Coming Up in This Column: Snow White and the Huntsman; Brave; Turn Me on, Dammit!; Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding; Safety Not Guaranteed; Bernie,; An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck; Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron; The Conspirator; Bunheads, but first…
Fan Mail: Generally by the time Keith posts one column I have the next one written. I then wait a couple of days to read the comments, add my comments in this “Fan Mail” section and send it. On #95 I sent it off without yet having seen the very interesting comments by “DevilMonkey.” He had been sent a link to that column by a friend who thought that since DM didn’t like superhero movies, “it’s practically made to order for you.” DM thought that column was merely “okay,” but since he remembered reading my book Understanding Screenwriting, he decided to read some of the past columns and ended up reading all of them. That’s above and beyond the call of duty, and if I gave out medals DM would get one.
He particularly liked the Sturges Project and would like to see me do one on Billy Wilder. The advantage to doing Sturges that way is that he had that four-year period of great creativity, while Wilder was wonderful off and on for thirty years. But there are some Wilder films I really want to do. I got a DVD a couple of years ago of Ace in the Hole (1951) that I still have not watched and that I want to do in the column. What other Wilder films to pick? The list goes on and on.
DM raised the very interesting point that I have not done a lot of films from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He asks, “Is it a silent commentary on your sentiments about films from that era, a matter of personal taste, or just a question of priority and time?” I first wrote that the answer is all of the above, which is usually the best answer to a question like that. But I do like films of the ‘60s and ‘70s very much. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, and covered in depth in my Understanding Screenwriting book) and Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963) are two of my favorite movies. And of course Coppola’s two, The Godfather (1972) and The Conversation (1974). I think part of the reason I had not dealt with the films of those two decades is that I dealt with them a lot both as a historian and writer (look at the Annotated Study list in my 1982 Screenwriting book) and as a teacher. At one of Coppola’s many bankruptcy auctions we picked up a gorgeous 35mm print of The Conversation, which I showed nearly every semester for thirty years. I covered several films from the period in my screenwriting class, showing them in sequences over the course of the semester and discussing them in screenwriting terms. So I sort of felt I had dealt with those. But I still have my notes. And scripts for some of them. Did you know that the “dream scene” of Harry and the wife (Cindy Williams) in The Conversation was a “real” scene in the screenplay? Or that Harry originally had a wicked sense of humor? So now that DM has provoked me, you may look forward to more films from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Oh, like any good writer, DM saved the punchline until last: it turns out he had not read the book Understanding Screenwriting at all, but something with a similar title. I assume he is making up for that lack in his life even as we speak.
And now, on to the comments on #96: Matt Maul had a different reading of the last scene of the season finale of Mad Men. Matt thought that Don was walking away from the commercial shoot unhappy rather than satisfied. I am not sure there is the visual evidence for that in the shot, but it’s perfectly possible to read it that way. Which is the sort of ambiguity that we love about the show. David Ehrenstein noted that they did give the black secretary a nice scene with Peggy. It was a nice scene, but I still wish there had been more of them. Ah, well, that’s what next season is for. Maybe she’ll become romantically involved with Don. Or with Joan.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, screen story by Evan Daugherty. 127 minutes.)
This is the script Tarsem Singh should have directed: You may remember that one reason I whacked Mirror, Mirror in US#94 is that I did not think Tarsem Singh was the right director for it. He did not handle the comedy well, and the producers hadn’t provided enough production values to make it live up to his visual sense. There is hardly any comedy in this script, and the producers give the director Rupert Sanders the kind of production values Singh would work wonders with. Sanders works enough wonders that when I first saw the trailer, I assumed it was Singh’s film.
I mentioned in my comments on Mirror, Mirror that the Snow White tale is “one hell of a scary story,” and this script is true to that. Mirror, Mirror was trying to be true to its idea of Disney, but this one is determined to make it different. We start with a raging battle sequence (Sanders obviously loves Kurosawa), and then discover exactly how sick a puppy Queen Ravenna is. Unlike the queen in Mirror, Mirror, she is more a terror than a diva. She’s played by Charlize Theron, who brings the same kind of intense evil that she brought to her Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Sanders does let her get a little too Norma Desmond in a couple of scenes, but this is his first feature and he’ll learn better. The seven dwarves are very minor characters here and basically forest trash, neither cutesy nor Robin Hood-like thieves.
I got on Mirror, Mirror’s case because it turned Snow White into a warrior princess in a clumsy montage sequence. She ends up a warrior princess here, but we get no montage. She starts out smart. We first see the adult Snow in prison, where she has been languishing for years. She’s inventive and figures out how to escape from the castle, so we know right away she’s no wuss. At the end, she dons a suit of armor to lead the attack on the castle, but the armor is a mistake on the filmmakers’ part. As several critics have pointed out, it makes her look like Joan of Arc, which takes us out of Snow’s story. Like I say, Sanders will learn. He also lets Kristin Stewart play Snow with a little too much of her trademarked sulk. It’s well over an hour before she shows us she has a captivating smile, but then we don’t see it that often. Like Sanders, she’ll learn.
Brave (2012. Screenplay by Mark Andrews & Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi, story by Brenda Chapman. 100 minutes.)
Why discuss the ones that are only not-quite-so good?: When I was trying to get my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays published, one publisher who does a line of books it would have fit very nicely into objected to my writing about less-than-good and bad screenplays. Why not just write about the good ones? As I told him, and subsequently added to the Introduction, “After all, that’s why medical schools study disease and why business schools study the Edsel and New Coke. Part of the purpose of including the less-than-perfect scripts is to train you to look for problems, so that you can do that in your own scripts.” In this case, the film is by the GAPS (the Geniuses At Pixar), whose batting average is incredibly high, mostly because they know how to develop scripts properly. See my comments on any of the Pixar films of the last four years. So what went wrong here?
The story begins with Brenda Chapman, who worked on the stories for Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994) and Chicken Run (2000), so we are not talking about an amateur here. She wanted to do a film about a mother-daughter relationship similar to her own with her daughter. OK, Princess Merida is a tomboy in Scotland in the Middle Ages and she defies her mother’s wishes that she femme up to try to make a good marriage. Merida would much rather be an archer, the occupation of choice this cinematic season. Merida breaks up an archery contest among the dweebish sons of the neighboring kingdoms for her hand by beating them in the contest and declaring that therefore she can choose her own husband. Queen Elinor is none too happy and they argue. The dialogue between mother and daughter is very generic mother-and-daughter stuff. I have no idea if it was that way in Chapman and Mecchi’s screenplay, which in spite of the order in the credits came first, or if it has been flattened out in the rewrites. Merida goes off into the woods, where she lets a witch smooth talk her into putting a spell on Elinor. Merida just wants her to change, but the witch turns her into a bear. Which given that dad, King Fergus, had a fight with a bear years before and lost part of his leg to it, may make for awkward moments around the castle. Things work out in the end.
Chapman, who became the first woman to direct an animated feature with Prince of Egypt (1998), started directing Brave. But she was replaced by Mark Andrews, whose major credit seems to be the screenplay for this year’s John Carter. I have seen no reasons given, since everybody at Pixar appears to have signed confidentiality clauses. We may have to wait twenty years until they all write their memoirs. If the mother-daughter stuff is Chapman’s, the subplots about the legends of the kingdom are probably Andrews and Purcell’s, and they don’t help. As the film develops, it becomes more and more unfocused. When we want more of Merida and Elinor, we get instead the mythology of the kingdom. I also suspect that a lot of the comic slapstick comes from the guys rather than Chapman. I love Billy Connolly, who voices Fergus, but a little of him goes a long way. The characterization of the secondary characters is not up to Pixar at its best. Usually the group efforts at Pixar work out, here they don’t.
It being a Pixar film, there are some nice things. The animators give Merida great red hair, and Elinor as a bear has some nice reactions. There are also some good lines of dialogue, as in Elinor’s instruction to Merida that “A princess does not chortle.” And the film is also subversive in that Merida does not end up with a man. So she can chortle all she wants.
Turn Me On, Dammit! (2011. Screenplay by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, based on the novel by Olaug Nilseen. 76 minutes.)
A different take on mothers and daughters: This is a live-action Norwegian film, not an animated American one. So unlike Disney and Pixar, we very early on get Alma, a 15-year-old girl, masturbating while listening to a phone sex line. The scene is fairly explicit, as is the rest of the film. Because that’s what it’s about: Alma is a very horny teenage girl. She keeps having sexual fantasies about almost everybody she meets. Then at a party, Artur, whom she likes and fantasizes about in very romantic ways, comes up to her outside a party and nudges her with his penis. Alma makes the mistake of telling her two best friends, the sisters Saralou and Ingrid, about it. Ingrid, the blonde, tells everybody what Alma said, Artur denies it, and Alma is a social outcast among her peers. Eventually she runs away from her small town to Oslo, where she stays with Saralou and Ingrid’s sister. She gets some perspective on her situation and goes back and confronts Arthur, who has missed her. She tells him he had his chance with her and blew it. I would have been happy if the film ended there, but he apologizes publicly and she takes him back. Well, she is fifteen after all.
So what about Alma’s mother? She’s a single mom in her forties and just as fed up with Alma as Elinor is with Merida. Mom is really pissed when the phone sex line bills come in, but look at her reaction when she answers the phone and it is Steig, the phone sex guy, with Alma’s free call for the month. The mother-daughter relationship is much more textured here than it is in Brave.
Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (2011. Written by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert. 96 minutes.)
And yet another mother-daughter movie: I like movies that start off fast, but this is ridiculous. Mark tells his wife Diane he wants a divorce. We have no idea why. We see them at a dinner party, but without any indication of marital troubles. So Diane packs up her kids Zoe, who is in college, and Jake, who is in his teens, and takes them off to spend a couple of weeks with her mother, Grace. Oh, goodie, a visit to Grandma’s. Well, yes, but Diane has not seen Grace in twenty years. We learn later that Diane, an uptight lawyer, called the cops on her Mom for selling weed at Grace’s wedding. So why, of all places, does Diane go there? We have no idea. Diane, as written, is so opaque a character that even the great Catherine Keener cannot bring her to life.
Grace lives in Woodstock, New York, and is an unreconstructed hippie. And that’s all we get about her character. The film seems to admire Grace, so much so that it skims over Grace’s peccadilloes, which are many and varied. She is played by the great Jane Fonda, and there is not a lot she can do with the part. Jake is an obnoxious twerp who videos everything. We eventually see the film he puts together at a young filmmakers screening, and it is awful. I’ve seen bad student films, but this takes the cake. Needless to say, the audience in the movie loves it. Zoe is the only character given more than one dimension and the great Elizabeth Olsen runs with it.
This is the kind of script where every one of the three visitors almost immediately meets a perfect mate for themselves. There are some problems, but with one exception they are easily solvable. The exception is the guy Grace fixes Diane up with in a “what was she thinking?” moment.
The movie is relentlessly nostalgic about the ‘60s and about Woodstock in particular, but it has the feeling of a nostalgia created by people who were not there, but wish they had been. Created rather experienced.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012. Written by Derek Connolly. 86 minutes.)
Good up to a point: This is one of those films that got great acclaim at Sundance, and as we have talked about before, sometimes films play better at film festivals than they do in real life. This may be one of those, although it has opened reasonably well in a limited number of theaters. And it is delightful up to its final scene, although the final scene was apparently what got people cheering at Sundance.
The script was inspired by a joke ad the editor of Backwoods Home Magazine inserted, asking for someone to time travel with him. The ad not only went viral, but showed up on The Tonight Show in one of Jay Leno’s “Headlines” bits. So Connolly and director Colin Treverrow came up with a script. Jeff, a reporter for Seattle Magazine, spots the ad and pitches the idea of a story on it. Great, crusading investigative reporter at work. Not really. He wants to go where the ad was placed to make contact with a woman he had a fling with in high school. He leaves most of the heavy lifting to Darius, his intern. She is a twenty-something woman with no major goals in life—oh,crap, Lena Dunham’s been here as well. Well, no, and this is one of the freshest elements in the script. Darius is smart, does not mumble a bit, and is willing to work her tail off. And best of all, she does not whine. What Jeff has in mind is that while he tracks down his old flame, Darius can charm Kenneth, the guy from the ad. And you have to love Darius when she accuses Jeff of “dangling my vagina like bait.” Kenneth is strange, but we don’t know if he is just paranoid or if people are out to get him. He’s built a time machine, but neither we nor Darius have any idea if it will work. I had my suspicions, since I didn’t see any flux capacitor on it. It is well into the picture when we learn he wants to go back to save the woman he was in love with, who was killed in an accident. That means that Darius and Kenneth are probably not going to be an item. As in Salmon Fishing in Yemen (see US#94), Connolly has given them a strong reason not to fall in love. At least until we find out the truth about the other woman.
The film retains its charming quirkiness until the final scene, which becomes a very conventional Hollywood ending. The film has beautifully avoided anything conventional up until that point. I should let you know that the audience I saw the film with, unlike the Sundance audience, did not stand up and cheer. But they did not boo, either.
Bernie (2011. Screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on a magazine article by Hollandsworth. 104 minutes.)
Actors and real people: The story is a true-life tale. Bernie Tiede was an assistant mortician in East Texas (and the film has a wonderful explanation, part-narrated, part-animated, about the different regions of Texas) who became friends with cranky old widow Marjorie Nugent. They had massages together, took trips, and he waited on her hand and foot…until he killed her. And put her body in the freezer in her house. He told people she had moved to a retirement home, but since nobody liked her, including her relatives, nobody checked his story out. He was eventually found out, arrested and convicted of murder.
Which the small town he lived in hated. Just hated. They loved Bernie because he was such a sweet, caring guy, not only to Marjorie but to everybody. He was a pillar of the community. And there are still people in the town who do not think Bernie killed her, even though he confessed.
Linklater and Hollandsworth are Texans and understand the story and the people. They have created great characters for the actors to play. Jack Black gives the performance of his life as Bernie, and Matthew McConaughey comes close as the prosecutor. Shirley MacLaine does not have a lot to do or say as Marjorie, but nearly sixty years of experience means she gets the most out of it. And the rest of the cast is very good as well.
As are the real townspeople. Linklater and Hollandsworth have intercut interviews with people who knew Bernie, Marjorie and the others. Some critics thought it took us out of the story, but I disagree. The comments are so funny, so interesting, and so revealing that I kept waiting for more of them. We have talked several times before about how characters in documentaries are often more interesting than those in fiction films. That’s the brilliant part of the script and Linklater’s direction: the tone in the writing (and acting and direction) of the fictional characters and the townspeople match beautifully. In Steel Magnolias (1989), screenwriter Robert Harling and director Herbert Ross never managed to make the pieces fit. You were always aware of the difference between the STARS and the people from the town. Not so here. Everybody working on this movie was on the same page, which does not happen as often as it should. I was talking recently with Kevin Tent, a former student of mine and one of the great contemporary film editors. He was about to start doing some editorial doctoring on a feature. I told him I hoped everybody was on the same page. He laughed and said, “They never are.” In Bernie they are.
In the end credits we see not only the actors, but the townspeople, so we can finally tell who is who. Stick around to the end, since there is a shot of the real Bernie in prison. And then the camera pans off him and onto Jack Black. You can see Black studying Bernie like a bug under a microscope. Whatever Black learned in his prison visit, he put to great use.
An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck
Producer Richard Zanuck, who died on July 13th, knew how movies are made. Well, of course, but you would be surprised how many producers, including some very successful ones, do not have a single, freaking clue how movies get made. Richard was the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, the legendary head of 20th Century-Fox. Dick grew up on the Fox lot, literally. He would hide out from his dad on the backlot. Dick spent his summer breaks from high school and college working in various departments at the studio. He produced his first film Compulsion in 1958, and four years later when Darryl returned to take over the studio after others had run it into the ground, he made Dick his head of production at the age of 28. And then fired him eight years later, partially to save his own job and partially because Dick had fired Darryl’s girlfriend.
At this point in his life, Dick could have turned into a bum and lived off his trust funds. But he didn’t. He worked as an executive at Warners, then went into partnership with David Brown, whose talent was spotting good material. Even though Dick went into the same business as his father, his talents were a little different. Darryl focused on getting the script right and crapping all over directors. Dick was less a script guy and more a supporter of directors. It was Dick Zanuck who took The Sugarland Express (1974) project into Lew Wasserman with a television director doing his first feature film. Wasserman did not like the project, predicting it would not be a hit, but he told Zanuck, “Dick, I’m not making this deal with you because I think I know more about producing than you do. Go make the picture. Why would I hire you if I didn’t trust your judgment?” Later Dick told the director, “Think of me as your bodyguard.” The picture was a flop but the director went on to make a number of films for the studio, including his next one, Jaws. (The quotes are from a Patrick Goldstein column in the Los Angeles Times.)
Jaws, which Zanuck and Brown also produced, was a troubled shoot, and the studio kept suggesting that they should send some executives out to the location to supervise. Zanuck showed he knew how to talk to studio people in terms they would understand. He told them, “If I see a single Lear Jet at the airport, I am closing down the production.” (Variations of this line show up in several of the Zanuck obituaties.) No planes arrived and they completed the picture.
In the item above on Bernie, I mentioned that it is essential in making a movie to have everybody on the same page. The producer’s job is to make sure that happens, and Richard Zanuck was a master at it.
Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron
Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron died recently within a week of each other. As you may guess, I had my reservations about Sarris, and if you have read this column you know I had reservations about Ephron (see US#31 for my take on Julie & Julia).
Sarris of course was the American promoter of the auteur theory, which made everybody think the director was the only one who mattered on a film. Sarris was not quite as doctrinaire as many of those who followed in his footsteps. He did a nice preface to Richard Corliss’s 1974 book Talking Pictures, which tried to do for screenwriters what Sarris’s 1968 The American Cinema did for directors. Talking Pictures is interesting to look at in comparison with The American Cinema. Sarris rated directors in wholesale lots, with only a page or two at the most on each one. Corliss did fewer writers, but went into them in a lot more depth than Sarris did directors. The thing is that you can do that with writers because of all the nuances of content they provide. The Los Angeles Times had a quote in its obituary of Sarris in which Sarris says, “The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much the what as the how.” But the what is more important than that quote gives it credit for. At the end of my Sturges Project, I noted that in the section on Sturges in The American Cinema, “like so much auteur writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarris spends more time writing about Sturges’s screenwriting (character, dialogue, structure, etc.) than about his directing. What does that tell you?” But at least Sarris began to get people thinking seriously about film.
Nora Ephron was the daughter of two screenwriters, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose credits include There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Carousel (1956). Their 1961 stage play Take Her, She’s Mine is about a daughter, based on Nora, going off to college. You could believe the character Mollie in the play (played in her dazzling Broadway debut by a very young Elizabeth Ashley) will grow up to be Nora Ephron. (Even though the 1963 film of the play is by my man Nunnally Johnson, it is not a patch on the play. Sandra Dee as Nora Ephron!? Enough said.) Nora first came to fame as a writer of essays, and then moved into novels and eventually screenplays. I must admit I generally liked her essays, at least the non-food ones, better than her scripts. Part of that was her obsession in the screenplays with food, and also her tendency to write neurotic women characters that we were supposed to love because they were neurotic rather than in spite of it. She could of course be very funny, both in the essays and the scripts. When a friend of mine, upon hearing of Ephron’s death, asked me what we would do without her, I replied that we would probably eat less well and definitely not laugh as much. Not a bad legacy.
And here’s another bit of her legacy. In spite of Sarris’ efforts to erase the work of writers, Ephron got a long obituary in the Los Angeles Times. And she is the first screenwriter I know whose obit made the front page of the Times.
The Conspirator (2010. Screenplay by James Solomon, story by James Solomon & Gregory Bernstein. 122 minutes.)
The daughter of the prisoner of Shark Island: One day in 1935 Darryl Zanuck called Nunnally Johnson into his office. Zanuck handed him a magazine clipping about Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd was the doctor who had set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after Booth assassinated Lincoln. Mudd was brought up on conspiracy charges, and as Johnson said later, “The trial had brought in a kind of Scottish verdict, ’Not proven, but just for the hell of it, we’ll give him six years for being around there.’” Mudd was sent to a prison in the Dry Tortugas, and after he helped deal with an epidemic of yellow fever, his case was reopened and he was released. Zanuck asked Johnson, “Does this sound like a picture to you?”
Johnson replied, “It might.”
Zanuck said, “Why don’t you look into it and see if we can get something?” (The quotes are from the oral history interview I did with Johnson in the late ‘60s.) Johnson did and came up with the script for the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island. It was a good film and a substantial hit.
Dr. Mudd has a walk-on, well, more of a sit-in, in The Conspirator, which deals with the trial of another of the defendants, Mary Surratt. Mudd is identified as one of the prisoners, but the focus of the newer film is on Surratt, who ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C. where some of the plotting of the assassination took place. Her son, John, was involved in the plotting, but she probably was not. Her case is first taken by Reverdy Johnson, a Southern politican who sided with the Union in the Late Unpleasantness, as it is known in the South. His second chair is a Union officer named Frederick Aiken, but Johnson leaves the case entirely to him, figuring that Johnson’s southern accent will prejudice the case. Thanks a lot, fella, since the emotions are running high over Lincoln’s death and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, is determined to hang as many of the conspirators as possible.
Johnson in his script gets through all of the setup very quickly and economically, which is true of the picture as a whole. It runs 95 minutes. It was one of the only pictures Johnson wrote for which he kept a copy of a review, and he kept it because the critic talked about director John Ford’s narrative quickness, mentioning several specific cuts. The reason Johnson kept the review is that all the cuts had been by Zanuck over Ford’s objections. The Conspirator gets off to a very confusing start. We suspect we are watching the lead-up to the assassination and other related activities, but it is very unclear as to who is doing what to whom. Johnson has a great sympathy for all the characters, even those trying Mudd’s case, whereas Solomon makes it quite clear the court is made up of bad guys. In several dialogue scenes Solomon is beating us over the head with the connections between the historical case and our contemporary handling of suspected terrorists. It makes the film a lot preachier than it needs to be.
Dr. Mudd is a much more sympathetic character than Mary Surratt, at least partly because he is innocent. With Surratt we never quite know. We are supposed to get deeply involved with Aiken’s attempts to get her as fair a trial as he can, but given how little we know about her, it is difficult. In dramatic terms, it doesn’t help that Dr. Mudd gets “redeemed” and she gets hanged.
Bunheads (2012. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino & Lamar Damon. Various writers. 30 minutes.)
What’s the franchise?: Amy Sherman-Palladino was the creator and showrunner for The Gilmore Girls, one of my favorite television shows of the last decade. So I was willing to give her a shot with this one. It began with a script by Damon about a high school drill team. By the time it made the air on the ABC Family channel, it was about a Vegas showgirl who winds up in a small town teaching at a ballet school. The pilot, with a story by Damon and Palladino, and a teleplay by Palladino, begins in Las Vegas where Michelle, a showgirl, is coming to the end of her career and for a variety of reasons marries a nice guy who has been sending her flowers. He takes her away from Vegas to the small town where he lives. With his mother. Whom he has not told about the marriage. She is not happy. So the series is going to be about the three of them learning to adjust. Nope. At the end of the pilot, Hubbell is killed in a car accident. Too bad, since he was played by Alan Ruck, who has a nice sweetness that played off well against his mother and his wife.
In the second episode, “For Fanny,” also written by Sherman-Palladino, the mother (Fanny) is focused on arranging the funeral service for Hubbell. Focused as in using it to avoid her feelings about her son dying. So the series is going to be about Fanny and Michelle learning to get along. Maybe, but at the end of this episode, Fanny and Michelle learn that Hubbell has changed his will and left everything to Michelle. Mom is not happy. In the third episode, “Inherit the Wind,” written by Sarah Dunn, Fanny yells at Michelle a lot. Fanny is played by Kelly Bishop who was wonderful as the mother-in-law on The Gilmore Girls, but only in relatively small doses. Here she is center stage and in full rant all the time.
Michelle is played by Sutton Foster, a Tony-winning star of musical comedies. She is terrific onstage, but she is a little overemphatic here. And to be blunt about it, the camera does not love her. At least not in the way it loves Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel and Melissa McCarthy. Her wisecracks could make her hold her own with Bishop, but she has not eased into the role, at least not yet. Folks, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
After I had given up on the show and written the above, I was talking with my granddaughter about the series. She continued watching after the first three episodes and thought it had begun to settle down. So I watched the fourth episode, “Better Luck Next Year,” written by Daniel Palladino, and half of the fifth, “Money for Nothing,” written by Amy Welsh. I love my granddaughter but those problems mentioned above are still there.
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: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.2.5
Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.
Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”
Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.
The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.
Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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
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