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Understanding Screenwriting #86: Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve

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Understanding Screenwriting #86: Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve

Coming Up in This Column: Kawasaki’s Rose, Tower Heist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Lady Eve, Page Eight, Enlightened, but first…

Fan Mail: Glad to see from David Ehrenstein’s comments on US#85 that he finally thinks I am doing something right by getting into Preston Sturges’s work. David is right that Sturges’s “direction is part of the writing process.” See below how that happens on The Lady Eve.

Kawasaki’s Rose (2009. Written by Petr Jarchovský. 100 minutes.)

Wild Strawberries meets The Lives of Others: This film, which is finally getting an American release, gets off to what I found was an unsettling start. It is a Czech film about a psychiatrist who stood up to the Communist regime in the ‘70s, but the opening shots are of a very wide river that seems to open into the ocean. There are several ocean-going ships along the river and bridges large enough for them to pass under. Nice shots, but the Czech Republic is a land-locked country. Some nice rivers, but none go to the ocean. So where are we? What struck me about the river and the bridges is that the place looked awfully like Gothenberg in Sweden. I have never been there, but my wife’s grandfather was a well-known Swedish painter in the area. We have several prints of his paintings of the river and harbor on our walls.

But soon we are clearly in the Czech Republic. A television crew is interviewing the psychiatrist, Pavel Josek. He has been awarded the Memory of the Nation Medal for his stand against the Communists. The interview team includes his son-in-law Ludek and Ludek’s mistress Radka. Ludek has always resented Pavel, whom he feels looks down on him, which may or may not be the case. Ludek brings Radka to meet Lucie, Pavel’s daughter. Typical guy: he thinks he can work out some kind of arrangement with his wife and his mistress. So we are in family territory here, not unlike the set-up of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), where the professor is getting an award.

But at 35 minutes into the film, Ludeck shows up with Pavel’s file from the old days. Well, yes, Pavel was cleared of any hint of collaboration with the old regime. But this is the complete file. Does Ludek, who has betrayed Lucie, now betray the father-in-law he resents? Yes, and Ludek, who has seemed to be a major character in the film virtually disappears. Radka, who has seemed smarter and more ruthless than Ludek all along, starts finding people mentioned in the file. And who is Kafka? Not the novelist, but the interrogator who got Pavel to work for them. And what did Pavel do? He arranged for his now-wife Jana’s boyfriend at the time, an artist named Borek, to be hospitalized. Why? Because Pavel liked Jana before and she was now pregnant with Borek’s child. And just to make it more complicated, Borek did not want to marry Jana or have anything to do with the child. Yeah, the child is Lucie. Borek managed to escape the country, all hills and woods, and is living in…yep, you guessed it, Gothenberg, with its open waterways and the sea. Never has landscape seemed as political as it does in this film.

So we then get one of the most unnerving sequences I’ve seen in years: we intercut between Kafka, an aging version of the Stasi officer Weisler in The Lives of Others (2006), telling how he interrogates people and Borek being interviewed in Sweden about the same events. What is so dazzling about the sequence is Jarchovský has given Kafka a straightforward explanation of how you get people to talk. No waterboarding or torture, but just collecting information and using it against the person. It is a perfect lesson in how it’s done, but I hope to God that no present or future interrogators learn from. Well, maybe it’s OK if our side does it.

And we are still only halfway through the film. When Lucie finds out she takes her daughter to Sweden to meet Borek, her father and the girl’s grandfather. Layers of emotions begin to unfold among all the characters. Yes, there were betrayals, but going to Sweden worked out well for Borek. And Pavel’s betrayal of Borek appears to have made him more intent on resisting the Communists afterwards. Would he have done what he did later if he did not feel at least some guilt at what he had done?

Borek comes back to Sweden for the awarding of the medal to Pavel. We learn it was Borek who designed the award. The final scene is Borek and the family having dinner after the ceremony. Borek reads off a long list of names he could have called Pavel, but then says he is not going to use them. The end. Not quite. There is a coda afterwards with Kafka that is just as chilling as his earlier scene.

Petr Jarchovský has been writing screenplays since 1991, and this one was directed by Jan Hrebejk. They have collaborated on several films before, most notably Divided We Fall (2000) about love and betrayal during the German occupation. As I came out of Kawasaki’s Rose, I felt it was not quite up to Divided We Fall, but the more I think about it, the better I like it. Nothing like great writing about interesting, flawed characters in the real world.

Tower Heist (2011. Screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, story by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Ted Griffin. 104 minutes.)

Tower Heist

The broth is only lukewarm: And those are just the credited writers. According to a Los Angeles Times story in November there were at least four other writers who worked on it. The idea started over a decade ago when Eddie Murphy suggested doing an all-black version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001). The story evolved into a group of employees in a huge apartment building pulling off a heist, but since most buildings like that have multi-racial staffs, the idea of an all-black version got dropped. The other part of Murphy’s original idea, that people doing the robbery had no idea how to pull it off, remains, and Murphy’s character Slide is now a small-time crook who teaches them how.

As often happens with this much rewriting, the focus gets a little fuzzy. The picture takes an awfully long time to get going as the script establishes the characters and their situation. Arthur Shaw, a Madoff type who lives in the penthouse, had invested the employees’ savings and lost it all. The employees are convinced that he has some running away money stashed in his penthouse. Since most of the employees get fired, they have to find a way to not only break into Shaw’s penthouse, but the building itself. So we get a lot of exposition about the building in the first forty minutes, but more than we actually need. We only should get what we need to know as we watch the heist. Then when the heist starts, it is not as clear as it needs to be who is doing what and why. You know exactly where you are in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1954).

The script does provide some nice scenes, especially for Murphy. He tries to teach his “crew” how to pull this stuff off. He has a nice scene with Odessa, a flirtatious maid from the Caribbean with lock-picking skills. Odessa, by the way, is played by Gabourey Sidibe, a long, funny way from her Precious. And Murphy and Ben Stiller have a great scene in a car talking about their school days. Are you beginning to suspect that director Brett (“rehearsals are for f—s”) Ratner just let Murphy go in these scenes? Maybe, but it might be interesting to see what was in the script they were working from.

The big finish involves a car and several characters dangling off the side of the tower. Better than the tall building scenes in Feet First (1930, see US#85), but nowhere near those in Safety Last (1923).

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011. Written by Sean Durkin. 102 minutes.)

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Well, the setup is not bad: We are in a farm or commune of some kind. Everybody is doing chores. One young girl carefully packs up a few things, sneaks into the woods. And runs like hell. She eventually gets to sort-of civilization and calls her sister Lucy, whom she has not seen in years. The sister picks her up in her car and takes her to the nice, modern house on a lake she shares with her husband Ted. Lucy lets her sister, whom she calls Martha, stay as long as she likes to recover from…well, what? Here’s where the script begins to go downhill.

Martha doesn’t tell them anything about what happened to her. And Lucy is too polite to ask. So Martha mopes around the house. And swims nude in the lake when people can see her. Mopes some more. Learns how to drive Ted’s boat. Mopes some more. Meanwhile we get flashbacks of her at the commune, which we begin to learn is really a cult. The cult leader is Patrick, nicely played by John Hawkes as a quiet, seemingly nice fellow who decides Martha should be called Marcy May. We see some of the less pleasant activities of the cult, as in Patrick having sex with whomever he wants, but voices are seldom raised. Marcy May does go along on a robbery attempt that ends in murder, but we are not sure if that was what drove her to escape. There is essentially no build to any of the characters, no development or revelations, and no forward movement to the story. One could take most of the scenes in the middle of the film and shuffle them around in any order you like.

Finally, five minutes before the credits begin, after Martha has a fit at a party Lucy and Ted are giving, Lucy angrily asks Martha, “What the fuck happened to you?” Excuse me, five minutes before the credits? That moment should have been about five minutes into the film. The story should have been how Martha recovers, either with professional help or just by being at Lucy’s, but all we get is the moping.

Elizabeth Olsen has been getting raves for her performance as Martha etc., and not without justification. She is fascinating in the beginning, and she has a face that registers every emotion. The script does not support the performance in that it does not give her a variety of emotions to register. Olsen is a terrific actress, but even the best need a script they can work from.

Ah, one other minor point. Late in the cult flashbacks someone calls Martha/Marcy May “Marlene,” but we have no idea why. In answer to Lucy’s question, sloppy writing is what happened to her.

The Lady Eve (1941. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on the short story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe. 97 minutes.)

The Lady Eve

The Sturges Project, Take Three: First of all, if you are not aware of what I am up to with the Sturges Project, read the first two takes in US#85 to get some of the background. Or not, as you wish. You can catch up with me quick enough, especially if you are a Sturges fan.

When The Great McGinty was still shooting in early 1940, William Le Baron, the studio head, asked Sturges for a second project. Sturges decided on what became Christmas in July (1940), but one other project he considered was this one, which he took up after July. He had actually worked on the script for producer Albert Lewin in 1938. It was originally conceived as a star vehicle for Claudette Colbert, but after working with Barbara Stanwyck on Remember the Night (1940: See US#38), he told Stanwyck that he was going to write a great comedy for her. She said later, “I told him that I never get great comedies” (quoted in James Curtis’s Between Flops). It’s true, and given the work she does here and in Ball of Fire later the same year, it’s hard to understand why.

Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges was unable to find out where, if ever, Hoffe’s story had been published. It may just have been sold directly to Paramount. By Henderson’s account, it is an incredibly complicated piece about Kitty Ardelaire, the “one bad hat” in a British family who runs away with a horse dealer, has twin daughters, one of whom dies. Kitty continues telling her British family the dead daughter is alive so she can collect support checks from the family. Kitty and the surviving daughter Salome return to England, run a card game that is raided by the police. The family cuts off the money, but Kitty has Salome pretend to be the dead Sheba, who returns to the bosom of the family. Salome/Sheba marries a nice young man, but he takes up with a notorious woman. Then the man meets Salome in a club, thinking she is Salome, and the two of them go off with her mother to America. The only things in the story that survives into The Lady Eve are the parent/daughter card players, the women pretending to be somebody, and a steamship. There is a reason why it’s called adaptation, folks.

Henderson found in the files a treatment (he thought it might be just a synopsis, but it varies too much from the Hoffe story to be that) by Jeanne Bartlett. Henderson was not able to find anything out about Bartlett, but then he was working in the ‘80s before the IMDb. She was an actress and writer, who has story and/or screenplay credits on three films in the ‘40s. She acted in Werewolf of London in 1935 and wrote Man-Eater of Kumaon in 1948. Her treatment cut all the backstory of the family and started with the romance. Salome meets a stuffy British aristocrat and seduces him after he complains to a mutual friend of theirs that she is vulgar. He is in love with her, but appalled at his own taste. The gambling house is raided and Salome pretends to be her dead sister, attacking the aristocrat when he shows up for seducing her sister. He starts courting “Sheba” but ends up telling her it is Salome that he loves. He tells “Sheba” that he knew all along she was really Salome, but none of us believe it. Well, we are getting a bit closer to Eve. As Henderson points out, the focus shifted from the aristocrat being the sexual adventurer in Hoffe’s story, to the woman in Bartlett’s version. (You can believe that Bartlett went on to write The Man-Eater of Kumaon, although the man-eater in that one is a tiger, not Barbara Stanwyck.) For some reason that appealed to Sturges. The women in both McGinty and Christmas are much better behaved. Neither Catherine in McGinty nor Betty in Christmas are particularly sexual creatures. Both are supportive of the man in their lives, even if Betty does disagree with Johnny from time to time. The love stories in both those films are not the main plots.

One reason Sturges may have been ready to let her rip is that both McGinty and Christmas had B picture budgets, and without major stars. Dick Powell, who plays Jimmy in Christmas, was finished with his boy crooner days at Warners and not yet into his private eye phase. He gives a good performance, but it’s a minor star performance at best. Now that Sturges was moving up to A budgets he could demand stars. He fought for Stanwyck as Jean/Eve and agreed to let himself be loaned out to 20th Century-Fox for a film in exchange for Henry Fonda as Charles. Even if the negotiations had not been completed as he was writing the script, he knew he was writing star parts. And boy, did he ever. There is the usual Sturges stock company: Demarest as Mugsy, Charles’s valet; Al Bridge does wonders with his three or four lines as opposed to the great scene Sturges wrote for him in Christmas. There are also newcomers: Eugene Pallette in, alas, the only Sturges film he ever did, as Charles’s father; Eric Blore in the first of only two Sturges films he did, as a British con artist. But the secondary characters are just that, secondary to Stanwyck and Fonda.

You know you are in A movie territory when the main titles, which Sturges writes “will be in an airbrush rendition of the Garden of Eden complete with snake,” are replaced in the film with a delightfully animated main title sequence. He wrote elaborate main title ideas in McGinty and Christmas, but they were not used, presumably for budgetary reasons. Sturges’s descriptions as camera directions are much more simplified and are more like things to keep in mind. When he sets up Jean and her father, Colonel Harrington in the bar before she trips Charles, he writes, “i.e., I must be able to SHOOT PAST Jean AT Charles while she is looking at him, and Jean must able to trip him up as he passes.” The trip does not happen until late into the scene, but we do need to get a sense of the geographical layout.

Sturges’s pacing is a little slower than in Christmas, but that’s because he focuses on Stanwyck and Fonda. When they go back to her cabin after she has been scared by Emma, his snake (a nice rhythmical shift in the script: she’s been in charge from the first trip and before, but how he’s as much in charge as he ever gets), he “takes her in his arms and seats her on the chaise longue,” but Sturges does not say where he sits. In an inspired bit of direction, he has Charles sit on the floor so Jean is above him, hovering over him. She plays with his hair and head as they talk and he looks totally uncomfortable. Once the scene gets going, Sturges does three minutes and fifteen seconds of it in a single take. Having Stanwyck and Fonda, Sturges knows he can do that. We get here and throughout the film a much greater number of closeups than we did in the two previous films. Sturges knows the material and the actors are up to it. It also changes the tone of the material from the script to the film. The film, because we are so physically close to the two “lovers,” becomes more romantic than the script seems on reading it.

The skill of the two stars is, I think, one reason that Sturges cut a scene that would seem to be a crucial one. At the end of the boat trip, after Jean and her father have seduced and cheated Charles, he learns from Mugsy that they are con persons. He pretends to Jean that he has known all along, and she is upset because she thinks he conned her. As they are getting off the boat, Jean is telling her father how irritated she was that “we let that sucker get off Scott free.” Colonel Harrington pulls out the check that Charles wrote for his losses and that the Colonel appeared to tear up. He didn’t of course, and in the script Jean and her father go to a bank in New York to cash it. The teller is a little suspicious, but Charles is at the bank as well and tells him the check is good. The bank scene was shot, but cut in the editing (which is why there is a jump cut in the final scene of the film in her cabin: in the script she asks Charles “Why didn’t you take me in your arms that day in the bank…Why etc.” The words “in the bank” have been cut and you can see the slight jump if you know what to look for). I suspect that the previous “Scott free” scene was enough when the film was cut together because of the romanticism of the Jean/Charles scenes before it that Stanwyck and Fonda give their full force to.

Sturges the screenwriter has shaped two latter sequences in the film particularly well. Our first scene in the home of Charles’s father, Mr. Pike, shows the chaos of the house as it prepares for a party that night. Mr. Pike’s attempt to get breakfast in all of this gives the scene a structure so the scene is not the chaos the house is in. The scene is greatly condensed in the film, as is the second sequence. Jean shows up as the British aristocrat Lady Eve. Mugsy is the first to suspect, of course, and we follow her entrance into the house as Mugsy watches through the windows. I suspect both sequences were condensed because both are awfully late in the picture for all the filigree Sturges puts into the writing.

Jean gets her revenge on Charles by marrying him, then on the train on their honeymoon she tells him about all her, “Eve’s,” lovers. He gets off the train in the middle of nowhere. Now, are all those stories true? We don’t really know, but we suspect Jean if not Eve has had an active social life. So in standard Hollywood morality she should pay for her sins. But she doesn’t. She ends up back on a ship and meets Charles again, this time as Jean, and he is happy to see her. He did not want the wild Eve, he’s perfectly happy with the wild Jean. So much for American men wanting innocent, wholesome women. And Sturges is not done yet. She lures him into her cabin, although he insists he has no right to be there because he’s married. She replies, “But so am I, darling, so am I,” and closes the door. I assume that since they are actually married to each other, Sturges got this scene past the Production Code, but he was skating near the edge. Later, of course, he would go over the edge.

Page Eight (2011. Written by David Hare. 99 minutes.)

Page Eight

All together now: you write good parts, you get good actors: David Hare, one of the great contemporary British playwrights, wrote this intending it to be a feature film, but nobody would give him the money for a theatrical film. So he made it for British television, and it showed up recently on PBS and is now out on DVD. Even on a television budget he got a cast that includes Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Saskia Reeves, Felicity Jones, Ewen Bremner, Alice Krig, and Ralph Fiennes. And none of them are underemployed.

Hare is great at writing about British politics and culture, as in his 1978 play Plenty, adapted by Hare into a film in 1985. The play and film deal with post-World War II disillusionment among the spying classes. His 1990 play Racing Demons looked inside the current state of the Church of England. Page Eight takes into MI5, the Secret Service that protects Britain from spies and terrorists in Britain (MI6, its more glamorous cousin, sends spies into other countries). Benedict Baron (Gambon) comes into possession of a file he passes on to two of his subordinates, Johnny (Nighy) and Jill (Davis). They are to read it and be prepared to discuss it with MI5’s boss, the Home Secretary (Reeves). Johnny is the only one who reads it thoroughly and discovers on page eight a couple of lines that suggest that the Prime Minister (Finnes, great in one day’s work) knew, not just guessed as everybody else did, that the Americans had their hidden prisons where they tortured people. And the PM got information from the Yanks that he did not pass on to MI5. That’s really bad form.

Baron dies and Johnny tries to figure out what Baron wanted him to do with the information. Needless to say, there are betrayals of a variety of sorts as several MI5 types are perfectly willing for career reasons to kiss the PM’s ass. To confuse Johnny more, a woman in the neighboring apartment, Nancy (Weisz), is taking an interest in him and he can’t quite figure out why. So you have a collection of characters keeping secrets from each other, which gives the actors wonderful scenes to play. Hare also directed, which he does from time to time, and like Sturges in Eve he knows what he’s got, both with the scenes and the cast.

Obviously the PM is inspired at least in part by Tony Blair and his sucking up to the Yanks on the Iraq war, so you can see why Hare portrays him as an asshole. I guess I am not really surprised that Hare did not allow the PM to make a case for his actions by comparing himself to Winston Churchill in World War II. The Brits broke the German codes and had massive amounts of information on the enemy. Great. Except if you use too much of it, or in the wrong way, the Germans would have figured out their codes were broken and change them. The general policy was that the Brits would not take action on a piece of intelligence unless they had confirmation from a second source. But what happens when British lives are at stake and the Ultra decrypts are the only thing you have? Churchill had to make some tough, nasty decisions on that and Hare’s PM could have made the case that he was protecting the source of information on terrorists. Even so, it not only bad form, but not smart not to trust your own intelligence agency.

Enlightened (2011. Various episodes, all written by Mike White. 30 minutes each)

Enlightened

I’m still not sure: I have been putting off writing about this new HBO series because it is a little difficult to nail down. Most series make their franchise clear early on: doctors will save lives on medical shows; police will arrest bad guys on cop shows; defense lawyers will get them off on lawyer shows. In Enlightened, it’s a little trickier, but here that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Amy had a nervous breakdown and has gone off to a rehab center in Hawaii. She has done New Age stuff (sitting around the beach talking about her feelings) and has come back to the Inland Empire of California (east of Los Angeles) enlightened. She tries to get her job at a big company back, but her assistant has already taken that job. To keep Amy from filing a lawsuit against the company, she is assigned to a group doing what looks to be data entry in the basement. So is it a workplace comedy? Not really. Sometimes we are with that group and sometimes not. A recent interview with Mike White really did not clear up matters that much.

What I take to be the franchise of Enlightened is that White is showing how somebody who becomes “enlightened” has difficulties dealing with the realities of the world when those realities do not match hers. This has always struck me as a problem with a lot of rehab and self-esteem programs. Once you work out all your problems, how do you deal with the real world that may have a lot of ways at looking at life that are not yours. Twenty years ago my wife and I had dinner with a couple that had just recently gotten married. They both were in twelve step programs and had done all the “work,” but they really had no idea from that how to live with another person in a marriage. My wife and I gave them what advice we could. I am not sure we should take any credit for it, but they are still married, and quite happily too. But it took a lot of effort on their part. A former student of mine, Tony-award winner Tonya Pinkins, wrote a book a few years ago called Get Over Yourself, which was aimed at women. Tonya was showing them how to take charge of their lives and not let men, other women, society, etc define their lives. Good and useful book, but in an email to Tonya I asked her if her next book was going to be about how to get along with the rest of the world once you have gotten over yourself. She never replied and has not brought it up in the conversations we have had since.

So you can see, I am ready for a show that demonstrates how difficult taking over your own life can be, and that’s the sweet spot of Enlightened. Amy is convinced she is all right with the world, but she’s not. When she tries to talk to her ex-husband in the pilot, he accuses her of coming over with all that “self-help spiritual shit.” She calls her former boss, with whom she had an affair, telling him she is driving by his house. He comes out and tells her off. She accidentally hits his car with hers and reacts to it by asking, “Do you want my insurance?”

In “The Weekend” she and her ex-husband Levi go off on a group river-rafting trip on the Kern River. They enjoy the scenery, especially Amy in her New-Agey way. Then she discovers Levi has brought his stash of drugs along, and she throws them in the river. He is furious, makes a scene, and insists they leave the group to go into town where he scores some more.

In “Sandy,” Amy’s friend from rehab shows up for a visit. So far Amy has been dealing with people who don’t get where she is coming from, or maybe get it and just don’t want to be part of that world. Sandy is exactly like Amy, which could be bad writing, but it isn’t. Laura Dern has beautifully captured the emotional hairpin turns Amy makes, and Robin Wright gives a mirror image of that. It’s a great double act. So you think they would hit if off, but as close as they are, there are still personal differences that rub Amy the wrong way. Amy’s mom Helen, who doesn’t have much sympathy for the new Amy, has even less for Sandy. So Amy takes Sandy over to Levi’s, since he has a spare room. When Amy can’t contact them, she begins to think Sandy and Levi are getting it on. She goes to Levi’s and hears what she thinks are the sounds of sex, which matches an earlier scene when Helen thinks she hears Amy and Sandy having sex, but then sees they are just doing yoga. Amy opens the door and sees Sandy giving Levi a massage. Sandy has been talking to him all day and getting him to “open up.” After Sandy leaves the room, Levi says she is like a “Nazi interrogator.” Like Helen, Levi does not want to spend all day talking about his emotions. People like Amy and Sandy don’t realize that other people have their own lives to live and don’t necessarily want to live them the way Amy and Sandy live theirs. Amy is, as she would be in real life, an extremely annoying person, but then she’ll have a moment of enlightenment or bliss (on the river, for example) so you cannot completely hate her. I think, but I’m still not sure. Maybe I just need to get over myself.

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

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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

2.5

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.

The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.

As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.

Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.

The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art

Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

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

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

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


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

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


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

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


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

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


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

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


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

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

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

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

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life

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

1.5

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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