Fan Mail: A short note before we get into the mail. A day or so after I sent US#93 off to Keith, I read in the paper that Ernest Callenbach, whom I mentioned in the review of the Pauline Kael biography, had passed away. He was the long-time editor of Film Quarterly, starting in the early days when there were not a thousand film journals around. He ran my first published piece, a 1977 book review of two biographies of screenwriters. He was supportive of many young critics, including the redoubtable Stephan Farber.
David Ehrenstein has his usual entertaining comments, especially about Pauline Kael. He thought her essay on Kane made it sound as though Welles had “scarcely anything to do with it at all” with Kane. Like David, I had read her earlier reviews, especially of Chimes at Midnight (1966), and I thought in “Kane” she was not trying to tear Welles down, just promoting what Mank had done.
“IA” took me to task for thinking Kael was a coward for not writing more on screenwriters. He may be right, but given the dealings Howard Suber and I had with her, I’ll stick to my opinion. IA did point out that Kael never wrote anything, about screenwriters or otherwise, on the scale of “Raising Kane” again, which is what I tried to suggest in my comments about her not have the capabilities to do a much longer piece. As to how serious Kael was on doing a Johnson biography, I would assume that if she and her agent were trying to get my research and spreading the word that she was doing a bio of him, then she was pretty serious, at least for a time. Kellow’s book is already long, and I am sure that if he came across the Johnson business he probably felt it was not that important in the full scope of her life. As to her writing about screenwriters in her later reviews, she may well have, but not with the enthusiasm she showed earlier.
American Reunion (2012. Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Adam Herz. 113 minutes.)
Not as good as #1, better than #2, and way better than #3: In my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I had a chapter on the first three American Pie movies, since I wanted to discuss writing raunchy comedies. I put the chapter in the Not-Quite-So-Good section of the book, since that would have been my average grade for the three. The first was a very good script, the second not-quite-so good, and the third one was truly awful, with only one laugh in the entire film. I have not seen the four direct-to-DVD sequels and even a gun to my head would not make me. But since I had invested so much time in thinking and writing about the first three, I thought I would give the new theatrical film a shot. It turns out to be pretty good, and corrects several of the mistakes #2 and #3 made.
The first film, American Pie (1999), was written by Adam Herz, based on his teen years in the ‘80s in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, which becomes East Great Falls in the films. What Herz managed was a nice mixture of the sentimentality of the John Hughes films of the period and the raunch of the 1982 classic Porky’s. We follow four high school seniors, Jim, Kevin, Paul, and Oz as they go on a quest to lose their virginity by the time they graduate. So we have a solid, if overused, structure. What makes it work are the characters. Jim’s an Everyguy who gets caught masturbating by his parents in the first minute-and-a-half of the film. He’s bad at sex, but hopes he has a chance with Nadia, a sexy foreign exchange student. When the chance comes, he comes too, but too quickly and too often. Then he is left going to the prom with the geeky band-camp nerd Michelle, who in perhaps the greatest payoff line in American cinema history, turns out to be a highly sexualized lover of musical instruments, especially the flute. Kevin is hooked on Vicky, a cute blonde girl who doesn’t quite know if she wants to have sex with him or not. Vicky gets sexual advice from Jessica, “a very knowing but not completely cynical friend,” as I described her in the book. Jessica is potentially a more interesting character than the other girls, but Herz never quite figured out what to do with her, and by the third film she disappears completely. Paul has been encouraging rumors about his sexual prowess, all to no avail. Oz, on the advice of a college girl he fails to score with, pretends to be sensitive to get Heather, yet another cute blonde. A hanger-on of the group is Stifler, whose continuing gross-out antics make our four nicer than they might otherwise seem. In the end Jim gets Michelle, or rather she gets him; Kevin finally has sex with Vicky, but it’s a goodbye fuck rather than “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” fuck, since she is going away to college; and Paul ends up with the oversexed Stifler’s Mom. I cannot remember what happens with Oz and Heather.
American Pie 2 (2001), with a story by Herz and David H. Steinberg amd screenplay by Herz, picks up one year later. We get less of Paul, Kevin, and Oz, and alas more of Stifler. He gets invited to spend the summer with the boys as they try to score at the beach. Stifler is a very one-note character, better in small doses than large ones. I am sure he is great fun to talk about in the story meetings, and probably great fun to write and act, but the more we see of him, the more obnoxious he becomes. This is even worse in the third film, American Wedding (2003).
For most of #2, Jim is trying to improve his sexual skills, since Nadia is coming back to town and he wants to do her right this time. After the premature ejaculation sequence, which was broadcast to the whole school, she was sent back to the Czech Republic, at least partially because Herz did not really want to deal with the difference in sexual sophistication between her and Jim. Doing it as a one-joke scene with Michelle was good enough for the first film, but it was not until #2 that Herz begins to deal with the issue. Jim contacts Michelle, who is at band camp, and gets her to give him lessons. But Michelle was a one-joke character in #1, and we now know what Michelle is really like. In the writing Herz goes back and forth with Michelle, sometimes the goofy nerd and sometimes the sexy girl, and it gives Alyson Hannigan whiplash trying to butt together the two. Hannigan’s performance in #1 was pitch perfect, but only for #1. On the DVD of #2, they have Hannigan’s screentest for #1, and her performance there would have been much better as a leadup to #2, but the focus on her goofiness in #1 makes #2 a mess in terms of her character. The “teaching scenes” between Michelle and Jim in #2 are great (you will never think of preheating an oven in the same way), and there are more of them in the deleted scenes. At the end of #2 Nadia returns, but realizes Jim loves Michelle. Paul ends up yet again with Stifler’s Mom, whom he appears not to have seen in the years since the first one.
American Wedding (2003), with a screenplay by Herz, is a mess. Instead of being about sex, it’s about a wedding, and Herz brings nothing fresh to the material. People behave totally out of character. We are introduced to Michelle’s parents, who have no character at all. A party with two women who may just be dancers or may be hookers (that’s sloppy writing) should have been a great scene, but is just never jells. Oz does not show up, nor does Jessica, nor Nadia, for that matter. Paul and Kevin are reduced to sidekick roles. Michelle is as divided a character as before. You can see why Universal went to straight-to-DVD for the next four.
When Universal decided to go back to the original cast for the fifth Fast and Furious sequel, Fast Five (2011), they found it grossed more than the sequels without the original stars. So they gave American Reunion a shot. This time the writers are the writers of the Harold and Kumar movies, but they pick up on what the Pie movies are all about, and improve on at least #2 and #3. First of all, Michelle is now a consistent character. She and Jim are married and having recently had a baby, they are not getting as much sex as they would like. That allows Hannigan to be both sexy and to show her us her goofy “band-camp nerd” faces. It also makes the movie again about sex, which is what most high school reunions are really about. Ralph Keyes, in his 1976 book Is There Life After High School?, wrote that he had never seen as much cleavage as he had at the various high school reunions he went to for research.
Oz, Kevin, and Paul are back, and given substantial storylines. Oz shows up with his gorgeous girl friend, but meets Heather again and sparks fly. Kevin and Vicky meet, but their relationship is still one of the weakest among the group. Paul seems at first to have become a man of the world, which is an interesting idea that the writers undercut later, although he does end up with Selena, a bartender who was very fat in high school but now, well, she’s not fat any more. We also get what amount to cameos from some of the other characters, including the flute. Jessica shows up way too briefly. I was so irritated that Herz did not give Jessica anybody to pair up in the first two that I wrote that maybe she could get together with the two girls in #2 that Stifler thought were lesbians. They weren’t and she didn’t. Well, she is now.
There is understandably a slightly more rueful tone to this entry in the series, which is also true about high school reunions. And they use that tone beautifully with Stifler. Yes, we are encouraged to laugh when he poops in an ice chest of some obnoxious kids, but the other guys are constantly calling him on his behavior, and as he realizes that finally high school may really be over, he is actually chastened. The writers then give him a great payoff scene, and Sean William Scott’s reaction when Stifler realizes what may happen is great. And we are actually rooting for him, something I never imagined I would even think, let alone write.
And now let us sing the praises of Eugene Levy. In all of the American Pie films and DVDs, he has appeared as Jim’s Dad. Well-meaning, trying to be helpful (clearing up the cable reception in #1), and often clueless. Jim’s Dad admitted in #1 he too has masturbated, but “Of course, I never did it with baked goods,” one of Herz’s many great lines. In Reunion, the writers know what they have with Levy and his character. They have written several funny scenes between Jim and his dad. Levy and Jason Biggs as Jim really get their mojo going and they are a joy to watch. We also get a bit of a rueful tone is some of these scenes, since Jim’s Mom died three years ago. So Jim and Michelle are encouraging Dad to date. Which leads to a couple of scenes with, well, whom would you pair off Jim’s Dad with? I can hardly wait to see the deleted scenes and outtakes of these two masters of the Christopher Guest School of Comedy.
Which raises the question of how much of those scenes, and the Jim and Dad scenes, may be improvised. It would not surprise me to learn that there was a fair amount of improvisation, but keep in mind they are all improvising off what they know of their own characters from the previous films, as well as whatever Hurwitz & Schlossberg have written.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Paul Torday. 107 minutes.)
A river runs through Yemen: Torday’s novel is apparently the modern equivalent of what is called an “epistolary novel,” a novel told in the form of letters, as for example Chodelos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses. Since nobody writes letters anymore, the novel for this one has emails, post-it notes, and assorted electronic conversations. That presents a problem for an adapter: how much reading do you want your audience to have to do? Beaufoy, whose credits include The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), does a nice job of using the written word only when he needs it. And/or if there is a comic bit to be had, as with the character of Patricia Maxwell, the press secretary for the Prime Minister. Make sure you stick around for her last “conversation” with the PM.
Mostly Beaufoy focuses on his two romantic leads. The guy is Dr. Alfred Jones, an ichthyologist for the British government, who gets trapped into helping a Yemeni sheikh set up a breeding ground for salmon. Jones is sort of nerd, but charming in his own quiet way. He is brought into this by Harriet, a public relations specialist working for the Sheik. She is a lot more worldly than Jones is. Think Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), but without the slapstick. Salmon Fishing is more a conventional rom-com, but Beaufoy, and presumably the novel, sets up two hurdles for the couple. He is married, and the marriage is not going well. We don’t like his wife much, but she’s not awful. Harriet has just gotten involved with Robert, an army officer who has been sent off to Afghanistan shortly after they started their romance. So we have legitimate reasons why these two don’t fall into each other’s arms. And Beaufoy writes nice “friendship” scenes for them that keep us interested until the inevitable happens. Jones is willing to break up with his wife, although in one of Beaufoy’s nice touches, she’s not sure she does want to break up. Robert goes missing in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. He’s not, but when he gets back together with Harriet, he is extraordinarily gallant about giving her up. Jones is Ewan McGregor at his most charming. Harriet is Emily Blunt working at her usual high standard. The real find here is Tom Mison, who not only catches Robert’s gallantry, but is a hunk and a half as well.
As much as I love the romantic story, Beaufoy’s script doesn’t handle the political satire as well as it might. What we do get, particularly in Kristin Scott Thomas’s scene-stealing performance as Patricia, is wonderful, but just enough that you want more. A lot more. And Scott Thomas is so great that we laugh at her instant messages because we can imagine how funny they would be coming out of her mouth. To paraphrase one of my usual comments, that’s great writing for non-performance. Beaufoy also shortchanges the serious elements in the story. A little over half way through, the Sheik is the target of an assassination attempt. We only get a vague idea of why (religious fundamentalists are opposed to the Sheik’s plan), which undercuts the fundamentalists final attempt to screw up the whole project. I can see why, in both the writing and the editing, the film sticks with Jones and Harriet, but it would have had a little more substance if we had a little more of the politics. After all, His Girl Friday (1940) managed it, so how hard could it be? Yeah, right.
Mirror, Mirror (2012. Screenplay by Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack, story by Melissa Wallack, based on the story by Jacob Grimm and Wilheilm Grimm. 106 minutes.)
Butcher? Grub? Halfpint? Napoleon? Wolf?: With names like that for the seven dwarfs, we are definitely not in the Disney version of Snow White. But in spite of those names, this version is not as dark as Disney’s. The attempt here was to do a light comedy, family friendly version of Snow White. But Snow White is one hell of a scary story, and the tone does not sit quite right. The structure is functional and had potential. Snow White is a grownup whom we meet early in the film, held captive in the castle by the wicked queen. Snow sneaks out of the castle and meets the Prince, although she does not know he’s a prince until she meets him again at the ball. The Queen has her eyes on the Prince as a potential husband, and so arranges for Snow to be taken to the woods and killed. Needless to say, she’s not, and she falls in with the dwarfs, a band of thieves who hide their size by wearing stilts when they rob people. The dwarves do not have the richness of character Disney’s did. Christopher Finch’s 1973 book The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom includes transcripts from the story and character conferences for the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and you can tell from them the time Disney and his people put in on character development. Keller and Wallack’s are short in character as well as height.
Snow does do some cooking for the little guys, but mostly she is there to become a warrior princess. I’m all for warrior princesses, but they are getting to be a cliché, and the training montage is uninventive. That is also true of the dialogue. When even Nathan Lane, as the Queen’s henchman, cannot get laughs, there is something seriously wrong with the script. The same thing happens with Julia Roberts’ Queen. Roberts can do evil, but she’s trying for diva here as well, and it’s not in her wheelhouse. Armie Hammer as the Prince is the only one who nails the tone, and that’s because he spends a lot of screen time pretending to be a dog. Hammer gives good dog.
Part of the problem with the film is that the director is miscast. He is Tarsem Singh. Tarsem was a student at LACC, although I don’t think I ever had him in class. I have followed his career and like some of his earlier films, especially The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006). He has a great eye for exotic locations and sets, but the visuals here are not up to his usual standard. He also doesn’t seem to handle the workaday comedy scenes as well as he could. Hey, not everybody can be Lubitsch. And Keller and Wallack aren’t Samson Raphaelson yet either.
Damsels in Distress (2011. Written by Whit Stillman. 99 minutes.)
Hermetically sealed: In Stillman’s first three films (Metropolitan , Barcelona , and The Last Days of Disco ), he was dealing with subcultures, often within subcultures. But there was always an awareness within the film that they were subcultures. In Metropolitan, we are with East Coast, upper class kids during the debutante season, but Stillman introduces to this crowd Tom, who is not part of the culture. Tom serves as a critical observer of the upper class and their attitudes, which gives the film a dramatic tension. In Barcelona, Ted, an American working for an American company in Spain, and his cousin Fred, an American naval officer, are outsiders in the Spanish culture.
In Damsels we are in a fictional East Coast college, and the outsider of sorts is Lily, who is entering the college as a sophomore. She is “adopted” by Violet, the leader of a trio of girls. Violet has a lot of strange ideas, but Lily only challenges them in a half-hearted way, so we don’t get that kind of tension in this film. Violet runs a suicide prevention clinic, where she mostly prescribes tap dancing as a way to overcome your troubles. The girls get involved with various men, but the guys are so skimpily drawn that it is hard to tell them apart. There is very little forward momentum in the film, just a collection of scenes with Violet and the girls that do not really go anywhere. They all live in a hermetically sealed universe with very little connection to the real world. That may be part of Stillman’s point, but it’s not very compelling on the screen.
Act of Valor (2012. Written by Kurt Johnstad. 110 minutes.)
Action yes, characterization no: A friend of mine, the son of a Navy admiral and a retired worker with the former job classification of “I can tell you what I do but I’d have to kill you,” is going through a tough patch at the moment. His wife is in the hospital and he’s not supposed to drive, so I took him out for brunch and then we saw this movie. We’d been talking about his World War II childhood in San Diego over brunch, and the opening scene has the Navy SEALS doing a parachute drop over San Diego. He was in hog heaven.
You may have read some of the backstory of this movie. The incidents are taken from true SEAL missions, put together in one film, and made with real Navy SEALS playing the SEALS. The downside is that the “personal” scenes are flatly written, and the dialogue is as simple as you can get for the same reason that dialogue in porno films is simple: the “actors” can’t handle dialogue that goes beyond declarative sentences. The emotions are also as simple as you can get; do not look for any nuance or irony here. Kurt Johnstad, a former grip, is also the screenwriter of 300 (2006), so you know the dominant tone is going to be macho squared. The good guys are very good, and the bad guys, all of whom seem to have the same scar, are very bad. And our guys never make mistakes. When they attack a small village, not a single woman or child gets hurt. And their equipment always works.
The action scene writing is terrific. We get several major set pieces, starting with the rescue of an attractive woman doctor the baddies are holding in a jungle hideout. The suspense is unnerving as our guys go through the jungle. My friend noticed that the maneuvering of the rescue boats was smart, always moving to distract the baddies. The attack on the village and the attack on a factory/fortress are also exciting, and different enough so that the action does not seem repetitive. What my friend and I loved about the film is that there is almost no CGI. We are in the jungle, on the ocean, in the village, and we get the physical sense of the place and the action, which I often don’t in CGI fests. One of the reasons I always liked David Lean’s movies is you feel the jungle, the desert, the winter of Russia. Act of Valor is not a patch on those, but if this is the sort of movie you like, you’ll like this one.
Titanic (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. 240 minutes.)
No, not that one: And not that one. And certainly not THAT one. This is one of those projects that sounded great in the pitch meeting. It is, in case you missed it, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. So why not do a television miniseries on it? Special effects are getting less expensive, so we can at least match in small screen terms the King of the World. Surely, there are more stories to tell that were not covered in the many earlier films. Maybe, maybe not. But let’s get Julian Fellowes to write it. After all, he started the first series of Downton Abbey with news of the sinking, using it as a way to get into the characters and their attitudes (see US#70).
In writing about the second season of Downton Abbey (US#92) I mentioned that Fellowes writes at an American pace, with shorter, faster scenes than most English writers. That was wonderful in Downton Abbey, but it gets things off to a very bad start here. We get very, and I mean very, shorts scenes with a lot of characters. We have no idea who these people are, and there are not enough questions raised about them to make us want to come back to them. I suspect that this was shown in four one-hour episodes in England, but here ABC put the first three hours together on the first night, with the last hour the following night. In each of the four episodes, Fellowes follows one or more families and/or characters from before they get on the ship to the ship beginning to sink. Then in the next episode he follows the same path with another group. And another group in the third. I do have to admit, by the way, that I have not seen the 4th hour, since there was a power glitch in our neighborhood and it did not get recorded, but the pattern is clear in the first three hours. What that means is that just when an episode gets interesting, we stop and go back to the beginning. It is bigboatsinkus interruptus, to use the old Latin phrase for it.
Fellowes overstuffs the film with issues as well as characters. Yes, we get some discussion of the administrative glitches that led to the sinking, but we also get discussions of the British Empire, the Troubles in Ireland, possible war in Europe. Thematically the film is just as unfocused as it is in terms of character.
Ah, well, there is always Season Three of Downton Abbey on the far horizon.
A Bad Spring for American Television, 2012: In terms of new shows premiering on both cable and broadcast channels this spring, it has been a miserable season. And that seems to have affected some ongoing shows as well.
Girls is a new, heavily hyped HBO show (does HBO have any other kind?) created by Lena Dunham. I missed her indie film Tiny Furniture (2010) because it sounded a little too precious by half. I think I was right, because Girls is a little too precious by three-quarters. It’s about four twenty-something girls from good backgrounds who can’t seem to get their shit together and whine about it a lot. Over the years I have known and even been related to some women who behave like that. These reminded me of them, and I turned to my wife and mentioned one of them, as in “This show is like a roomful of ’Jennys.’” (No, I am not using real names here, for obvious reasons; and I should note that most of them have grown out of it.) One reason I loved teaching at LACC is that there I did not have to deal with a lot of people with overdrawn senses of entitlement, although we had a few. The women in this show assume that their parents should finance any harebrained scheme they come up with while they “find themselves.” Finding themselves in this case seems to involve having bad sex with men they don’t like. Well, if you don’t know how you can enjoy that, you certainly haven’t found yourself yet.
Veep is another new, heavily hyped, yes, HBO show. This one is created by Armando Iannucci, who has a great track record of political satire in England. We saw his skill in the 2009 film In the Loop (see US#31), where he widened his view to cover a bunch of American political and military people. And he got it right. Which is probably where the idea for Veep began. The new show is about the American vice-president, Selina Meyer, and there is the same kind of fumbling around we saw in In the Loop, but without the wit. The pilot episode, “Fundraiser” (story by Iannucci, teleplay by Iannucci & Simon Blackwell), has Selina making a number of verbal faux pas and trying unsuccessfully trying to fix them. The wit simply is not there, and the relentless use of the word “shit” makes it seem even less funny. There are more “shits” in an episode of this show than there are “vaginas” in 2 Broke Girls. In the Loop had its share of foul language, but it had more of a point than it does here.
Don’t Trust the B… in Apt. 23 has a familiar premise: semi-uptight June, a young woman from the Midwest, ends up sharing an apartment with Chloe, who we are informed gets new roommates then drives them out by her odd behavior, keeping their rent money. Square versus kooky. Hey, it worked for Laverne and Shirley and it’s working for 2 Broke Girls. But the “Pilot,” created and written by Nahnatchka Khan, is overstuffed trying to get the situation established and the characters introduced, not an uncommon failing of pilots. There was enough potential there for me to watch the second episode, “Daddy’s Girl,” also written by Khan. It was a lot cleaner (only in one sense) and sharper. June has decided not to date, but Chloe thinks she has the perfect guy for June. June says no, so Chloe sets them up to meet at a party. June is taken with Scott. And then learns he is Chloe’s dad. Freak out time. But he comes to the coffee shop where she has managed to find a job, they talk and end up in bed. And the next day Chloe’s mom shows up at the apartment. She and Scott only separated a week ago, and she is in a wheelchair. And she is played by Marin Hinkle (Alan’s ex in Two and a Half Men), so the scenes get lively. There are a lot of twists and turns and surprises. Alas, the last surprise is that June tells Chloe, who admits to having Daddy issues, that she (June) and Scott never had sex, but just “dry rubbed” for hours. Talk about the writers chickening out. The third episode, “The Parent Trap,” written by Sally Bradford McKenna, falls apart completely. Chloe gets an “assistant” by taking in a foster child and putting her to work answering the phone. Later we see a social worker drop in, and she has to be the most obtuse s.w. to not realize what’s going on. Chloe is flitting off to exotic places, leaving June to take care of the kid. Most of the episode is June yelling at Chloe for his lack of responsibility. The dialogue is very on-the-nose and not funny. Chloe is supposed to be a free spirit, but she is a little too far over the line for us to like her.
The L.A. Complex is a Canadian series on the CW network set in…Hollywood. Which leads to a lot of aerial shots of L.A. and one or two scenes shot on the streets in L.A. The rest is done on soundstages in Canada. It’s about a bunch of show biz wannabes who come to L.A. to Make It Big. And most of them end up in an apartment complex hanging around the swimming pool and humping each other’s brains out. Wait a minute, didn’t this used to be called Melrose Place? Indeed it did, and this is no particular improvement on the original. The actors are mostly people you have not seen much of before, but they are not incompetent, just not that compelling. And given the demographic that advertisers love, the oldest character, Raquel, is supposedly over the hill since she is pushing thirty, although I don’t know which side she is pushing from. There are no old people on this show, and there are no fat people. There were a couple of nice touches in the pilot, “Down in L.A.,” written by the show’s creator Martin Gero. Connor, a former resident, has just gotten the starring role in an upcoming series and has moved out. He is back for a party and hooks up with a newbie, Abby. The morning after she asks if he wore a condom. He says no, but then gallantly volunteers to take her to buy a morning after pill. And he’ll treat her to breakfast as well. Chivalry is not dead, just mutating. After she takes the pill, which can cause side effects, she gets word that she has scored an audition. She goes, but has not prepared a song, so she sings one of her own. Which in the world of this series impresses the hell out of the director. Until the nausea from the pill catches up with her and she vomits on the piano. Which leads to the director’s great line, “There is an old show business expression: when there is vomit on the piano, the audition is over.” I had not heard that expression before, but maybe it is just Canadian.
In US#92 I spoke too soon about the quality of the new season of Fairly Legal. For reasons known only to the showrunners and USA, they have introduced a new regular character. He is a very obnoxious lawyer named Ben Grogan. He’s only interested in taking cases to trial, winning at trial, and taking home lots of money. I suppose he is set up as a counterpoint to Kate’s more humane mediator, but mostly he is just irritating both to her and to us. And to make matters worse, in “What They Seem,” written by Tom Donaghy, there is a scene that suggests Kate may be falling for him. Then in “Ripple of Hope,” written by Robert Nathan, he kisses her. Ugh. And she kisses him back. Eewww. I know the ads make her look like a childish idiot, but up until now she has not been in the show.
30 Rock improved a bit in the spring, but then they tried another live show. In October 2010 they performed an episode live, and I pointed out the reasons it did not work in US#62. The scenes were longer than those in the filmed episodes, throwing the rhythm of the show off. The live audience response threw the actors off. The sets looked smaller and cheaper than those in the filmed version. Well, they tried it again in April with “Live From Studio 6H,” written by Jack Burditt & Tina Fey. They tried to shorten the scenes, which helped a bit, but it made it seem more like they were showing off that the actors could run around between scenes very quickly. They kept to just a few sets, and several of those were supposedly from television back in the ‘50s, so it didn’t matter than those looked cheap. The plot line was that Kabletown decided that TGS would no longer be live. Kenneth locked everybody up in a room to try to convince them to fight to keep the show live. This led to a series of parodies of shows supposedly done live in this studio. One was The Lovebirds, an obvious takeoff of The Honeymooners, with Alec Baldwin as Jackie Gleason and Tina Fey as Audrey Meadows. Another was a parody of The Dean Martin Show with Baldwin as an inebriated singer and Jane Krakowski doing a good Dusty Springfield impression. The problem was that these sketches all seemed like something from Saturday Night Live. Adding to that feeling was that from the beginning of the entire episode, everybody was reading off cue cards, with not a single actor looking at any other actor in the eye. Granted the script was not that great, but would it have killed the actors to memorize their lines? There is a great tradition in theater, film, and television of actors actually remembering what they have to say. Of course, it also helps if you stick with professional actors. Kim Kardashian did a cameo in the West Coast version, replacing Sir Paul McCartney, who did the East Coast version. Kardashian, whose performance skills do not include line reading, swallowed her last punch line and I couldn’t understand what she said.
In the same column in which I wrote about the previous live 30 Rock, I also covered the ending of that season of Mad Men. I said at that point, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.” We had to wait eighteen months, but it is finally back, and I will deal with it in the next column. Or the one after that.
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.
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.3
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
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.3
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
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.1
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
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.
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
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
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
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
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
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.3
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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