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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, CSI, Some Short Takes on Late Winter-Early Spring 2010 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that Preston Struges as a writer “organizes chaos,” but isn’t that what all screenwriters do? Unless you have seen writers’ treatments and first draft screenplays, you have no idea how chaotic a lot of movies that seem so perfect started out. With Sturges of course, he is writing about chaos as well. I agree with David that Wiseman’s Model (1980) is a much better film than Crazy Horse. Model brilliantly raises the question of why we should think of the models as “models” for us to follow. And it suggests that—gasp—the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

Both David and Victor Schwartzman take up the issue of race in regard to Red Tails. I certainly agree with David that Intruder in the Dust (1949) is one of the great American films on the subject. I was not quite as taken with Shadows (1960), and I am assuming David is at least partially joking about Mandingo (1975), but it does show you how race can drive everybody crazy, including Hollywood filmmakers. I happen to have a fondness for Pinky (1949). Yes, yes, I know that Pinky, the light-skinned Negro girl, is played by a white girl, but look at the scene in the store where the attitude of the shopkeeper changes as soon as he is told she is black. That’s one of the best examples I know on film of showing everyday racism.

Victor raises the issue of the portrayal of black characters in older films. Yes, there is a lot of cringe-worthy stuff in those films. I remember when I was in the Navy in the early ‘60s. One of my fellow officers and my best friend in the Navy was one of the few black officers at the time. I remember we would get old ‘40s movies to show on board ship, and the wardroom would all be embarrassed when we would see some of the stuff with Willie Best and others in Vance’s presence. Time makes you rethink things.

Downton Abbey (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. Season 2, 7 episodes, approximately 540 minutes.)

Ahh, it came back and nearly all was right with the world: You may remember that when the first season of Downton Abbey came along, I got so hooked into it so quickly I wasn’t able to take the usual kinds of notes I do when I am watching something on television. See US#70 for details. Well, this time I took a lot of notes. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you a complete summary of this season, tempting though it might be. What I am going to do, just because I like to be perverse from time to time, is start with the last twenty minutes or so of the 7th and last episode. What happened was that my wife and I were away in Palm Springs the night it was on. Since I had no idea if the hotel we stayed at got the new PBS station in Southern California, I set up my DVR to record it. As it turns out, the hotel did get the station and we did watch it there. But I was a little sloppy on taking notes, and when we got back to Los Angeles, I wanted to look at the last twenty minutes to make sure I had got stuff right. What struck me in looking at those twenty minutes for a second time is how well Fellowes does everything in this series.

Lady Mary has been engaged to the press lord Sir Richard. He has threatened to print all the lurid details of the death of the Turkish diplomat from season one if she tries to break the engagement. But she has finally told Matthew about the death of the Turkish diplomat in her bed, and being slightly more modern than most characters on the series, he accepts it. That’s a pleasant surprise for Mary. So she tells Sir Richard that she is breaking their engagement. He is not happy about it, since he has spent a lot of time and money on her, buying a stately home near Downton Abbey and everything. Well, you can see why he is pissed. And this is part of what makes Fellowes’s writing so good. Sir Richard may be a skunk (think Rupert, or better, James Murdoch), but he is not without his feelings. She sort of really loves Mary, well, in addition to wanting to own her. And he is perfectly willing to take her on even though he knows (he’s not stupid) that she loves Matt. So, yeah, he’s pissed. And Matt makes it worse by walking into the room. And Sir Richard tells him that Lavinia knew Matt was not in love with her. OK, back up a minute. Lavinia was the woman Matt was engaged to when it did not work out with Mary in season one. She was a sweet young thing, but in over her head with these people. You just knew when the logline for Episode 6 said that “Spanish flu infects Cora [the lady of the house], Lavinia, and Mr. Carson [the head butler]” that Lavinia was not long for this world. When she was in a fevered state, she saw Mary and Matt dancing in the hallway and kissing, so it is likely she told Sir Richard (or is he just being a shit and guessing?). Lavinia was then able to die a wonderfully tragic death. Again, Fellowes giving as much detail to a relatively minor character as to the major ones.

So Matt and Sir Richard get into a fight. How plebian! And Robert, the Earl of Grantham and head of the house, orders Sir Richard to leave. Yes, Robert finally knows about the Turkish diplomat (it is way into this second season that he learns) and will take his chances with whatever gets printed. Sir Richard tries to be as polite as possible, the kind of turns of character that Fellowes is great at, and says to the Dowager, “I doubt we shall see each other again.” Class. And you will remember that the Dowager is Dame Maggie Smith. So what line does Fellowes give her? “Do you promise?” Like every other line Fellowes has given her, it is a perfect Dame Maggie line. But in Season 2 he has deepened the Dowager. She is no longer just a silly old lady, but one who sees better than some of the younger people the changes that are coming. Since she has been through a lot of changes in her life, she is better prepared to roll with the punches. So Fellowes is developing her rather than just falling easily into a bunch of great Dame Maggie lines.

Bates, Robert’s valet, has been accused of the murder of Mrs. Bates. There has been a trial and there is enough circumstantial evidence to convict him. And he is sentenced to death. Since testimony from Robert and others in the household have helped build the circumstantial case against him, Robert is determined at least at first to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. While he is working on that, Anna, Bates’s true love, is telling Mary that if Mary has to go to live with her maternal grandmother in the United States until the scandals blow over Anna will go along with her if she likes. Bates and Anna now have a nice scene in which he tells her that she has to live her own life, make new friends. Fellowes tends to make the lower classes just as dignified and noble as the upper crust. But Bates’s sentence is commuted, so does Anna stay at Downton Abbey as Robert tries to get him completely exonerated?

When have you ever seen a Servants’ Ball? It is a ball put on by the servants in which the upstairs folks dance with the downstairs folks. And Anna, now encouraged by Bates, notices that the maid to Lady Rosamund, the Dowager’s daughter, is sneaking upstairs with Lord Hepworth, who is trying to marry Rosamund. (There was a great, earlier scene where the Dowager, who had a fling many years ago with Hepworth’s father, nails his ambitions to the floor. See what I mean about Fellowes deepening her? Anna, the loyal maid, tells (off-screen) Mary, and Anna takes Mary and Rosamund to the room, opens the door, and lets Rosamund see what’s up. Now Anna tells the family she will be staying on. That’s an interesting touch on Fellowes’s part: showing us her decision after the Rosamund scene. It makes clear she understands where her loyalties lie. Especially if Robert can get Bates’s sentence dismissed.

The Bates-Anna love story is only one of two great love stories that Fellowes have given us. The second one is between Mary and Matt. They were obviously attracted to each other in season one, but it was a thorny attraction at best. For most of Season 2 they have been engaged to Lavinia and Sir Richard. Which means we have a lot of scenes (too many for a lot of viewers) of them almost connecting but not quite. Even I, who love Downton Abbey, wanted to slap these two idiots upside the head on more than one occasion. One of those is one of Fellowes’s best moments. In Episode 3 Matt and William, the downstairs guy, have gone off to World War I and have been reported missing. Downton Abbey has been turned into a convalescent center for recuperating soldiers. The family is dealing with this in a variety of ways. One afternoon Mary is singing “If You Were the Only Girl” to the recovering soldiers, accompanied on the piano by her sister Edith. The song is sentimental, especially to soldiers who may or may not go back to find their women waiting for them. The soldiers join in singing. This is an example of Fellowes’s ability to write multiple character scenes. We see the reactions of Mary, Edith, and the soldiers.

And then Matt and William walk in the door. That’s the most heartstopping moment I’ve seen since Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars says to Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, “My heart is and always will be yours.” At which point in Sense they get married and live happily ever after. But you notice this is Episode 3 of 7 episodes of Downton Abbey, so Matt and Mary stare longingly at each other rather than running off to one of the many rooms in Downton Abbey and doing the nasty.

So finally, at the end of Episode 7 Matt and Mary are outside the house, and it is naturally, snowing. Lavinia’s dead, Sir Richard is gone, the war is over, Matt can walk again and presumably do other useful things with the lower half of his body. So he proposes, and Mary, being the finicky person she is, insists that he kneel down and do it properly. Which he does. So they are finally, FINALLY, engaged.

But they are not married yet. Will they manage to screw up that? And what happens when Sir Richard prints all the lurid details? Will Mary have to go to visit her grandmother in America? Well, we already know that Shirley MacLaine has signed on to play that grandmother in Season 3, so we will see her either in America, or even more deliciously, trading zingers with Dame Maggie at Downton Abbey. And can Robert get Bates out of the hoosegow so he and Anna can have the happy life they deserve? You’ll notice that Fellowes has made the complications in the two love stories very different. For Matt and Mary the problems are internal; for Bates and Anna they are external.

A couple of other comments on Fellowes. He is a whiz at figuring out what to leave off-camera. A lot of scenes where people explain what’s happened to other people who do not need to see, since we know what they are talking about. Cora explaining to Robert about the Turkish diplomat, or Mary telling Matt about the same subject. Fellowes understands when to come into the latter half of the scene so we can tell from the characters’ reactions and comments what has been said.

Another thing: Fellowes, a Brit, has an American sense of pacing, which was one of the reasons I had trouble doing notes on season one. In the early ‘50s, American television writer Sy Salkowitz went over to England to work on The Errol Flynn Show, an anthology series. He discovered the English writers wrote slower-paced scenes, so he condensed scenes, and added two or three scenes in each episode, which made the episodes at least seem to move quicker. Downton Abbey goes at a very American pace.

Smash (2012. Various writers. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Smash

It’s showtime, folks: This show is one of the Great Ideas that may turn out not to be all that great. We are going to follow the creation of a Broadway musical from the original idea through its development, workshop productions, all the way to its Broadway premiere. That is, if the series runs long enough. It has now been renewed for next year, but without Theresa Rebeck, its creator, as showrunner.

Julia and Tom are songwriters with a Broadway hit or two behind them. One day they are talking to Tom’s assistant Ellis, who suggests a musical about Marilyn Monroe. They don’t like the idea at first, but doodle up a song, which they have Ivy, a woman in one of their shows, do a demo of. Which Ellis sends to his mom, who puts it out on the Internet, where it goes viral. OK, stranger things have happened, but as I was watching the first episodes of the series I was also reading Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, complete with his observations, called Look, I Made a Hat. Sondheim includes comments on the development of his shows, and quite frankly, Sondheim’s versions are more convincing as well as more entertaining.

The video comes to the attention of Eileen, a theatrical producer who is divorcing her husband, and she is looking for a show she can produce on her own. So she gloms onto the Marilyn idea, and wants to do a workshop right away. But, but, there is only one song. Tom and Julia write a few more, but I had no idea from the first three episodes if Julia, the lyricist, is also writing a book for the show. There was no mention at all of a book for the show, unless I completely missed it. Would the creators even think about a workshop with only a couple of songs and no book? In later episodes it does become clear Julia is the one writing the book. Eileen hires a big name director, Derek, to do the workshop. And they immediately start casting. Huh? The creators have not even decided what their take is on Marilyn yet. Which leads them to keep calling back two completely different actors for Marilyn. One is Ivy, a lush blonde who would be great as the older Marilyn, and the other is Karen, a newbie, who would be great as the younger Marilyn. In fairness to Theresa Rebeck, who is also a playwright and television writer, in episode two, “The Callback,” she has Derek, Tom, Julia, and Eileen discuss these differences, but not in terms of what their view of what the show is all about.

In the third episode, “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” Rebeck does a little backtracking and in the writing makes it clear that the creators of the musical are only preparing for a workshop. This may have been in reaction to all the excessive hype NBC gave the show, which emphasized it was about the creation of a BROADWAY MUSICAL. Which suggests another problem the show is going to have as it goes along. As the songwriters come up with the songs, we are going to get awfully tired of hearing the ones that stay in the show. Rebeck has so far been rather ingenious about making sure we don’t hear what we have too much, and she gives us scenes of both Ivy and Karen singing other songs. And in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” we get a song written for the show that we had better not hear again. Ever. It is something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which Marilyn and Joe sing about how they want an ordinary life. Yeah, right. But Rebeck doesn’t give us everybody deciding to drop the song.

Here is an odd thing that happens occasionally in television writing, although I can’t off the top of my head think of another example. Rebeck wrote the first three episodes. Playwright David Marshall Grant wrote the fourth, “The Cost of Art,” which was better than the first three, written by Rebeck, the creator of the show. We finally get a mention of the book, which Derek says is “still somewhat in flux.” So I suppose that is why the rehearsals seem to be more about the musical numbers than the book scenes. Ivy is bothered that nobody told her Karen is going to be in the ensemble and diva’s her out of the way in rehearsals. At one point Karen is sitting in the hall of rehearsal studio and one of the ensemble, whom we have heard being catty about her, listens to her complain and decides to help her. Three of the ensemble take Karen out for an “intervention,” getting her new clothes, but more entertainingly, teach her how to come to rehearsal (in regular clothes with your hair up) and change in the bathroom (to rehearsal clothes, and putting your hair in a ponytail). Now that feels like something written from experience. As does the three teaching Karen how to blend into the ensemble.

Eileen is trying to raise money by selling her (very nice) Degas sketch, but no dealer will touch it, since her ex-husband was the one who bought it. Derek is giving a party for Lyle West, a now-famous pop star Derek says he discovers. And Tom later says he discovered. So we think Eileen is going to hit him up for an investment, but where is where Grant is sharp. She offers to “rent” him the Degas for the startup money. Now that’s a nice twist.

The fifth episode, “Let’s Be Bad,” is written by Julie Rottenberg & Elisa Zuritsky is back to being sloppy, since it is mostly about all the characters having sex. That does lead to my favorite scene in the series so far. Tom, the lyricist, has gone out in “The Cost of Art,” with John, a lawyer. Tom and John’s mothers set up the blind date. Eeew, you know what that must be like. But John’s gorgeous and he and Tom hit the sack in this next episode. The great scene is the post-coital one, which starts out with them talking about how great the sex was, but then they quickly admit it was horrible, the worst sex they’ve ever had. You don’t see that in many American films and television shows.

I do have a problem with the writing and casting of the male characters. (On the female side Katharin McPhee and Megan Hilty are great as Karen and Ivy, respectively, and Anjelica Huston is fun to watch as Eileen.) The male characters are all played by good-looking, thin, guys with dark hair, so it is a bit hard to sort them out. As befitting a show about Broadway, several of the male characters are gay, but the straight male characters are deeply flawed. Derek screws every woman in sight and Julia’s husband is not very supportive. Michael, the actor they cast as Joe DiMaggio, had a fling before with Julia and starts up again, even though they are both married. Ellis has been cast and directed to be gay, but in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” we find out that he’s sleeping with one of his female roommates. It’s obvious his heterosexual side is the one that causes him to be not a nice person. When Lamar Trotti wrote the screenplay based on Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946), he told fellow Fox writer Philip Dunne that the story was “Basically… an anti-heterosexual picture.” There is an element of that here. As a straight male, I ought to object, but after all those years of gay psychotic and sociopathic characters (e.g., Quarles on this season’s Justified), it seems only fair that we now get the reverse. And if it gives us great scenes like the one between Tom and John, I am all for it.

There are pleasures to be had from the show, and I have not given up on it yet. The musical numbers, which shift in the cutting from rehearsals to fully staged, are entertaining, and the cutting of the final few moments of the “Pilot” episode, in which the characters all come together for the callback sequence is nicely done. The show was not dead on arrival, but like the theater always says about itself, it is ailing.

Luck (2012. “Pilot,” written by David Milch. 60 minutes.)

Luck

Horsies, some of them now deceased, and gamblers: David Milch is one of the biggest and best television writers around, with credits that include Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and Deadwood, just to name a few. His co-creator of this series is Michael Mann, who before he became a Great Director, was a pretty good television writer himself. See my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for details. So with HBO doing its usual overhyping, at least some attention had to be paid.

The pilot introduces to a lot of characters, all of them associated with horse racing and particularly the track at Santa Anita. The pilot starts out slow, but given the talent in front of and behind the camera, you know there is going to be more development. Whether you stick around for it depends entirely on how interested you are in the world of horseracing. The community seems pretty much hermetically sealed, with very little of real life intruding on it. I admire Milch for creating this world, but I don’t especially want to live in it. The world does give Mann an opportunity to have a lot of great shots of the horses, who are more expressive than those in War Horse (2011; see US#91). So this series appears to have been for guys who like gambling and 11-year-old girls who love their horsies.

I turned out not to be the only one who did not want to live an hour a week in the world of racetracks and gamblers. I was reminded of a film a studio made many years ago about bowling. The studio assumed that bowlers, of which there are millions in this country, would turn out for the movie. They didn’t. They preferred to bowl. I am sure gamblers preferred to gamble. There were no statistics on 11-year-old girls watching, but if they were, they, and everybody else, were turned off by the news that a total of three horses died during production. HBO canceled the series while still in its first season, a combination of bad ratings and dead horsies.

CSI (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Goodbye Catherine, hello Julie: The buildup to Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows leaving the show took several episodes, involving an old friend of her, Laura Gabriel, who was married to a nasty millionaire who ran a security service. All this involved Catherine with the F.B.I., especially agent McQuade. So when the case seems to be winding down in “Mrs. Willows Regrets” (teleplay by Christopher Barbour & Don McGill, story by Christopher Barbour), we are not surprised that Russell finds a letter of resignation from her in his email. Meanwhile she has been shot at and Russell rescues her. In the following episode, “Willows in the Wind” (written by Christopher Barbour & Richard Catalani, story by Carol Mendelson & Don McGill), Catherine discovers that Mark Gabriel is not the villain they thought he was, but the subject of an attempted assassination by Laura and McQuade, whom everybody thought was dead. That would push anybody to resign, but does not explain why she is taking a job with the F.B.I.. Before she goes, we do get a nice scene that finally explains in detail how she went from being a pole dancer in a club to a CSI. Her life as a stripper was alluded to in the early seasons, then pretty much dropped until now, and for good reason. It seemed like one of those ideas designed to appeal to the male executives but, at least during the run of the show, really was not particularly useful to the writers. Catherine’s farewell scene to the CSI crew really sounds more like Helgenberger’s farewell to the cast and crew of the show, and then is topped by a very anticlimactic scene with her and Morgan Brody, the youngest of the CSIs.

Two episodes later we are introduced to Julie Finlay, or “Finn,” in “Seeing Red” (written by Christopher Barbour & Tom Mularz). She is an expert in blood splatter. She also worked with Russell before, and their backstory gets laid out over the next several episodes. He fired her once, she insists he not call her “Jules,” and he insists she not call him Diebenkorn, which is what his initials D.B. stand for. She helps solve this case, then agrees to come to work for the crime lab full-time. She is a little younger and livelier than Catherine was, which may fit better with Ted Danson’s Russell.

Some Short Takes in Late Winter-Early Spring 2012 Television

Justified

I was intending to write a bunch about the new season of Justified, but Luke de Smet has been doing such a knockout job on his episode summaries and commentaries that I don’t have a lot to add. What I like is that he has been dealing with some of the writing problems and solutions the show is dealing with. In his discussion of episode one, he brings up the difficulty the writers must have had in trying to follow the spectacular life and death of Mags Bennett, an issue he deals with again in his comments on episode four. I am not at all sure they have managed it, but it may have been impossible. I also liked the way Luke dealt with the introduction of Limehouse in episode four, as well as his discussion of race in the same episode. Luke is also good on how this set of story arcs is getting us into Raylan’s feelings about his native habitat. He does not specifically lay all that on the writers, but they’re the ones who put it in the show. This show, by the way, escaped the curse of Smash: from the very beginning, all the writers are on the same page as to what show they are writing. Well, it helps if you have Elmore Leonard as your inspiration.

How I Met Your Mother still has not introduced to the mother. The creators of the show have been saying all along they had a plan for the whole series. But at a television critics meetings in Los Angeles, one of the creators of the show actually admitted they had made a huge mistake early on by not making Robin the mother. She and Ted had terrific chemistry, as did the two actors, Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor. But in the older Ted’s narration, he kept referring to her as the kids’ “Aunt Robin.” In “The Drunk Train” (written by Craig Gerard & Matthew Zinman), Robin’s new boyfriend Kevin proposes, but when Robin tells him she not only cannot have children, but does not want any, he passes. She tells the same thing to Ted, and he says he loves her. Well, that could end the show right there, but in the following episode, “No Pressure” (written by George Sloan), Sloan has to write them out of that problem, so we spend the whole episode waiting around for Robin’s reply to Ted’s declaration of love. Eventually she says she does not love him. God, they are worse that Matt and Lady Mary, but unlike Downton Abbey, this show has already foreclosed on the possibility of them getting together. Dumb mistake.

White Collar has not has as lively a season as it’s previous one. We have spent most of the season waiting around to find out Neal’s sentence is going to be commuted. Other than that, there has been no big arc to follow. The individual episodes are all right, but not up to their usual standard.

30 Rock has been going through a bad patch. It seems to have lost its zing. Take the “Leap Day” episode, written by Luke Del Tredici. It was all about a fictional holiday, the sort of thing any second-rate sitcom would do. The same was true of the “St. Patrick’s Day” episode written by Colleen McGuiness. There were virtually none of the usual 30 Rock connections with the real world that make the show sparkle at its best. “Kidnapped by Danger” brought back some of the life. Of course it helped that it was written by Tina Fey her ownself.

Desperate Housewives, coming up to its series finale, has also lost its zing. It plays more like a melodrama than a comedy-drama. In “She Needs Me” (written by Jason Ganzel) we get several scenes that would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera. “Women and Death” (written by Annie Weisman), which dealt with the aftermath of Mike’s death, was all soap opera. And worse, both episodes are sentimental, which is not a term anybody has ever used about Desperate Housewives. Maybe showrunner Marc Cherry was too busy with the lawsuit Nicollette Sheridan filed against him to mind the store properly.

GCB would seem to be intended to replace Desperate Housewives, but I have my doubts. It is based on the book Good Christian Bitches by Kim Gitlin and developed by Robert Harling, who wrote the play and screenplay for Steel Magnolias (1989). That genealogy pretty much tells you what to expect: Southern women being bitchy to each other. In this case they all live in Dallas, so there are a lot of Texas zingers as well. The “Pilot,” as many pilots are, is a little extra stuffed setting up the situation. Amanda was the queen bitch when she was in high school. She married a guy who made millions, but not legally. He is driving away with his ill-gotten gains. His mistress, Amanda’s best friend, not ever have read The World According to Garp on the safety hazards of doing this, is going down on him while he is driving. An accident ensues and all the lovely money they had with them floats away on the highway. That was a nice shot, by the way. So Amanda, broke, goes back to Dallas and even has to move into his mother’s mansion with her two teenaged kids. The women Amanda terrorized in high school are out to get revenge. Now whom do you root for? Amanda seems chastened by all that has happened to her, but the other women have a point as well. The writing in the pilot was very cartoon-like, which may not wear well over the series. In the second episode “Hell Hath No Fury” (also written by Harling), it is clear this is going to be a one-joke series: fundamentalist Christians do not behave well. We get it, now move on. There does not yet appear to be an at least semi-serious counterpoint, as there often was on Desperate Housewives. There is also a very odd casting problem. Carlene, the new queen bitch among the women, is played by Kristin Chenowith. That would appear to be perfect casting, but it may be too perfect. With her almost cartoon-like face and voice, and with a wig and outrageous clothes added, she may just be too much. Write for performance, as I always say, but Harling and his writers need to develop more for Chenowith to do than just the obvious.

Fairly Legal is back. You may remember in US#70, I almost did not watch the new show last winter called because I kept coming across the ads that showed its star, Sarah Shahi, with her cute little finger in her cute little mouth. Fortunately the show was much better than that. It still is in the new season. But I was driving down the street in Hollywood a few weeks before it premiered and a bus pulled up alongside me. I looked over and there is Shahi on the side of a bus. Announcing the upcoming return of the show. With her finger in her mouth. I am watching in spite of the ad rather than because of it.

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: 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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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.

Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.

A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.

Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.

There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror

We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.

Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.

Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.

Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Our Time Doggedly, Elliptically Considers the Costs of Partnership

The film elides politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

3

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Our Time
Photo: Monument Releasing

Filmed in low, awesomely wide angles, the series of vignette-like scenes that make up the lengthy opening sequence of Carlos Reygardas’s Our Time are a sociological survey in miniature, observing the nature of the interactions between people of the opposite sex at various ages. Young girls fuss with a broken beaded necklace as boys, sticks in hand, go marauding through a shallow, muddy lake surrounded by distant mountains. “Let’s attack the girls,” one of them says, as they disrupt a gossip session among pre-teen girls on a large innertube. With a slipstream rhythm, the action pivots to older teens experimenting with alcohol and drugs and maneuvering sexual attraction and frustration. After a while, we arrive at the grown-ups, a set of urbane, cosmopolitan ranchers who haven’t left any of this behind.

The backdrop of this sequence, which lasts from bright daytime to well past dusk, recalls the simultaneously transcendent and frightening opening of Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, depicting a child alone in the wild. In his first collaboration with a new cinematographer (Diego García, who shot Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendour), Our Time retains some of the director’s penchant for specialized lenses—like fisheye—and prismatic lens flare, but their effect is muted relative to the sometimes outrageous transcendentalism of his previous work. Reygadas’s latest unfolds more in the mold of recent work by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, relentlessly probing the more stubborn and outdated aspects of modern masculinity.

Reygadas himself plays Juan, a renowned poet and the owner of a ranch outside Mexico City, and the filmmaker’s wife, Natalia López, stars as Juan’s spouse, Esther, who manages the ranch. (Their children, Rut and Eleazar Reygadas, play Juan and Esther’s two younger children, with Yago Martínez in the role of their teenage son.) The family is rarely alone, and they retain domestic help and numerous cowboys to manage the bulls and horses on their property. At the party that opens the film, Esther connects with an American horse trainer named Phil (Phil Burgers) and begins an affair that gradually undoes her marriage. Our Time is, by all accounts, a pretty faithful biographical account of Reygadas and López’s recent marital troubles.

The conflict between Juan and Esther, which elevates from a gentle simmer to physical outbursts over the course of the film, isn’t merely about lust; it’s also about semantics and self-presentation. The couple have long had an open marriage—an allusion to Juan’s ex-wife suggests this decision was an effort to avoid past mistakes—so Juan’s feeling of betrayal is less about Esther sleeping with Phil than it is about her concealing the act, along with her continued communication with him. In his roles as writer and director, Reygadas crafts Juan as a self-styled progressive and empath. Unlike the patriarch in Post Tenebras Lux, who ran headlong into class warfare, Juan is exceedingly companionable with his hired help and open-hearted toward his children. Though class markers are everywhere in Our Time, from Juan’s clean chaps to his conversations with relatives of his workers (one requests that Juan “sponsor” him with the purchase of a new race car), the film elides these politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

As politics drop out of his purview, Reygadas integrates nature—typically an external force of rapture and terror in his work—into his study of human behavior. Often, he does this in the most prosaic of ways, twice transitioning from arguments to instances of wild bulls picking violent fights. At the same time, the ranch is a haven in Juan’s very image, and he treats moments like these as violations of his peaceful dominion. Reygadas explores Esther’s psychology in more interesting ways, sending her to a timpani performance (by Mexican percussionist Gabriela Jiménez), which is shot with such urgency that it feels like a heavy metal concert, conjuring Esther’s turmoil as she texts with Phil in a symphony hall that would be pitch black if not for the slight glow of her phone.

With limited evidence that their affair is continuing, Juan’s fixation on Esther’s interest in Phil yields a handful of lengthy discourses on Juan’s fears for their future. His words are eminently judicious, but they wear Esther down, until she reacts to him with physical sickness and increasing desperation. Their distance yields Reygadas’s boldest narrative tactic, which is to effectively turn our time into an epistolary three-way romance for an entire act of the film. Juan, Phil, and Esther all dispassionately say their piece in voiceover monologues reciting letters and emails they’ve written to one another (one is recited over a bravura shot captured from the landing gear of a plane). In odd instances, a few of these communiques are read by one of Juan and Esther’s children, a suggestion that they understand what is happening or are perhaps fated to make the same mistakes as their parents.

Our Time’s foundation as a sort of Knaussgardian, auto-fictional overshare may account for both its curiously absent politics and what for Reygadas as unusually vibrant, dimensional characters. (Phil, an inane lunk trying to reconcile conflicting orders about whether or not to have sex with Esther, doesn’t achieve such depth.) Though the film suffers in its later scenes, as Reygadas turns Juan’s anxieties into actions and assures us that this auteurist self-portrait is appropriately self-excoriating, Our Time is remarkably balanced in considering both sides of its central marriage. As Juan’s mixed emotions unfurl in lucid, bountiful words, López reveals in simple gestures and shifts of position how Juan’s behavior has robbed Esther of her independence. Though artistically tame by Reygadas’s standards, Our Time doggedly pursues ugly truths about how partnership necessarily requires the sacrifice of one’s agency.

Cast: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Phil Burgers, Eleazar Reygadas, Rut Reygadas, Yago Martinez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 177 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Blue Note: Beyond the Notes Trumpets the Freedom of Jazz

The documentary proves that the history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself.

3

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Blue Note: Beyond the Notes
Photo: Eagle Rock Entertainment

The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.

Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.

The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)

Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.

Director: Sophie Huber Screenwriter: Sophie Huber Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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