, Rachael, tells Adam up front that she is going to stick with him, which we know means that, no, she won’t. But she’s not as awful as Kyle describes her in one of his foul-mouthed tirades. It also helps that they have the great Bryce Dallas Howard to play her.

It of course helps keep the movie from being a tearjerker that Adam does not die. He eventually undergoes surgery, which gets all the cancer, and he resumes his life. The emotional restraint of the writing and acting pays off beautifully. At the risk of sounding like I am turning into a quote whore by writing a blurb, this is one of the best original screenplays of the year.

The Mill and the Cross (2011. Screenplay by Lech Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson. 92 minutes.)

The Mill and the Cross

Sunday in the Park with Pieter: One of my favorite Stephen Sondheim musicals is Sunday in the Park with George. In the first act we follow artist Georges Seurat as he completes his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jette. We see the people who become the figures in the painting and get their stories. The first act curtain is the painting coming together in its final form. Majewski, who also directed, and Gibson are doing something similar with Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary. But without, alas, Sondeim’s hummable tunes.

Majewski has been combining art and film for some time. He wrote the original story for the 1996 film Basquiat, and he wrote the novel and screenplay for as well as directed the 2004 Garden of Earthly Delights, which includes references to Hieronymus Bosch, among others. His 2000 film Angelus tells multiple stories, each one beginning with a room designed like a painting, from which the stories come to life. So he knows his way around this sort of thing.

The writers begin with a scene that lets the audience know what they are up to. Bruegel and a village dignitary, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, are walking through the landscape of the painting. The film is using CGI as effectively as I mentioned Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) did in US#82, but here it is to provide the background of the painting as a semi-real backdrop for the action of the film. In this opening scene we see several of the village characters who will show up in the rest of the film. We also get Bruegel explaining what the painting will be about. We are in Flanders at the time of the Spanish occupation, and Bruegel is using the subject of the Crucifixion to comment on the brutalities of the Spanish. The painting is political, but we still get some of the earthiness we expect in Bruegel’s peasants.

We do not get their stories in the way Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book for Sunday, give us stories. After the titles, the film begins by showing us the daily activities of the peasants: getting up, starting the mill at the top of the mountain, taking care of the kids, etc. But there is no dialogue among the peasants. OK, I love silent films and telling the stories visually makes sense in this context. Especially since the dialogue we do get is awful.

The few major dialogue sequences are with Bruegel and Jonghelinck, played by Rutger Hauer and Michael York, respectively. Their scenes are in English, and are not well written. I assumed in watching the film that the English dialogue came from Gibson, but Majewski has worked in English before both as a writer (Basquiat [1996]) and director (Flight of the Spruce Goose [1986]). Whoever wrote the dialogue here did a very bad job of it. Jonghelinck has a long monologue near the beginning in which he explains, in the baldest way possible, the political situation in the village. Michael York is not as bad an actor as you believe from listening to him in this scene.

Fortunately there is not a lot of the English dialogue, and as we follow the peasants, the film begins to make connections between them and their roles in the painting. We can see them, and we don’t have to hear about them. The filmmakers are tying together the threads of the story, going in and out of the details of the painting, so we can see how the painting is built up. The final shot of the film starts on the painting itself in a museum and pulls back to capture the whole paintings and the others paintings nearby on the walls, suggesting there are many other stories to tell about them. I’d be in favor of that, assuming they get somebody who can write English dialogue better.

What’s Your Number? (2011. Screenplay by Gabrielle Allan & Jennifer Crittenden, based on the novel 20 Times a Lady by Karyn Bosnak. 106 minutes.)

What's Your Number?

Guess again Tad: Way back in the April 11th issue of The New Yorker, Tad Friend had a long, thoughtful piece on the issue of whether women can be funny and raunchy in movies. His focus was on Anna Faris and this movie. Here’s why trying to predict the future will kill you, especially in the movie business. I assumed, like Friend, that Anna Faris would be the star to break through the “woman can’t be raunchy” wall. She was sensational doing just that in 2008’s The House Bunny (see US#3), and I had high hopes for her and for this film after reading the article. Unfortunately…

If you go back and read my comments on The House Bunny, you will see that I pointed out how smart the script was. Shelley, Faris’s character, only seems dumb, but she turns out to be the smartest person in the room. She relates to the other characters well, and we are rooting for her all the way. Ally Darling, Faris’s character here, is stupid at the beginning of the film and only gets stupider as the film goes along. She gets fired from her job in the opening minutes. She doesn’t even look for a new job whereas Shelley went from getting kicked out of the Playboy Mansion to becoming a sorority housemother in nothing flat. Instead Ally becomes obsessed with an article she reads in a magazine that suggests that women who have twenty or more lovers will not find husbands. As written, Ally believes this. OK, I know we are in the old Johnny Carson land of “You buy the premise, you buy the bit,” but her belief in this nonsense does not do her or Faris any favors. You could write Ally so that she sort of believes it and sort of doesn’t, but is bothered enough to do what she does in the movie: track down her ex-boyfriends in hopes that one of them is the man she was meant to marry. The writers and Faris’s Ally is just frantic. Mark Mylod, the director, does not help by pushing Faris’s frantic qualities, especially in the opening scenes when we should just be getting to know her. But then Mylod’s direction is frantic in other ways. The opening shots have him whirling his camera all over the place. The film takes place in Boston, but you would hardly guess it from the opening shots. Mylod has directed mostly television before, so he may not yet feel the difference between television and film. The Friend article begins with Faris and Mylod watching the film. He notices she isn’t saying much and asks, “Is there anything you’re cringing at?” and she replies, “My face.” Friend reports Mylod broke into laughter. But Faris was right: she is as badly photographed in this film as I have seen a star photographed in years.

The two screenwriters have written for television and this is their first theatrical film. Allan wrote for Scrubs and Crittenden wrote for both The Simpsons and Seinfeld, so they at least should have been able to shape scenes and write dialogue better than they do here. The scenes are unfocused and until the end there is not a single memorable line of dialogue (it’s in a phone call from one of Ally’s exes). If all the other dialogue is straight from the book, Allan and Crittenden should have known better and corrected it. I assume the fact that the exes Ally tracks down are not very interesting is the fault of the book, but more could be done with them. The one partial exception to that is Tom Piper, a black politician whom Ally goes to Washington to see. We get a couple of moments of her reacting to the upper class levels of D.C., and the punchline is not bad: Tom’s gay and he wants to marry her to cover it up.

Several reviewers have pointed out that the opening scene (Ally getting out of bed to put on her makeup before the guy she has slept with wakes up) is a direct steal from this year’s Bridesmaids. I would have thought that since Bridesmaids came out in May, they might have reshot that scene, but in the film it becomes a running gag, so they probably couldn’t without a lot of major reshooting. Would this film seem better if it had come out before Bridesmaids? Maybe, since not only the opening gag, but the wedding scenes would not have seemed second hand. Bridesmaids was a big hit, and for all its flaws (see US#76), it is a sharper, funnier and even raunchier movie than this one. As indicated by this: Ally’s sister is played by Ari Graynor, who had the great toilet scene in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008, see US#10). Here Graynor simply smiles a lot and shows her freckles. I like her freckles well enough, but if you want raunch, this woman can deliver it. As can Faris if you give her the material.

A Single Man (2009. Written for the screen by Tom Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood. 99 minutes.)

A Single Man

Too precious by half: I didn’t get to this one in theaters, but picked it up recently on DVD. George is an English professor in 1962 whose lover Jim died eight months ago. He’s been in an understandable funk ever since, and the day the film shows us is the day he decides to kill himself. At least Ford and Scearce don’t outright tell us that, but let us figure it out as the film progresses. One problem is that George on this day is a very one-note character. Colin Firth does everything he can to bring a little variety to the part, but the writing does not support it. The other characters are shallow as well. We get Jim in flashbacks, but he is just an object of desire. Charley, a woman friend of George’s, is one of those grotesque cliches that show up in too many gay male authors’ works: the straight woman determined to sleep with the gay hero. I suppose the equivalent in straight male writers is the guy who thinks getting a lesbian to sleep with him will turn her straight. Julianne Moore gives what color she can to Charley. The worst characterization is given to Kenny, a student of George’s who seems to have the hots for George as well. Which leads to a lot more mooning-around scenes than you need. Kenny is also a very one-note character, and Nicholas Hoult, the actor who plays him, is not experienced enough to do more with the part, unlike Firth and Moore. Late in the film Kenny shows up at George’s favorite bar and they go back to George’s house. At one point Kenny says that he is worried about George. There is nothing elsewhere in the script or Hoult’s performance that would make us believe that. It would have been easy enough to write that Kenny is truly concerned while also attracted to George, which would have given their scenes a little texture. It would also give the scene where George discovers Kenny is sleeping with the gun George intended to use to try to kill himself a lot more impact.

Tom Ford is primarily a clothing designer, so as you can imagine, the film is art directed to within an inch of its life. George’s house is neat and gorgeous, which works against the story. When George tries to shoot himself, his fumbling attempts to get in the right position simply look silly in his perfect house. Ford has made the film look like a television commercial, which makes it seem shallower than it needed to be.

The Playboy Club (2011. “Pilot” written by Chad Hogue & Becky Mode. “The Scarlet Bunny,” teleplay by Chad Hogue, story by Chad Hogue & Karyn Usher. 60 minutes.)

The Playboy Club

Relax Gloria, it’s already been cancelled: Gloria Steinem first gained fame by going undercover as a Bunny in the New York Playboy Club and writing about it in a 1963 article called “A Bunny’s Tale.” She wrote about the long hours, hard work, and ridiculous costumes the Bunnies were required to wear. It made her reputation, so you can understand that when the new series about the glamour of Bunny life in the early ‘60s was announced, she condemned it sight unseen. After all, she has a reputation and a movement to protect.

If she had seen it, she would have been even more upset for one obvious reason and one less obvious one. The series was created with the help and support of Hugh Hefner. He does a voice-over narration, going on and on about how liberating it was for women to work at the Club, how freeing it was for them, and how it was in its own way the forerunner of women’s liberation, although he never uses that term. That is historical revisionism of the worst sort, a false nostalgia for a world that only exists in Hefner’s head. His magazine and his clubs did help America free up sexually, which I am sure Hefner assumes that women’s liberation was all about, but it still presented the women as sexual stereotypes.

The less obvious reason Steinem would hate the show is that it presents the material from the Bunnies’ point of view rather than hers. The local NBC channel in Los Angeles had an interview with a former Bunny in which she talks about the experience not in unpleasant terms. OK, local network news often does promo news stories on network shows, but getting an actual Bunny? To speak positively about the experience? I was surprised, though, that the news did it, but not that she spoke positively. Several years ago Kathryn Leigh Scott, who before she was an actress in everything from the original Dark Shadows to Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence, was a Bunny in the New York club. At the same time Steinem was there. And was profiled in the piece. She and the other women in the club felt betrayed by Steinem, who had not told them what she was up to. But it was more than that. Scott felt that the article was condescending to the other Bunnies, since Steinem had made no effort to get to know them. So in the ‘90s Scott set out to track down not only the other Bunnies she worked with, but as many others as she could find.

Guess what? Not only did they have some good memories of their experiences, but they went on to be not only actresses (Susan Sullivan, Lauren Hutton) and singers (Deborah Harry), but also doctors, lawyers, and scientific researchers. Scott’s book of interviews with them came out in 1998 under the title The Bunny Years, and it is a fascinating read. If Gloria Steinem didn’t have a dog in the fight, she would love it, since it shows that women can go beyond the stereotypes men like Hefner have of them.

Now wait a minute. I previously said that Hefner took credit for liberating women and then I am saying the women went out on their own and did well. Doesn’t the latter prove Hefner was right? No, because there is no indication that in the early ‘60s Hefner (or nearly anybody else other than the Bunnies themselves) conceived the possibility that would happen. So The Playboy Club gets caught between a rock and a hard place: it has to be nice to Hefner and his memories and it has to be nice to the Scott view of the Bunnies. In the first two episodes, it never quite manages that. The bits that seem to have come from Scott’s book (she appeared in a photo with the show’s Bunnies in the September 26-October 2 issue of TV Guide) sound more researched than felt.

Aren’t you impressed that I have written this much on this show and not yet mentioned Mad Men? A lot of the hype over this show and Pan Am (see below) is that since they are both set in the early ‘60s they are ripping off Mad Men. Yes, they are, and they are doing it badly. As you may remember, one element I love about Mad Men is that it captures the tone of the era so beautifully. The sexism of the men in Men is casual and believable. The sexism of the men in The Playboy Club is obvious, again researched than felt. Even though Club is focused on the women, and they are not particularly well drawn, the lead is Nick, a Chicago lawyer with mob connections. He is written and cast to remind us of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. Yes, Nick could lead to mob stories, as the killing of a mobster in the pilot episode does, but what does that have to do with the Playboy Club?

So much for the idea of sex selling: NBC cancelled the show after three episodes. Don’t worry, Gloria, you reputation is safe.

Pan Am (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Jack Orman, developed by Nancy Hult Ganis. 60 minutes.)

Pan Am

Humming the luggage: Like The Playboy Club, we are in the highly glamorized version of the early ‘60s, back when flight attendants were called stewardesses. The show’s developer, Nancy Hult Ganis, was a stewardess, but from 1968 to 1970. Hmm, why move the show back… ah,well, you’ve guessed, Mad Men. Ganis had the idea for the series several years ago, but it took her this long to get it on. Part of the problem is that it took a while to convince the company that owns the Pan Am brands (the airline went out of business in 1991) that the show could be a marketing bonanza for them. So we get the stews’ carry-on bags shot loving detail. See how many little girls come trick-or-treating to your house this Halloween in Pan Am stewardess costumes. This is the sort of commercial for Pan Am that Don Draper would have rejected as too simple-minded by half.

The creator and writer of the pilot, Jack Orman, was a writer-producer on ER and other shows, so he knows his way around a big, multi-cast show, but he runs into a problem many pilot episodes do: he is trying to get in too much in one hour. The episode deals with the first flight on a new jetliner from New York to London. We are introduced to Maggie, a grounded burser, who is called upon to fill in for a stewardess who has gone missing. Another stew has to deal with her lover, who is on board the plane with his wife. We assume the wife does not know about her husband and the stew, but she does and gives the stew a hard time at the end of the flight. There are two sister stewardesses, one of whom is a runaway bride. There is a stewardess who is, or at least will be, involved with the C.I.A.. There is a weird matte shot of London when they get there that suggests Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral are a lot closer than they are in real life. I did not see a kitchen sink, although there may have been one in Maggie’s first scene. Yes, we get a kid looking up adoringly at crew members, not once, but twice. The showrunners may sort out the overplotting, but it will take a little more work to scrape off the sentimental look at the ‘60s. Mad Men is about as unsentimental as you can get.

Prime Suspect (2011. “Episode One” developed and written by Alexandra Cunningham. “Carnivorous Sheep” written by Alexandra Cunningham. Based on the British television series developed by Lynda LaPlante. 60 minutes.)

Prime Suspect

No, it’s not Prime Suspect: Prime Suspect is the great British television series created and mostly written by Lynda LaPlante, beginning in 1991. It stars Helen Mirren as a tough Scotland Yard Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. She puts up with the casual sexism of the men she works with, she drinks more than she should, and she has been known to have an affair or two. And did I mention she’s played by Helen Mirren?

I love Maria Bello. She’s been wonderful in nearly everything I have seen her in. But she’s not Helen Mirren. And Cunningham has not developed a character for her to play. Yes, we get the generic stuff: tough, hard charging, but we have had a lot of women detectives who have had those qualities and more: Brenda Leigh Johnson in The Closer, Grace Hanadarko in Saving Grace, Olivia Benson in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And those women have dealt with the occasional sexism aimed at them. Like the sexism in Mad Men, it is part of the culture they work in. In this show, it is obvious and relentless, and for the supporting characters, such as Detective Duffy, that seems to be their only defining characteristic. Also, Bello’s Jane Timoney does not seem to be as in charge as Jane Tennison was. In “Episode One” she seems in charge, but not in “Carnivorous Sheep.” This may just be a difference between NYPD and Scotland Yard, but it throws the dynamics of the show off.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (2011. “Scorched Earth” written by David Matthews. 60 minutes.)

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

Where’s that old L&O inventiveness?: One of the great joys of the Law & Order franchise is not that they did “stories torn from the headlines,” but they always gave them ingenious plot turns. I remember one episode that began what was obviously a ripoff of the Anna Nicole Smith death, but had twisted it away from that before the first ca-ching of the credits. As might have occurred to you as you followed the news accounts of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, it is a perfect case for L&O:SVU: sex, power, diplomatic immunity, a flawed victim. It had it all. Well, it may have had too much. Matthews’s script follows the real case almost to the letter. I kept waiting for one or more of those great L&O twists. The problem is that the case already had all the variations you would expect from L&O. The only change is that the diplomat was actually tried at the end and found guilty, not of rape, but of unlawful imprisonment. Well, that’s no fun. Especially since Matthews set up a potential twist early on in his script. The diplomat in the show’s version was Italian, not French, and he says at one point that he thinks he may be set up by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to prevent him from running against Berlusconi in the next election. So I kept expecting that would pay off in an interesting way, but it does not pay off at all.

Whitney (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Whitney Cummings. 30 minutes.)


She’s no Kat Dennings: This is the second show that Cummings had a hand in creating this fall. The other, and better one, is 2 Broke Girls (see US#82). In that one, we have a story and characters. The “Whitney”-like character in that one is Max: tough, smart-mouthed, take no prisoners. But she has to deal with Caroline, the rich girl, who comes to work in the diner and who stays in her apartment, with her horse. So Max has stuff to do, and as written and played by Kat Dennings, she is not just a smart-mouth, but her comments have to do with the other characters and the situations she finds herself in. The character relates to the other characters, including the horse. In the “And Strokes of Goodwill” episode (written by Jhoni Marchinko) Max takes Chesnut, the horse, out for a walk to do his business, and delivers a nice monologue to him.

In Whitney, Cummings plays the title character. She is living with her boyfriend of three years, Alex. They make jokes. They are afraid of marriage. They go to a wedding and make jokes with their friends. Whitney dresses up as a nurse to seduce Alex and he ends up in the hospital. They make jokes. Most of the jokes are variations on material from Cummings’ stand-up act, and so the show falls into the trap of a lot of sitcoms based on a comedian’s act: all jokes, no story, no characters. Half an hour of this just gets tiresome. Stick with 2 Broke Girls.

The Good Wife (2011. “A New Day,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Meredith Averill. “The Death Zone,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Leonard Dick. “Get a Room,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Julia Wolfe. 60 minutes.)

The Good Wife

Patience: As you may gather from this column, the previous column, and the next one, I have been watching a lot of the new television season. That includes a lot of pilots (yes, there are some I have not written about). As was the case with both The Playboy Club and Pan Am (see above), many pilots are just stuffed to the gills with plot, character, and everything else. That’s why it was so nice to come across “A New Day,” the season opener for The Good Wife. You may remember from US#77, the last episode of the previous season ended with a great sequence in which Will and Alicia manage, slowly, given the complications, to get into the Presidential Suite at a hotel for what we assume is going to be great sex. “A New Day” is just that: what happens the next day.

How do we know it’s the next day? Alicia comes to work smiling. Will is nowhere to be seen. Work begins as she is assigned a case of a young Muslim accused of a hate crime. The prosecution in a pre-trial hearing gets him to admit he was driving a car at the time of the demonstration. So he has an alibi—the car was used later in a murder and how he is arrested for that.

And what about Will? He arrives in the office a little bit later, but he is not smiling. Hmm. Did something go wrong? When the secretary says Alicia was looking for him and does he want to see her, he says no. Ouch. At 18 minutes in, Will goes into Alicia’s office and we see them talk seriously, but we do not hear the conversation. God, what happened at the hotel? Diane notices that Will is being a “little hard” on Alicia and asks if anything is wrong. He says he is worried that she is a third year associate acting as if she is their equal. At 36 minutes, we cut from that scene to Will and Alicia. Together. Somewhere. Having sex standing up, mostly clothed. They both laugh when Will tells her about Diane’s question, then he asks her is he is being “too hard” on her. And she comes. Is this the first female orgasm on American network television?

Now you understand why CBS has changed its advertising campaigns for the show. The ads have featured Juliana Margulies with her head thrown back looking like she is in the middle of fun with Will. Now that they are actually having sex, CBS figured they could play that up, but I think their ads just cheapens and diminishes the show. As always, there is a lot more going on in The Good Wife than just sex. Not that there is anything wrong with sex. Although an irony-challenged woman wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times saying she could not understand why the show is called The Good Wife, since Alicia is having sex outside or marriage, etc, etc.

In “The Death Zone,” the State’s Attorney, i.e. Peter, is asking for law firms to bid on the gig of being outside counsel for his state office. Lockhart-Gardner applies, but Peter wants them to submit to an independent audit, a requirement he has not made of the other firms applying for the job. Is Peter trying to get back at Alicia? Or the firm? There are hints of all of those in various episodes and will undoubtedly play out in future episodes.

“Get a Room” gets us involved in a case where Eli, whose specialty is crisis management and is now part of Lockhart-Gardner, has to deal quickly with a food poisoning case. He jumps in to action in the way that only Alan Cumming can do. My guess is that this is the episode Cumming will submit for his Emmy bid next year, and with good reason. The Kings have given him a great showcase.

This episode also introduces us to a new character, Celeste. She is the opposing counsel on a case where Will and Alicia are representing a woman harmed by a medical device. The case in mediation and the groups of lawyers are more or less sequestered in a hotel until the mediator can get them to agree. It becomes obvious that Will has dealt with Celeste before. Will and Celeste play cards at the hotel and she suggests that whoever loses the card game should concede the mediation. Will’s not buying that. It’s only after that we learn that she and Will were “together for two years.” Together how? Not clear. Later she mentions to Will that her firm is going under and she is looking for a new professional home, suggesting she could maybe come to Lockhart-Gardner. And we end the episode (our guys win the mediation) without learning what will come out in the next couple of episodes: Celeste is Will’s ex-wife. Hijinks will definitely ensue.

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

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.




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.




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.




A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

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



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

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

Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

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


20. Cars (2006)

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

The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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

Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

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

Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

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

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

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




Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

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




Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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