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Understanding Screenwriting #85: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, The Sturges Project, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #85: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, The Sturges Project, & More

Coming Up In This Column: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, Feet First, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, Bitter Rice, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Bend of the River, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that the model for Charlie in A Single Man (2009) was Iris Tree, who shows up in Steiner’s party in La Dolce Vita (1960). And she is much less a caricature there than the character is—in the film, at least—of A Single Man.

Just a small note that hardly warrants a full item, at least not yet. I recently learned that there is a new book out by Kim Hudson called The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening. It’s apparently the women’s version of the Hero’s Journey, including such things as the “13 beats of the Virgin’s journey” and the “Virgin archetype.” That’s all fine and dandy, but what if, like say Anita Loos, you don’t want to write about dip-shit virgins and prefer to write about real women? As most people realize after they reach adulthood, even if they know they are not allowed to say it in public, virginity is vastly overrated.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011. Written by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. 90 minutes.)

Maybe too early: As longtime readers of this column know, I love shaggy dog stories. So naturally I liked the first Harold & Kumar film, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), in which the boys have the munchies and are just trying to get a couple of burgers. Hurwitz & Schlossberg, who have written all three films, were Billy Wilder ruthless in finding obstacles to throw in their way. The second one, 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, on the other hand, was a real dud. H&K were just stoners in the first one, and the humor was stoner humor. In the second, the writers tried to add a political dimension to the film, which simply does not fit with the characters of H&K. There was even some parody of George W. Bush that was well past its sell-by date. The H&K movies give us a lot of social comment, usually in throwaway jokes, but the political stuff in Guantanamo Bay is too heavy-handed to work in the H&K film universe.

Fortunately Hurwitz & Schlossberg are back on track in Christmas. H&K have not seen each other in a while. Kumar is still a stoner, but Harold has finally married Maria and is living in the suburbs. A mysterious package addressed to Harold is delivered to their old apartment, and Kumar takes it out to Harold’s house. Harold is setting up for Christmas, and his Latino father-in-law, Mr. Perez, who hates all Koreans (see what I mean about social comment), has brought a special Christmas tree. Kumar manages to burn it down and H&K go off to find another one while the Perez side of the family attend midnight mass. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that? The Billy Wilder ruthlessness is back at full power. And it is funny. I think I laughed harder at this film than I have any other one this year. Yes, the jokes are gross and borderline creepy, especially those involving Harold’s neighbor’s toddler who keeps getting stoned, but they just don’t stop, and they are often very surprising, which you don’t usually find in sequels and threequels. Two or three Christmas icons show up and are thoroughly trashed. Traditionally stoner comedies are very slowly paced, for obvious reasons, but this one moves like a house, or a Christmas tree, afire.

Normally I have a limited appetite for inside jokes, but there are some dandies here. As they get ready to go into a fancy party, one character says of Kumar, “We’ll tell them you work at the White House,” to which Kal Penn’s Kumar replies, “Yeah, like anybody will believe that.” Penn of course spent the last couple of years working in the Obama administration, not however in the war on drugs. Neil Patrick Harris is back as “himself.” He came out as gay in real life since the last film, and he and the writers have a wonderful time with that, ending with his waving goodbye to H&K, saying “See you guys in Number 4.”

The best gags are the 3D gags. Sorry, did I give you a heart attack there, given that you know my take on 3D? What makes them work is the attitude the film has toward 3D. There is none of the Jeffrey Katzenberg-James Cameron reverence for 3D here. It is a gimmick, the filmmakers recognize it as a gimmick, make references to the fact the film is in 3D and then throw everything they can think of at you. In keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, some of what pops out of the screen is just plain gross, as in a particular bit of Claymation. But the film also shows the limitations of 3D. Early on Kumar is blowing smoke from his joint out across the heads of the audience. You can see it but you just can’t smell it, dammit. So there, Katzenberg.

If, like me, you feel like you are drowning in Christmas hype as the season approaches, you may want to see this one as a relief. I am a bit surprised that Warners released it in early November. If it stays around until mid-December, you may need to see it.

The Women on the 6th Floor (2010. Written by Philippe Le Guay and Jérôme Tonnerre. 104 minutes.)

The Women on the 6th Floor

The Help, Parisian style: When I first saw this, I thought that I would probably not write about it for this column. It’s a funny, charming comedy about a Parisian stuffed shirt (Fabrice Luchini of course) who gets involved with the Spanish maids who live at the top of his apartment building. Then, as I was walking home, it occurred to me that the film is the French equivalent of The Help.

The time period is 1962. Jean-Louis and Suzanne are a very bourgeois married couple living in the same apartment building he has lived in since he was a child. He is an investor; she has gone from being a girl from the country to the epitome of an upscale French wife. One day, Jean-Louis learns that the toilet the maids use isn’t working, so he gets a plumber out to fix it. Then his long-time maid quits/is fired, and he ends up hiring Maria, the niece of Concepción, one of the older maids. Yes, Maria is attractive, but Jean-Louis is even more impressed that, unlike the previous maid, she follows his instructions on how to boil his morning egg. I don’t know what is written in the script as to Jean-Louis’s reaction when he first tastes her egg, but Luchini gives us about four or five reactions in one. You can tell that romance is going to bloom, but Le Guay (who also directed) and Tonnerre take their time. We spend a lot of time with all the maids and get a sense of their lives, especially in contrast to Suzanne and her hoity-toity friends. You can imagine the similarities here with Aibileen, Minny and that crowd. We don’t get these women telling stories so much as we see what they go through. We also get the romantic plot, or really subplot, with Jean-Louis and Maria, which ends well, although the last scene is more confusing than it might be as to how many children she has.

One thing that struck me in watching this film was, why is it set in 1962? There are some references to the period (De Gaulle, Franco), but nothing that requires that time period. I don’t know the social situation in France well enough to know if the maids are still immigrants from Spain, or are they now more from the Francophone former colonies in Africa? If the latter is the case, the lightness of touch of a contemporary version of the script would seem as condescending as some people think The Help is.

Feet First (1930. Scenario by Felix Adler Lex Neal, story by John Grey & Al Cohn & Clyde Bruckman, dialogue by Paul Girard Smith. 91 minutes.)

Feet First

What I said before, only more so: In US#3, back in the dark ages, I wrote an item about the transition from silent films to sound films. I was specifically talking about the silent and sound versions, both in 1929, of the Harold Lloyd film Welcome Danger. Lloyd was not adapting well to sound, since he added verbal prissiness to his visual prissiness, and the screenwriters, both for that sound film and for his 1932 film Movie Crazy, had not figured out how to write both funny and playable dialogue. Feet First comes between those two movies, and the dialogue problem is the same, not surprising, since Smith did the dialogue for both sound films.

Smith had first made a name for himself writing vaudeville acts, and wrote for the stage productions of the Ziegfield Follies in the ‘20s, so he certainly should have known better how to write comedy dialogue. Maybe the fact that he came to Hollywood in the mid-‘20s to work on silent comedies, including a couple for Buster Keaton, threw him off his stride. He certainly continued to work in films, and theatre, and early television after the Lloyd films, but nearly all of his film credits are B pictures.

The other problem with Feet First is that the visual gags are re-runs. Lloyd’s character Harold is on a ship coming from Hawaii (with the 1930 Westwood Village standing in for Hawaii in the opening scene) and since he has no ticket, he is avoiding the ship’s officers. In one scene they are chasing him around the ship. It is not unlike Keaton and the girl trying to find each other in The Navigator (1924), but without Keaton’s precision. Later in the film Harold is trying to deliver a envelope with some important papers, but he gets caught up in a painters rig that pulls him the side of a large building. Hmm, Lloyd on the side of a building. Where have we seen that before? Safety Last (1923), in case you never watch black-and-white movies. But in the earlier film Lloyd is specifically climbing to the top of the building. Here the painters keep raising and lowering the platform for no logical reason, and the scene just dithers away as you watch how much the downtown Los Angeles area has grown up since 1923.

The location details above are from the newest book by the great John Bengtson. Bengtson is a business lawyer (see, a few lawyers are good for something) who developed an interest in the locations used in silent films. His first book was 2000’s Silent Echoes, in which he tracked down locations used by Buster Keaton. I spent an afternoon driving around town with Bengtson’s book in my car looking at those sacred spaces. He followed that up with the 2006 book Silent Traces about Chaplin’s use of locations. I always think of Chaplin sticking to his backlot, but the book shows he used a lot of location work, especially in his earlier films.

Bengtson’s new book, out this year, is Silent Visions, and it’s about Lloyd and his locations. Lloyd’s studio in the late ‘20s was only a couple of miles away from where I live, and many scenes in his pictures were shot in areas I drive by all the time. I obviously need to take this book out for a drive around the neighborhood.

The Great McGinty (1940. Written by Preston Sturges. 81 minutes.)

The Great McGinty

The Sturges Project, Take One: Last Christmas, one of Santa’s elves was very good to me. She gave me a DVD box set of seven films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed. Since I have dealt with box sets before (Budd Boetticher and Errol Flynn), and since I dealt a little with Sturges the writer before he became a director (Remember the Night [1940] in US#38), I thought it would be a great opportunity to go through the films for this column. I was intending to do that during the summer, but some family matters intervened. And then there was the start of the television season. There was some time before we get overloaded with the end of the year films for me at least to get started, so welcome aboard for a ride on Sturges’s cockeyed caravan.

The films are, in chronological order, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and The Great Moment (1944). Notice anything missing? Yeah, the box set does not include The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), I suspect for reasons of the ownership of rights. However, Paramount (rather than Universal, which owns most of the Paramount pre-1948 films) released a now out-of-print DVD of Miracle that I have managed to get my hands on. So I will throw that in as a bonus at no extra cost to you. What I call the Sturges Project will continue over the next several columns until I have covered all eight of the films. The background information for the project comes from James Curtis’s excellent 1982 biography Between Flops and, even more helpfully, the 1985 collection Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, edited with great introductory essays by Brian Henderson. Henderson followed that up in 1996 with Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, which covers the rest of the scripts I’ll be dealing with. The books have photocopied versions of the production scripts (although I am a bit dubious of one, which I will talk about later), so we can see what Sturges intended to shoot and how.

Sturges was born on August 29, 1898 and spent his youth flitting around Europe with his mother, a friend of Isadora Duncan. His stepfather was a stockbroker, and his mother started a cosmetics firm that Preston was running in his teens. So you can see Preston had a variety of experiences in his youth. Never underestimate the value of worldly experiences for a future screenwriter. Better than film school, truth be told. Sturges wrote plays for Broadway and then came to Hollywood in the early ‘30s. The first script that brought him attention was The Power and the Glory (1933), the story of the rise and fall of a businessman, but told in non-chronological terms. It is considered very much the forerunner of Citizen Kane (1941), but it was a flop. After Power, Sturges began to think about directing, because he noted what William K. Howard had done and not done as the director. But this was the 1930s and no studio was about to let a writer direct. The studios had a very strict division of labor. You can see why they applied it to writers. Why let a writer spend a lot of time writing and directing one film, when you could have him write two or three scripts in the same time? Writers were too valuable to be allowed to direct. In 1936 he wound up at Paramount, where he wrote hits like Easy Living (1937) and If I Were King (1938). He kept bugging his boss at Paramount, William LeBaron, for a chance to direct. LeBaron had a weakness for talented writers, especially comic ones like W.C. Fields, Herman Mankiewicz, Mae West, and Brackett and Wilder. Finally LeBaron agreed to let Sturges direct. The film was finally titled The Great McGinty.

The script was inspired by stories of politics in Chicago that Sturges heard in his youth. Sturges was particularly impressed with the tale of William “Old Bill” Sulzer, a Democratic politician who rose to be governor of Illinois. Then he started doing things the people wanted, which were not necessarily good for the Democratic machine. He was impeached for doing too much good for the people and not enough for the party. Sturges did the first draft screenplay in 1933, entitled The Vagrant. He saw it as a companion piece to The Power and the Glory, dealing with politics instead of business. After the flop of Power, nobody wanted it, and they certainly were not about to allow him to direct it. Over the years he changed the title several times, ending up with Down Went McGinty, the title the shooting script bears. As Henderson points out, there were considerable changes in the material from The Vagrant. McGinty still begins as a bum who surprises the politicians by managing to vote 37 times on election day, but he meets the Boss earlier in the script, which makes their relationship a lot closer and a lot more detailed. In The Vagrant, McGinty’s wife is a “renegade from the Purity Leauge” as Curtis describes her, but in McGinty she is McGinty’s secretary Catherine, with no other exposition when we first meet her. When the Boss suggests McGinty get married, he talks it over with Catherine, and she suggests they get married. This is a nice scene as written, since she seems to be doing everything to help out because she believes in McGinty’s reform ideas. One can imagine another director, oh, all right, Mitchell Leisen, turning it into a romantic scene, with us being clear that she has been in love with McGinty for a while. Sturges does not do that in his direction; the scene is played straight and much fresher for that. The Boss and Catherine are set up as the forces pulling on McGinty. When he gets to be Mayor of Chicago, Catherine encourages him to try to do some good. There is a great scene that was cut from the film where he tries to persuade the Boss to let him do good, and the Boss tells him all the reasons he can’t. Why was the scene dropped? I suspect that because shortly thereafter there is a similar scene after McGinty becomes governor, and that one is more crucial to the film. And the later one leads to McGinty telling Catherine that sweatshops for little kids are not that bad. He asks her if she ever worked in one. She says she didn’t. McGinty says, “Well, I did, see? When I was seven years old. Instead of playing on the street and learning dirty words I earned four dollars a week for my mother and it wasn’t dark and airless, it was very neat and clean…And I want to tell you something: we liked it!” (The ellipses here is mine. Sturges writes in several of his own—and the actors pay no attention to them at all.)

Although by now Sturges should have known better, he wrote in camera directions. As always happens, the director (Sturges) did not pay any attention, oh, well, some, but very little attention, to what the writer (Sturges) suggested. There are also cuts for budget reasons: the writer calls for the main titles over shots of “the harbor and waterfront of a banana republic,” but the titles are just cards. There are also cuts, probably for length. A scene of a farm boy talking to construction workers about the buildings the mayor is building is replaced by a simple ‘30s construction montage. McGinty has a long, wonderful scene with Maxwell, who runs a bus company, in which he explains how the graft works, but very little of that remains in the film. In some cases the cuts were made during the shooting, as in speeches that are changed in single take scenes, and sometimes in the editing room.

The film looks and feels like a lot of ‘30s newspaper comedies. It certainly has the cheerful cynicism of those films. It is slower than most, since a lot of the scenes are talky, but not yet with the wonderful use of language that will show up in later Sturges films. There is more conventional ‘30s slang. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff are fine as McGinty and the Boss, but they are not quite up to the level of later Sturges stars. There are some Sturges touches in the casting. The Boss’s bodyguard is played by a wimpy looking actor (that casting does not work out; he’s too bland) and his chauffeur is played by an ex-boxer, so his short speech on why he and his girlfriend broke up is funnier. What Sturges needed to find was the kind of character actors who could populate his world. In one case he was on the right track. For the Politician, an underling of the Boss, Sturges considered character actors who usually played those types: Grant Mitchell and Sidney Toler. In the end he settled on William Demarest, who was born to read Sturges’s dialogue. We will catch up with him in later films.

Christmas in July (1940. Written by Preston Sturges. 68 minutes.)

Christmas in July

The Sturges Project, Take Two: In January 1940, McGinty was still filming, but LeBaron already knew what he had and asked Sturges what he wanted to do for his second film. Sturges figured that if he whipped out a second one quickly, at least one of them ought to be a hit. He needn’t have worried. Both were hits, and McGinty won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for 1940, beating out Foreign Correspondent and The Great Dictator, among others. I don’t think McGinty is anywhere close to Sturges’s best script, but its win certainly helped open the floodgates for all the other writers who wanted to direct. Huston, Wilder, and everyone who came later owe it a lot.

Since he wanted to do something fast, Sturges went back to his trunk and dug out A Cup of Coffee. It started as a stage play in 1931, and after three previous flops nobody wanted to produce it. It tells the story of James Macdonald, who works at Baxter Coffee as a salesman. He had entered a contest for a new slogan at Maxwell House Coffee. At the end of the first act, he gets a notice he has won. In the second act, he has been promoted at Baxter, but at the end of the act, he learns that he has not won the contest. The winner was another James Macdonald. In Act Three, the company finds out he did not win the contest, and the company now must decide if they will give him his regular job back. Jimmy’s girlfriend Tulip convinces the bosses to give Jimmy the contract they were originally going to give him, but without pay so that he will have to prove himself. At the end a representative from Maxwell House shows up and says Jimmy did win after all.

In late 1934, Sturges adapted the play into a screenplay of the same name. He realized it could be made on a limited budget, even if he expanded the three sets of the play. He hoped to make it his first directorial effort while at Universal. They said no, but kept the rights when he went off to Paramount. In 1940, Sturges got LeBaron to obtain the rights, Sturges slapped a new title page on the 1935 script and gave it to the producer assigned to him on McGinty, Paul Jones, who had produced Bob Hope movies and was not intimidated by Sturges. Sturges worked on revising the screenplay from February through May as McGinty was in post-production. First of all, he made Jimmy a more consistent character than he was in play, where he was an outgoing salesman type in Act I and a genuinely nice guy in Acts II and III. Second, he changed the details about the contest. Three co-workers hear him talking on the phone about the contest, and they send him a phony telegram telling him he is the winner. Events escalate from there, and they finally confess. Third, Sturges expanded the locations. In the play all three sets are in Baxter offices. Jimmy at one point sends out for some presents for his office co-workers and they are sent to the office. In the screenplay Jimmy and Betty (thank God she got renamed from Tulip; well, Sturges wasn’t quite ready for the Kockenlockers) go on a shopping expedition for presents for everybody on his block. The big slapstick sequence, on the street in front of the houses, is the arrival of the presents and the department store people who want them back. There was no big slapstick scene in McGinty, just a minor fight between McGinty and the Boss. The scene with the presents is described in considerable detail, but it is much shorter in the film. It’s also clearer in the film; Sturges as director is good at focusing on what he needs to in the scene.

Sturges also shows us the radio show with the contest and the activities at the sponsor’s office (Maxwell House in the play, Parker House in the script, and Maxford House in the film). He was not only expanding the locations, but expanding the characters. He was beginning to gather around him the stock company of character actors that would appear in most, if not all, of the eight films we will be discussing. William Demarest is back as Bildocker, the head of the jury judging the contest. Late in the film he has an argument with Dr. Parker, the head of the company. Parker is played by Raymond Walburn, who would appear in two more Sturges films. When Demarest and Walburn get up a full head of steam, we have a scene that could only have come in a film written and directed by Preston Sturges. And you remember the chauffeur in McGinty? He was Frank Moran, and he appears here as Patrolman Murphy, a role his ex-boxer’s mug is perfect for. Al Bridge is the jewelry salesman Mr. Hillbeiner, whom Sturges gives a great scene with Jimmy and Betty. Bridge goes through a whole range of expressions, depending on how legitimate he suspects Jimmy’s money is. Bridge appears in the remaining six films we will be discussing.

There is still something early-‘30s about the film as Jimmy, the little guy, triumphs. But Sturges the writer is undercutting the sentimentality that Riskin and Capra would have brought to the material. Those guys assume that it is only natural that the little guy triumph in America. Jimmy’s manager at Baxter’s is a little more skeptical, in the tradition of the “sweatshop” speech in McGinty. He tells Jimmy that he one day realized that he was never going to have $25,000 (the contest prize), and then later he realized, “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works, but no system could be right where only half of one per cent were successes and all the rest were failures. That wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure, I’m a success, and so are you, if you earn your living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.” Sturges slips that in as a throwaway speech rather than making a big deal of. It’s not given to the star, but to a minor character. Written in 1940, it is something for us in the 99% group to keep in mind.

Bitter Rice (1949. Screenplay by Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Mario Monicelli (uncredited), Gianni Puccini; story by Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Gianni Puccini; dialogue Franco Monicelli, (uncredited); writers: Corrado Alvaro, Carlo Musso, Ivo Perilli. 108 minutes.)

Bitter Rice

Lust! Murder! Crane shots! Neorealism?: This film has always been the black sheep of the Neorealist family. After all, Neorealism was supposed to tell stories of real people in real settings and deal with social problems of the time: the Nazis, poverty, more poverty. After the white telephone movies of the Mussolini era, the Neorealist films were above all serious, especially about society. And they were done with the most primitive filmmaking technology. Ah, not quite. The legend is that Rossellini shot Rome, Open City (1945) with what are called “short ends,” bits of film from film magazines not used in other productions. Oops, the recent restoration of the film shows that only four different film stocks were used, not unusual in a feature. And also, what is that rear projection shot doing in the truck scene in Bicycle Thief (1947)?

So Bitter Rice shows up in 1949 with a veneer of Neorealism. It is about women who go out into the rice paddies of the Po River valley in Northern Italy, the same area where Rossellini shot Paisan (1946). The women come out from their regular jobs for a short season of planting and harvesting rice. OK, poor people, that’s good. But the story only indirectly focuses on their social condition. It begins with a thief, Walter, and his moll, Francesca, escaping from the cops. Walter sends her on a train with the women going out to the paddies. Francesca befriends Silvana, and they begin to envy each other’s lifestyle. Walter shows up and Silvana gets the hots for him. He figures out a way to steal the rice before it gets to market. He tricks her into opening the dikes to flood the rice paddies while he loads up the truck. She discovers it, gunshots are fired.

I suppose you could write a piece now on how Bitter Rice is a pre-feminist piece, but in its day it was sensational in every sense. The camera (yes, there are crane shots, which do seem out of place in a Neorealist film) follows, to the point of ogling, the women, barefoot, in their rolled-up pants, as they wade into the fields. Even if you have never seen the film, you may well have seen the most famous still from it: Silvana Mangano, who plays Silvana, up to her bare calves in the paddies wearing a very tight sweater. That still, and the film, made Mangano an international star, even though her performance is one of the worst in the film. The picture was a huge success, not only in Italy, where it outgrossed all the other Neorealist classics, but all over the world.

And now it is considered respectable. The UCLA film archive recently ran a retrospective of classic Neorealist films and included Bitter Rice. The catalogue entry described it as “Giuseppe De Santis’ scorching crime drama set against a portrait of rural labor and exploitation.” Yeah, but as a studio head we will meet a couple of columns on would put it, “And a little sex.”

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, Screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross, story by Maurice Zimm, idea by William Alland. 79 minutes.) and Bend of the River (1952. Screenplay by Borden Chase, based on the novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulik. 91 minutes.)

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Bend of the River

Orson and Gaby and William and Julie and Borden: According to film historian Alan K. Rode, early in the ‘40s Orson Welles had a dinner party that included the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Gaby, as he was known to his friends, told the story of a creature in Mexico that stole young women unless there was a sacrifice to him. Everybody laughed, even though Gaby said he had pictures of it. One person who paid attention to the story was William Alland, who played Thompson the reporter in Citizen Kane (1941). A decade later Alland was a producer at Universal. There had just been a successful re-release of the 1933 version of King Kong, and Alland jotted down an idea for a rip-off in which Figueroa’s beast takes a blonde woman. The story and script were developed, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon was released in 1954 in 3D.

Fortunately sanity prevailed, and instead of a blonde, they cast a beautiful brunette contract player at Universal named Julie Adams. Her swimming scenes, in a stunning white bathing suit, have enthralled young boys of all ages ever since. (The copies of the swimsuit made for the film have all been lost, or else they would be worth a fortune on EBay.) Adams later said that over her long career she “could act her heart out and still only be remembered” for Creature. She never became a big star, but she has worked steadily in film, television and on the stage, and is still going strong in her eighties. She has also written her memoirs, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections from the Black Lagoon. So in late October, the Larry Edmunds Bookshop and the American Cinemateque had a tribute/book signing at the Egyptian Theatre. I talked to her briefly as I was getting my copy of her book signed. I mentioned I had enjoyed a lot of her work over the years from Bend of the River to Murder, She Wrote. She looked a bit startled and said she hoped I had managed to stay awake through some of them. She is just as charming and down-to-earth off-screen as she is on. The evening included screenings of both Creature and her earlier film Bend of the River. Creature was even shown in 3D! And much as I generally hate contemporary 3D, the underwater shots in Creature are great at giving you a sense of the space involved.

The story of Creature is about as simple as they come: scientists discover a piece of a skeleton that suggests a creature and mount a full-scale (well, as full-scale as you can get on a B picture budget and not going off the Universal backlot) expedition. The Creature kills people and becomes entranced by Kay (Adams) swimming. Part of the Creature’s appeal to young men is that he is in the long line of ugly guys with the hots for beautiful women. See for example, in their many forms, Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, King Kong, and three-quarters of the horny teenager movies of the ‘80s. The extras and those down the cast list die and the top-billed actors live, and we don’t know if the Creature is dead at the end. He wasn’t and ended up doing two sequels, but none of them had the appeal of the first one. Mainly because they didn’t have Adams and her swimstuit. And, at the risk of destroying all your illusions, Adams’s swimming double, Ginger Stanley. All the underwater shots were done in Florida with Stanley, and any shots done with Kay’s head above water were done at Universal with Adams.

Bend of the River is a much better picture, a terrific western shot in Technicolor in Oregon. The screenplay is by Borden Chase, who a few years before had written the story and co-written the screenplay for the classic 1948 Red River. Red River, as nearly everybody knows, is Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) on a cattle drive. I don’t know how much of this is from the novel that Chase worked from on Bend, but in the second half it turns into another variation on Mutiny on the Bounty, this time with a wagon train on its way to deliver supplies to some settlers. Adams is the daughter of the leader of the settlers and ends up driving one of the wagons on the trek. It is a stuntman who doubles her taking the wagon across a river. But it’s her in the closeups.

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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