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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, Crazy Horse, Miss Bala, Safe House, Some Print Items, The Power and the Glory, Hail the Conquering Hero, but first…

Fan Mail: “mindbodylightsound” took me to task for some errors about Tinker Tailor. He has obviously seen the miniseries more recently than I have and/or he has a better memory than I do. I have been meaning to look at it again for several years and now I have to. I also love “mindbodylightsound’s” subtle reading of LeCarré’s themes of “malleable identity,” and the idea that “the service was full of people who lie for a living because their own lives were lies.” That’s the best one-line take on that aspect of LeCarré I’ve read.

Now for some comments on David Ehrenstein’s comments. Tinker Tailor is about MI6 rather than MI5. For those of you who don’t follow British Intelligence, MI6 is sort of the equivalent of the C.I.A., and MI5 is sort of the equivalent of the F.B.I.. MI5 and MI6 collaborate a least a little bit better than the C.I.A. and F.B.I..

An Englishman Abroad, a 1983 made-for-television movie, stars actress Coral Browne as herself, meeting Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five, in Moscow where Burgess was not so happily living after his defection. As David says, it is enormously entertaining.
David says, “On the Sturges front it seems obvious to me that separating the great man’s writing from his directing is well-nigh impossible.” Difficult yes, but not impossible. Yes, when the writer is directing it is particularly difficult, unless you have access to the writer-director’s mind 24/7. It is a little easier when the writer and director are two different people, as we have been demonstrating in this column for nearly four years now. One of the reasons I took on the Sturges Project was to deal with that combination of writer-director in one person. If you look over the Sturges items, you will see I am trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to nail down his contributions in both crafts. But in any film, especially good ones like the ones we have talked about, the writing and direction flow together, as David says in his discussion of Sturges’s use of Bracken and Hutton.
As for David’s friend Ignatz Ratskiwatscki, I lost track of him after he and his longtime companion George Kaplan moved to the country of Slavatania and set up their gynecology clinic.

The Artist (2011. Scenario and dialogue by Michel Hazanavicius. 100 minutes.)

I enjoyed it, but less and less as it went along: This is one of those films, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), that was on my radar for a long time before I saw it. It first got my attention when it played at Cannes last spring, and it has been collecting awards and nominations and great reviews ever since. It has even produced a backlash, as most highly acclaimed films do sooner or later. Fortunately, unlike Uncle Boonmee (see US#72 for my comments on that one), The Artist is a much better script and picture. It starts out great but, alas, eventually slows down.

Hazanavicius is attempting to make a silent film that will play to a talkies audience, not just silent film history buffs. So his first writing problem is: how do you bring a modern audience into a silent film? His solutions are ingenious. First he begins with an actual (within the context of the film) silent movie. So we know we are in a silent movie world. Then in the film-within-a-film the character played by George, our main character, is being tortured and says, in titles, that he will not talk. We see people backstage at this premiere screening, and there is a big sign on the wall that says “Silence backstage.” You would think all that would do the job, and for most audiences it did, but there are reports that some audience members in Liverpool, England, wanted their money back because there were “no words” in the movie. Who would have thought Liverpool was a hotbed of pro-screenwriter, pro-dialogue sentiment?

Hazanavicius then continues the light touch. Poppy Miller, a would-be actress, bumps into George outside the theater, and he is charming to her. We know for sure now that we are in a romantic comedy. Eventually Poppy gets a part in one of George’s films, and there is a beautifully written and directed scene in which we watch the two of them go through several takes of a shot, each time ruining it either by laughing or by realizing they are attracted to each other. Then Hazanavicius takes a big chance that goes wrong: he turns the film into a silent drama. Folks, there are reasons silent comedies play better now than silent dramas do. Comedy is unreal (unless your life is full of people who are naturally funny), which fits the unreality of silent film better. Drama is more real and seems more artificial in silence. Drama usually needs more titles to explain what’s going, which disrupt the flow of the film. If you watch as many silent films as I have, you will notice that the later ones are pushing at the restraints of silent film. By 1927-28, both audiences and filmmakers were ready for sound films, which is why the transition happened then and not years before.

So we begin to lose the charm of the first half of the film, and the drama goes on and on and on. Do we really need two suicide attempts by George as his career crashes with the introduction of sound? You could wrap up this story a lot quicker, and in much more entertaining ways.

As a film historian I loved the recreation of silent Hollywood, but I kept having quibbles. A title announces it is now 1929; I suspect we are in 1929 so they can drag in the Wall Street Crash to hurt George’s career. We see (but don’t hear) a sound test of George’s one-time co-star Constance, nicely played, especially in this scene, by Missi Pyle. But that’s awfully late for sound tests. There is no discussion of possible part silent/part sound films, which were common in the first year or two of sound. George simply refuses to make a sound film, and the silent film he produces flops. We can see, although it is not discussed in the film, that the film probably bombed because it was the same old melodrama. We don’t get the discussion because one of the limitations of silent film is that it cannot deal with complex issues and ideas. Silent drama can deal with spectacle (Intolerance [1916]), fantasy (The Thief of Bagdad [1924]), and emotional intensity (The Last Laugh [1924]), but ideas require dialogue. Try to imagine Dr. Strangelove (1964) as a silent film. The studio head tells George that the audiences want new faces, but the studio is promoting Polly, who if the montage is to be believed, is already a rising star. There was some thinking in Hollywood about getting stage actors, but very quickly the studios learned that audiences wanted to hear their old favorites talk. The legend that every, or even most, silent film stars had their careers destroyed is nonsense. Ronald Colman, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Laurel & Hardy, and Garbo all made the transition very nicely, as did the silent directors and screenwriters. The particular studio head seems determined to get rid of George, although we do not really see why.

Quibbles aside, there are wonderful things in the film, starting with the lead performance by Jean Dujardin, whom I have been a fan of since his and Hazanavicius’s 2006 OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a great spoof of the Bond films. Dujardin’s co-star in that is Bérénice Bejo, who is even better here. I also admire the way Hazanavicius as a director has had the cast act in a real silent film style. That’s not the flamboyant, hammy way people think they acted in silent films, but with great subtlety and precision. It’s a detail that Mel Brooks missed completely in his 1976 Silent Movie. For an excellent discussion of acting in silent film in relation to The Artist, read David Denby’s “Critic at Large” essay in the February 27th issue of The New Yorker.

War Horse (2011. Screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. 146 minutes.)

War Horse

I’m not positive, but I don’t think the horses are intended to be gay: Lee Hall’s previous credits include Billy Elliot (2000) and Toast (2010, which I showed a certain fondness for in US#84). Curtis’s credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Love Actually (2003). In other words, both writers know how to write characters. So I am at a loss to explain why the characterization in this film is so bland and standard issue. Albert, a young Englishman, falls in love with a horse, Joey, whom his father, your standard rural drunken lout, buys for him. Albert is a real block of wood as written and played by Jeremy Irvine. His Mum is a little livelier, but she is mostly nagging the dad for being a standard rural, etc. World War I comes along and the horse is bought for the Army, although the rather bland officer to whom he goes promises Albert he is only “renting” Joey for the duration.

At the front Joey, who is a beautifully brown horse, meets a beautiful black horse, and they nuzzle a lot. No particular point is made as to whether the black horse is male or female, but given the lack of characterizations among the humans, I couldn’t but begin to wonder about the horses’ relationship. Then the horses escape and they spend time with a Dutch grandfather and his granddaughter and then with the German army. We are still getting nothing more than standard issue characters. Yes, it’s supposed to be an episodic story, but the episodes are not that interesting because we are just not that emotionally involved in either the horse or the humans. Until the film finally gives us one good scene: Joey is caught in barbed wire between the trenches. Both sides see him and call a truce so they can go out to rescue him. One British soldier comes out, and one German one. And they talk like real, interesting human beings. When they realize they need wire cutters, the German calls back to his lines, and a whole herd of wire cutters are tossed at them from the German side, in the best single shot in the film. Needless to say, Joey and Albert get back together, but it is not as stirring as it is meant to be.

Ordinarily Steven Spielberg is a good director of actors, but just as in Jurassic Park (1993), where he was more involved with the dinos than the characters, here he is more involved with the horse. And the horse is as much a block of wood as many of the other actors. The casting on the film was done by Jina Jay, and with the exception of Emily Watson as the Mum, she has not filled the film with actors who can make something out of very little.

On a much more positive note, I was delighted to see that Spielberg has finally given up on that de-saturated color crap he and others have been peddling since Saving Private Ryan (1998). Good riddance. Yes, the trenches look muddy, but the English countryside looks gorgeous.

Red Tails (2012. Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, story by John Ridley, based on the book Red Tails, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force by John B. Holway. 125 minutes.)

Red Tails

Hollywood liberals will hate this one: I’d been looking forward to this film about the Tuskegee Airmen with some trepidation. In the ‘80s I had a student in my screenwriting class at LACC whose father-in-law had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of black pilots which did remarkable work in World War II. She was working on a feature screenplay on the subject, but she could never get it finished. So I have been thinking since then of all the different ways you could tell the story. The 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen was a fairly straightforward telling of the story, but with a limited budget. There have been a number of documentaries on the subject. I was not particular delighted to hear that George Lucas was going to produce this film, since serious history is not his strong suit. On the other hand, John Ridley, who developed the story and worked on the script, has a wide range of credits. He did the story for the 1999 film Three Kings and wrote and produced for television shows such as Platinum and The Wanda Sykes Show. Aaron McGruder is the creator of the comic strip Boondocks and all the controversy surrounding it. McGruder rags on everybody. What could this strange three-way collaboration come up with?

Lucas has been quoted that what he wanted to make was the kind of gung ho propaganda movie he grew up watching as a kid. But, but, this is about a Serious Issue, Race in America. The standard Hollywood approach would be to make it solemn. Ridley and McGruder are having none of that. This is a World War II action movie. They start the film in 1944, avoiding having to show us all the controversy and politicking that led up to the Tuskegee Airmen. The film begins with them already in the air over Italy. Instead of speeches, we get a truck blown up by the pilots. OK, then the speeches? Nope, then they blow up a train. All in the first ten minutes. My grandson and I were hooked. Yes, the plotting when they get on the ground is a little formulaic, which is the bane of most flying movies, but Ridley and McGruder make the characters and dialogue lively. The black characters are not stiff and noble, but as written and directed loose, funny, and lively. The pilots particularly are like military pilots everywhere and in every time: hot shot flyboys in it for the adventure. Ridley and McGruder have ignored the message approach and simply written an entertaining movie. We get the issue of race in several scenes, but that’s not the focus of the movie, simply one issue these guys have to deal with. The writers assume, and rightly so, that we do not need to be lectured.

I have slapped George Lucas about the head and shoulders in stuff I have written about him and his films, but here’s the bottom line: He put up $58 million of his own money to make this film when nobody else in Hollywood would. And I mean nobody: no Hollywood types who slit peoples’ throats during the week, contribute to charities, and collect Humanitarian of the Year awards every weekend. It’s almost enough for me to forgive the man for Jar Jar Binks. Well, almost.

Crazy Horse (2011. Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman. 134 minutes.)

Crazy Horse

Frederick Wiseman and bare naked French ladies: what more could you want?: No, this is not a sequel to War Horse, nor is it a cowboys-and-Native Americans movie. The institution Wiseman is looking at in this documentary is the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris. The cabaret has several acts of women topless and bottomless, and we sort of follow the development of a couple of new numbers. I say sort of, because as is typical of Wiseman, we do not move in a straight line. For example, near the beginning we see a woman recording what they call in the porno business “groan-overs.” It is only much later in the film do we hear, if we are paying attention, how they are used in an act. Wiseman is using, as he often does, a circular structure. We see the work the women and others put in and we see some of the results. It is typical of Wiseman that we see the auditions of a number of woman only near the end of the film, when we know the kind of work they will be doing.

We get a lot of footage of the acts, but the character that is most interesting is the director of the new numbers, Philippe Decouflé, who is frazzled by the lack of time and what appears to be, quite frankly, a lack of organization at the club. He wants at one point to shut down the club for two nights to improve the equipment (clean the lights, etc), but Andrée, the manager of the club, says the “stockholders” will not allow it to go dark, even for just a couple of days. Decouflé is also hampered by Ali, the “artistic director,” (Decouflé is just the regular director), whom Wiseman doesn’t introduce us to until halfway through the film. Whereas Decouflé is trying to do stuff, all Ali does is talk, talk, and talk. Late in the film Wiseman films a television interview Andrée, Ali, and Decouflé are giving. Wiseman’s cameraman, the great John Davey, frames the shot so that, unlike the TV interview, we see Decouflé’s reactions to Ali’s bullshit.

We do not get to know the women in the show as well, but Wiseman has spaced three scenes of them off-stage over the course of the film. In the first, the dancers are laughing at a video of ballet bloopers. This scene makes the dancers seem human. In the second, a group of the dancers, makeup off, talk to Decouflé about the problems backstage. The dancers are obviously professional. And in the third scene, some of the dancers are backstage watching a new number on closed circuit TV. One of the dancers is critiquing the show in ways that make her one of the sharpest people in the film.

Ali talks at great length about how the show is about eroticism, which it is. But it is a very French eroticism. The women are all thin, with small breasts and very round, perky bottoms. A lot of very round, perky bottoms. The one woman who auditions near the end who is a little shorter and rounder is described, accurately or not, as a transexual. I walked from my house up to the theater where Crazy Horse was playing, and what struck me in the 45 minute walk home was the enormous range of women’s bodies you see on the streets of LA. As a populist about many things, I found the variety, well, enjoyable. That’s Wiseman, always making you think.

Oh, one other thing. Not a single review I saw in Los Angeles happened to mention that Decouflé is the same guy who conceived and directed the Cirque de Soleil show Iris. You can see US#81 for my comments on Iris.

Miss Bala (2011. Written by Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz. 113 minutes.)

Miss Bala

Squalid, not that there’s anything wrong with that: This one is inspired by a true story of a Mexican beauty contest winner who got involved with a drug cartel. You can imagine the Hollywood version of this: flashy costumes for not only the beautiful woman, but also for the druggies. Big houses, lots of bling, lots of ammunition being fired off. Well, we do get some shootout moments, but not as many as you might expect.

We start with Laura, who goes along with a friend to the contest tryout. They then go to a club, where Laura witnesses a gang shooting. She is in shock and doesn’t know what to do. The next day she approaches a cop car. He says she needs to go to the police station, but he takes her instead to the drug boss. Not in a big house, but in a garage in a rundown neighborhood. And Lino is not young, handsome, and dashing. He is middle-aged and dressed like a day laborer you could find on any number of street corners in Los Angeles. He sees he can use Laura in all kinds of ways, such as going across the border to the U.S. to pick up a truck with a supply of ammunition. What we are seeing here is how squalid the real business of the drug trade is. And how it corrupts the rest of Mexican society. Lino can fix the pageant so Laura wins, and can get her into see a high-ranking police officer, whom Lino is, we think, trying to assassinate.

The problem with the film is Laura. We see in the early scenes that she is a rather lively woman, but once the killing starts, she is in a state of shock. Which she stays in during the rest of the film. Stephanie Sigman in the early scenes can be expressive as Laura, but she is not after those scenes. I suppose that is true to life, but it makes her a very uninteresting character for the rest of the film, which seeps the energy out.

Safe House (2012. Written by David Guggenheim. 115 minutes.)

Safe House

The Spook’s Dream: Matt Weston is a young C.I.A. agent (no relation to Michael Westen; different spelling of the last name) whose job is to keep the Company’s safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, in working order in case needed. As we see early on, it’s a boring job: checking the equipment, bringing in supplies, begging his superiors to be sent to somewhere interesting like Paris. Now if this were a low-budget, existential art house film, we would have 115 minutes of Matt sitting around questioning his life. But it’s a big budget thriller, so very quickly he gets dumped in his lap Tobin Frost. Yes, that Tobin Frost. The renegade C.I.A. agent who has been selling everybody’s secrets to everybody else for a decade. And what’s Matt’s reaction when the agents bring Frost in? Like Laura in Miss Bala, he’s gobsmacked. Now if I were in Matt’s position, I would for one see this as a great opportunity to learn from one of the evil legends in his field, but it never occurs to this Matt. By the time something like it occurs to the screenwriter, it is way late in the picture and Matt and Frost are in another safe house, and the agent there asks Matt what he has learned from Frost. And Matt is at a loss for an answer.

Again, this is not a low-budget, existential art house film, so we don’t stay in the house long. It’s invaded by a lot of guys with guns, the other agents are killed and Matt and Frost escape. Like the people of the IMF (see US#89), everybody drives recklessly. Matt loses track of Frost, finds him again, more chasing, etc. Meanwhile their tracks are followed at Langley by Matt’s bosses, played by Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendon Gleeson, as opposed to Peter Gallagher, Kari Matchett, and Christopher Gorman, whose writers on Covert Affairs give them more interesting scenes to play than those Guggenheim gives his higher priced actors here. One of Matt’s bosses will betray him, of course, and you will not only not get extra credit for guessing who it is, if you don’t guess early on, you will have points deducted.

Tobin Frost is a sociopath, and a great character for Denzel Washington, who is always more fun to watch in his bad guy roles than in his “a credit to his race” parts. The problem with a sociopath as a main character is that you can’t really go anywhere with him as a character. He is fun to watch outwitting nearly everybody in the first half of the film, but in a scene with a forger Guggenheim tries to humanize him, which makes him less interesting in this film. Once introduced to Frost, we want him to be more inventive as the film goes along. Matt grows up a bit in the film, but that’s not a good tradeoff for making Frost human.

You may remember from US#53 that I have some contacts with people who work with the intelligence community. One of them told me an ex-spook he knows said that the scene of Frost going down a hallway, shooting into rooms on both sides without looking, is a spook’s dream of what being an agent is all about. When asked if he himself had done that during his career, the ex-spook sniffed as if to say, sadly, no.

SOME PRINT ITEMS: Several interesting pieces about screenwriting showed up in the print media recently. The first is a real good news/bad news situation. The Anthology Film Archives in New York City is running some retrospectives on screenwriters. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the “Goings on About Town” notice in the February 17th issue of The New Yorker announced it this way: “To inaugurate a series of retrospectives devoted to screenwriters, Anthology Film Archives presents films written by [John] Sayles, including Joe Dante’s Piranha, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, and two by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate and Smile.” OK, here are the problems. First, if the retrospective is about the writer, why are they identifying the films by their directors? Second, and worse, Sayles did not write Norma Rae, The Candidate, or Smile. They were written by Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr., Jeremy Larner, and Jerry Belson, respectively. I have not seen the press release from the Archives, but their website has a line hidden in the small print that the retrospective will include some films Sayles admires for their screenwriting. Both The New Yorker and the Archives geeked this one. I trust both will do better on upcoming series.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday February 12th, playwright Jason Grote repeats the cliches that “Hollywood did burn the likes of Bertolt Brecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the martyred writer is part of film iconography: the floating corpse of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and John Turturro shambling through a flaming hotel in Barton Fink.” That’s not quite true. Brecht gave as good as he got in Hollywood, and Fitzgerald not only survived on the money he made, but wrote The Last Tycoon, not a bad tradeoff. On the up side, what Grote spends most of the article on is his finding that writing for television, specifically Smash, is rewarding creatively as well as financially. Something a lot of writers before him, both in television and feature films, discovered.

In an interview (which apparently is not on their website) in the Sunday, February 19th Los Angeles Times, Emily Kapnek, the creator of Suburgatory, talks about the creation of the show, which was based partially on her life in the suburbs. The networks would not allow her to write a mom who made mistakes, since the networks only wanted moms who were perfect. So Kapnek turned the mom into George, since men are allowed to get things wrong. There’s at least a Master’s thesis there waiting to be written.

The Power and the Glory (1933. Original screenplay by Preston Sturges. 76 minutes.)

The Power and the Glory

The Sturges Project: A Bonus Take: James Curtis, who wrote the biography of Sturges that I have been using throughout the Sturges Project, has a new book out. It is a biography of Spencer Tracy. In connection with it, the UCLA Film Archives is having a retrospective of Tracy films, one of which happens to be this one. So I couldn’t not see it, could I?

This is not a distinctively Preston Sturges script. He was at the beginning of his screenwriting career and trying out all kinds of ideas. In this case it is the story of a railroad tycoon and his rise and fall, but told in a non-chronological way. His inspiration was the millionaire C.W. Post (Post cereals and all that) who had killed himself. Sturges had heard tales about him from his then-wife, Post’s granddaughter. He decided that since he had heard the stories in piece-meal ways, he would tell it that way in the script. So we start with Tom Garner’s funeral, but his friend Henry quickly discovers that not only the building’s janitor but also Henry’s wife are perfectly happy Garner is dead. The competing views of the dead man is the forerunner of the News on the March sequence in Citizen Kane (1941). Sturges knew Welles and happened to mention Power once, to which Welles replied, “Don’t you know it’s in bad taste to mention that film around me?” The scene is even more a forerunner of the discussion of Lawrence on the steps of St. Paul’s at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). We quickly get into flashbacks of different time periods, but Sturges is very sharp in providing lines that connect the scenes. Over a scene of Sally, Tom’s wife, walking the rails in midwinter, Henry mentions that when she was older her hands were still red. Cut to an older Sally.

The picture was critically acclaimed, but not a hit. It is generally assumed that was because of Sturges’s time jumps, but I think it is more from the sophistication that Sturges shows in his characterizations. They are subtle in a way that was probably beyond the general audiences of 1933. You also do not have the humor that we came to know and love and think of as distinctively Sturges. Which bring us up to…

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944. Written by Preston Sturges. 101 minutes.)

Hail the Conquering Hero

The Sturges Project: Take Eight: So Sturges had both The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in the can by late spring 1943 (they were both not released until 1944). Buddy De Sylva, the head of production was unhappy with Moment, and the studio was negotiating with the War Department on Miracle. Paramount had a backlog of films waiting release, so De Sylva had no hesitation on holding up the Sturges films. What else could Sturges do but write and direct another film? Which he did.

The earliest notes Brian Henderson (in his Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges) could find were in May, but by July 12th Sturges had a complete screenplay. Shooting started on the 14th and continued through September. One reason Sturges may have been able to write the script so quickly is that Hail has the simplest plot of any of the Sturges films. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the son of World War I Marine Medal of Honor winner Hinky Dinky Truesmith, joined the Marines in World War II, but was thrown out for chronic hay fever. Ashamed to go home, he works in a shipyard until he runs into six Marines who dress him up as Marine to deliver him back to his mother. What could go wrong with that? Nearly everything, as Struges piles on complication after complication, but all connected to the basic situation. The six Marines are the Ale and Quail Club of this film, but they drive the action all the way through the film.

Sturges wrote Woodrow specifically for Eddie Bracken, imagining the character as a variation of Norval Jones from Miracle. Sgt. Heppelfinger, the header of the Marines, had to be William Demarest. Most of the rest of the cast are our old friends from the previous Sturges films. Al Bridge is the Political Boss, rather different from Tamiroff’s Boss in McGinty and Miracle. Struges writes a great, almost-serious role for Jimmie Conlin as Judge Dennis, since Sturges knew from Sullivan’s Travels that Conlin could carry it.

As Sturges developed the script from the 13-page “original story” he first turned into Paramount, two more characters were expanded. Bugsy is the Marine who, on hearing Woodrow’s story, calls Woodrow’s mother and tells her he is coming home. Bugsy is an orphan with mother issues, and probably suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although Sturges handles this in a very subtle way. Even more developed is Woodrow’s girlfriend back home, Libby. In the earlier versions of the story, she is just the girl he left behind. By the final script and film, Woodrow had written a letter dumping her when he was kicked out of the Marines. She is now engaged to Forrest Noble, the son of the current mayor. When news of Woodrow’s return gets out, she asks nearly everybody else to tell Woodrow she’s engaged. They refuse, and her attempts to tell him keep getting interrupted. It is 61 minutes into the film before she tells him. Given all the problems he sees himself in, he declares, “But that’s marvelous! That’s the first good news I’ve had all day.” That was not the reaction she was looking for. This in turns leads to one of Sturges’s great scenes. Henderson notes that it is Woodrow and Libby’s only scene together and “Everything must be packed into it—the present, the past, and the future of their relationship; and it also must fit precisely, and advance, the dramatic situation in which it occurs. The scene in fact realizes these requirements superbly.” And Henderson says that it does it without being in any way a conventional romantic scene.

Henderson also makes the point that Sturges in this film is writing fewer and fewer complete scenes, but more scenes that seem parts of continuing discussions. That is only partially true. There are several long, emotionally complicated sequences, many of them done in single takes. (The cinematographer is John Seitz again, as if you couldn’t tell from the fog outside the bar in the opening scene.) A large chunk of the scene in the bar, in which Woodrow and the Marines meet, is done in a take running five minutes and eleven seconds. The scene includes Marine comedy and Woodrow’s emotional description of his admiration for the Marine Corps. Sturges and Seitz start with a medium shot, dolly into Woodrow’s closeup and then dolly out to medium shot. Just as in Miracle there are several long traveling shots around the town (the same Paramount ranch set that was Morgan’s Creek). The Libby-Woodrow scene is one of those. Libby is played by Ella Raines, whom Sturges borrowed from Universal, and she is not a particularly expressive actor. The script and Bracken carry her. There is also a long walking scene between Libby and Forrest, played by ex-rodeo rider Bill Edwards, who is just as inexpressive as Raines. The script carries them both, and is so great you aren’t bothered that they are not that good. I have always said that if you write good scripts, you get good actors. This is sort of the reverse of that: a good script can carry bad actors.

Like the first Woodrow-Marines scene, the entire film has a striking equilibrium between comedy and drama. You don’t immediately think of the word “equilibrium” when you think of Preston Sturges, but this is the most evenly balanced of all his films. And because of that, it keeps the audience off-balance. We never know when a serious moment if going to turn comic, and vice versa. For all the action and yelling—it is a Sturges picture after all—this is a much less frenetic film than Miracle. Sturges manages a lot of satire (of hero worship, politics, and mother love, among other things), but some touching moments as well. Woodrow’s admission to the town is more than a little heartrending, and would not be out of place in a Capra film. Sturges’s view of small towns and their citizens is closer to that of Ben Hecht in Nothing Sacred (1937), but not without its emotional moments. Sturges’s direction here is, I think, better overall than in his previous films. In the sequence of the town preparing for Woodrow’s arrival, Sturges the writer has, as Henderson noted, given us ongoing conversations more than scenes, and Sturges the director has given them the flow they need to play. The same is true of his direction of his stock company. Bracken, not trying to upstage Betty Hutton this time, gives an amazingly varied performance. I had not realized he was that good an actor. Heppelfinger is not as good a part as Officer Kockenlocker, but Demarest is great as always. (Shortly after this film Sturges and Demarest had a falling out and never spoke to each other again. You can read Curtis for the details.) Raymond Walburn is at his best as Mayor Noble. And so on. In some ways this may be Sturges’s best film. And after a first sneak preview, De Sylva took it away from him and recut it. And, as often happens, the studio recut played worse than the original. In a deal I talked about in writing about The Great Moment in US#89, Sturges recut this one, and shot a new ending that condensed the final sequence by eliminating the campaign and election of Woodrow as Mayor. Henderson thinks Sturges did more cutting after the script was in production on this one, but when writing about this in the first of his two books, he had not yet looked at Miracle, where there is a lot more cutting.

Sturges was officially let go from Paramount in December 1943. Miracle opened in January 1944 and became the highest grossing film of the year. Hail opened in August 1944 and while it got critical raves, it was only a modest financial success. The Great Moment, released a month later, was a total disaster. Sturges went to work with Howard Hughes, and that did not end well. Sturges then moved on to Fox (you may remember he still owed Zanuck a picture) and that generally did not work out well. Then things got even worse. But I am now at the end of the Sturges Project, and I am not sure I could bear to write about some of his later films. Although I do have his 1949 Fox film The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend stashed on my DVR just in case.

Ah, well, two more items. When I was preparing to do this, I read over Andrew Sarris’s section on Sturges in his 1968 book The American Cinema. The book is the beginning of the reign of the auteur theory in America. But like so much auteur writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarris spends more time writing about Sturges’s screenwriting (character, dialogue, structure, etc.) than about his directing. What does that tell you?
The more mathematically inclined of you may have noticed that Brian Henderson (and a hearty, very hearty, thank-you to all the work he did) in his two books of screenplays researched and wrote on nine films and I have only written on eight. The other one Henderson deals with is his 1948 Fox film Unfaithfully Yours. It is the best of the later Sturges films. And it shows up occasionally on the Fox Movie Channel. So…

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.

2.5

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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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