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Understanding Screenwriting #98: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Newsroom, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #98: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Newsroom, & More

Coming Up In This Column: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Frank Pierson: An Appreciation, Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton (play), War Horse (play), The Exorcist (play), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Anger Management, The Newsroom, Political Animals, Twenty Twelve (and the Skydiving Queen), but first…

Fan Mail: I trust you all marked it down in your diaries that David Ehrenstein and I actually agreed on a film, in this case that Bernie is a terrific movie.

To Rome with Love (2012. Written by Woody Allen. 112 minutes.)

Four—count ’em, four—shaggy dog stories: Unlike last year’s Midnight in Paris, this year’s Woody Allen movie is what used to be called a portmanteau film. Instead of following one character’s adventures, we get several stories in one film. While such earlier films of the type as We’re Not Married and O.Henry’s Full House, both from 1952, and which I wrote about in US#34 and US#40, respectively, tells each story successively, Allen intercuts between all four. Like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), only better and funnier. The closest modern equivalent is Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003).

Love Actually follows nine separate stories, a rather neat balancing act, and Curtis is talented enough and witty enough to make the brief amount of time we spend on each story pay off. Allen, working at greater length on each of his four, manages to make them all pay off as well, partly because he doesn’t dawdle. But then Allen has never been much of a dawdler. Check the running times of his other films. At 112 minutes, this is one of his longest, but it never feels too long. Allen’s characterizations are not much deeper than Curtis’s, but the plotting is. Even though there are striking differences in the stories, the lightness of tone Allen brings as both writer and director makes them all seem part of the same film. The tone is that of a shaggy dog story, which all of them are in varying degrees.

The most conventional of the stories is the one Allen appears in. He’s a retired opera director who goes to Rome with his sharp-tongued wife (Judy Davis, in her fifth Allen film, knows how to deliver his stuff) to meet their daughter and her Italian fiance. Allen’s Jerry discovers that the fiance’s father has a beautiful operatic voice. The father does not want to sing in public, but Jerry insists. You could see this ending either badly or with a conventional happy ending. Allen’s ending? Since the father can only sing in the shower, Jerry, who has been established as a director of productions that were “ahead of their time,” creates a production of Rigoletto in which the father is constantly in the shower. Well, I suppose in the opera world it’s possible…

The story of an ordinary worker, Leopoldo, who becomes a celebrity for no apparent reason, is the sort of fable that Allen might have done as a story in The New Yorker. We never learn why he is suddenly the object of attention of the paparazzi, who have only gotten worse since Fellini introduced them to us in La Dolce Vita (1960). Then when the paparazzi move on to the next big thing, Leopoldo is relieved, then begins to miss it, then adjusts. That’s a nicely developed ending. The story is a combination of La Dolce Vita and Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). Speaking of Fellini, Leopoldo is played by Roberto Benigni, who has not been this good since he appeared in the Master’s final film, The Voice of the Moon, in 1990.

The third story is Allen’s re-write of Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), which had a story by Fellini, Antonioni (one of Antonioni’s early, funny ones?), and Tullio Pinelli, with a screenplay by Fellini, Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. With the exception of Antonioni, who did not like what Fellini did with the story, the others writers became the heart of Fellini’s writing team. In Fellini’s version a young couple from the provinces come to Rome but lose track of each other as the wife deliberately goes out to find “The White Sheik,” an actor/model who appears in photo-novels (comic books with photographs instead of drawings). She does and he tries to seduce her. Meanwhile the husband has a run-in with a winsome prostitute named Cabiria. Cabiria is played by Fellini’s wife, Guilietta Masina, and he would later created a full-length film for her about the character, The Nights of Cabiria (1957). The White Shiek, Fellini’s first solo directing effort, was not a hit with either the public or the critics, the latter because they were still in the thrall of neorealism. It is a charmer of movie, and Allen’s version has some of the same charm. Allen has the young wife just trying to find a beauty salon to get her hair done when she stumbles on a film shoot with her favorite actor, who like The White Shiek tries to seduce her. Allen brings in a handsome young robber as well. And the husband has more than a run-in with Anna, a prostitute who has been mistakenly sent to his hotel room. She has to pretend to be his wife while he meets his stuffy relatives and businessmen, some of whom know Anna professionally. Hers, not theirs. Allen’s version, which runs shorter than Fellini’s feature, is more densely plotted, which makes it more of a shaggy dog story. But Allen does drop one very Fellini touch. In The White Shiek the young couple has to find each other because they have an appointment to meet the Pope.

The shaggy dog element in the fourth story is its very casual surrealism. Jerry, a young man studying to be an architect in Rome, happens to meet in the street John, an older, established architect. John spent some time in Rome when he was about Jack’s age, and he offers Jack advice on his love life, seeming to know what’s going to happen. Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, has invited her flaky actress friend Monica, to stay with them. John sees exactly where that is going to go. Then Monica casually uses a phrase we have heard John use before. Hmm. Then we get more subtle hints and finally figure it out that Jack is John’s younger self, and John knows what will happen with Monica. OK, so John is imaginary, only in Jack’s mind. Only he’s not. Monica and others talk to him as well. I can give you ten reasons why that should not work (film is a realistic medium, Allen changes “the rules” from scene to scene, etc.), but it does.

To Rome with Love is not as thematically rich as Midnight in Paris. Paris dealt with all kinds of issues: literature, nostalgia for the past, and Allen’s inability to get beyond the East Coast attitude toward screenwriting; see US#75 for details. It managed to be charming as well. Rome is just as charming, if not more so.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012. Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Behn Zeitlin, based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar. 93 minutes.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Oh, crap…more water buffaloes: I had a bit of difficulty getting into this film, for an odd reason. Before the movies there were the usual art-house trailers. One was about a young male writer coming of age (The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2012]). Another was about a young male writer whose female creation comes to life (Ruby Sparks [2012]). A third was a potentially interesting thriller about getting the Iranian hostages who hide in the Canadian embassy out of the country (Argo [2012]). But the one that made the hairs on my neck stand up was for a film that I did not think was already on my radar. It turned out it sort of was, having shown at Sundance under the title, The Surrogate, but the Variety review did not capture its striking qualities. It is currently called The Sessions and due for release in the fall. The trailer starts with an immobile young man asking a priest if it is all right for him to have sex. The priest, a wonderfully shaggy William Macy, considers it and says yes. Well, that’s not your standard Hero’s Journey crap, is it? So the priest and the man’s friends arrange to get him a sex surrogate. And who shows up in that role but Helen Hunt. No, not the grumpy Helen Hunt from the last ten years who couldn’t even direct herself properly in And Then She Found Me (2007), but the beautiful, charming and sexy Helen Hunt from Mad About You, As Good As It Gets (1997), and the slightly similar film The Waterdance (1992). And then the trailer gets sharper and funnier and livelier. At the end of the three minutes or so, that I was the movie I most wanted to see…now.

But hey, I had paid my money for Beasts and was determined to give it a shot, given the great reviews. We are in a poverty-stricken island off New Orleans nicknamed The Bathtub, an ironic touch since it does not look as though anybody in the movie ever saw a bathtub, let alone used one. We get a lot of the squalor of the area: the sort-of houses, leftover house trailers, open truck beds, and all the detritus you could want. And more. Much more. Much, much more. What we have here is poverty porn. You usually think of the big historical costume pictures as the ones where you go out humming the sets, but the set decoration here is relentless. Part of the reason it dominates is that the characterization is rather thin. If you look at Nunnally Johnson’s script for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), about people also in very dire straits, you get a gallery of richly detailed people. The same is true in the script for The Bicycle Thief (1947)

The main character we follow is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old black girl who seems a little smarter than most six-year-olds. That may be because in the play the character was a ten-year-old boy. In the casting calls they found Quvenzhané Wallis and changed the age and gender. Wallis has a great face and the camera loves her, but the script does not give her a lot to express. Zeitlin, who also directed, seemed to think holding on her face is enough. It’s not, although it seems to be for some critics and viewers. Even Garbo had reactions to play, but the script does not give Wallis much if any. Her father Wink is a drunk, whose default setting is yelling at Hushpuppy. We can never quite tell if he thinks he is doing what he does for Hushpuppy’s benefit, or if he’s just a natural yeller. We get no nuances with him. Compare his scenes with Hushpuppy with Ricci’s scenes with his son in The Bicycle Thief and you will see the differences.

In an interview in Variety Alibar says the story is “about the heroism of learning to take care of someone.” I am not convinced that comes across, since the scenes never quite tell that story. Who is taking care of whom? It seems that Hushpuppy is taking care of Wink, but if so she is not doing all that good a job. Well, she is only six, after all.

Oh, the water buffaloes. You may remember last year I had a run of movies with water buffaloes what did not work for me. This film sneaks into a little magic realism late in the story. Hushpuppy has been telling us about the Aurochs, mythical beasts who roam the land. Sure enough they show up, courtesy of some OK special effects (the film is more expensive than it appears), but they look like water buffalo with horns attached. Given my past experience with cinematic water buffaloes, they did not help me like the film any better.

Frank Pierson

Frank Pierson: An Appreciation: Pierson died on July 12th this year. I suppose I should mention that Pierson won an Oscar for his screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). And that he started writing for television back in the early ‘60s for Have Gun, Will Travel, The Naked City and Route 66. His first feature was the very funny Cat Ballou (1965). I should mention his other screenplay credits include Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Anderson Tapes (1971) and Presumed Innocent (1990). I should make sure you know he served two terms as president of the Writers Guild of America (w), as well as being president of the Motion Picture Academy from 2001 to 2005. And you’ll want to know he contributed to Mad Men and The Good Wife as both a writer and producer.

But I can best tell you everything you need to know about Frank Pierson by his answer to a question from David Konow in an interview in the May/June 2003 issue of Creative Screenwriting. Konow asked him if the most famous line he ever wrote was in the novel the film was based on. Pierson replied:

“No, I made that up, and I don’t know where it came from. I was writing that scene and suddenly that popped into my head, and I put it down on the paper. I can still remember, I was sitting in my office out in Malibu looking out over the ocean. It was a bright, hot sunny day, and I thought, Damn it. I just know that everyone’s going to fight that line. The studio executives are going to say. “How does this high falutin’ language come out of this redneck prison guy?” I was afraid it was going to be attacked and I would have to defend it, so I was preparing myself to defend it. I stopped writing at that point, put a different sheet of paper in, and wrote a brief biography of the Strother Martin character, about how he’d come from a sharecropper family. He became a prison guard, then he got promotions, and in order to get promotions in the Florida state prison system—I had no idea if this was true or not—you had to take several hours of formal instruction in penology, which is the theory and practice of prison. He had actually gone to community college in order to get good grades and qualify for promotions, and that’s how he became captain. So that justified the line; he had a little exposure to an academic arena, and that’s where it came from. The fact of the matter is, no one every questioned it, so I never had to show the biography!”

If you don’t know what line that refers to, then all I can say is that obviously what we have here is a failure to commun’cate.

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton (2012. Stage play written by Vanessa Claire Stewart. Approximately 125 minutes.)

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton

Stage and Screen, Take One: Vanessa Claire met the actor French Stewart while he was doing a play at the Geffen Theatre. Stewart is best known for the five years he appeared in the television series 3rd Rock From the Sun. Like a lot of actors in successful shows he became typecast. Claire was impressed with his physical comedy skills in the play. They met after the show and talked, and Stewart mentioned that he was a big fan of Buster Keaton. He wanted to play Keaton, but felt he was now too old to play Keaton in his prime. Claire fell in love, married him and wrote this terrific play for him.

What has your wife done for you lately?

Claire Stewart loved history and researched everything she could about Keaton. But she realized that “In the Keaton stories, there are truths and there are legends that have been told. For our purposes, we are sticking to a lot of the legends that Mr. Keaton would have wanted told, but always with an undercurrent of truth…” (The quote and other details about the creation of the show are from her note in the theater program. If you want more information and reviews of the show, you can find them here.) As a film historian I should note that certain important people in Keaton’s life do not show up, such as the third Talmadge sister, Constance. But Claire Stewart only needs Norma (married to Keaton’s producer Joe Schenck) and Natalie (married to Keaton). Likewise, we do not get Irving Thalberg, whom Keaton fought with at MGM in the ‘30s, because she has Louis B. Mayer, who makes a better villain. Claire Stewart is jumping around in time from Keaton’s early years, when Buster is played by a young actor (Donal Thoms-Cappello), and the later years, when Stewart plays the part. Since Keaton retained a lot of his physical skills late in his life (look at him with the garden hose in Sergeant Dead Head in 1965, the year he turned seventy), Stewart gets a lot to do.

Claire Stewart is smart not to recreate the Keaton routines exactly, and very smart to use references to them. In one scene Keaton and his friend “Fatty” Arbuckle are having a meal at a table with the same food on hanging ropes as in The Scarecrow (1920). Later we get a scene of Keaton and Chaplin at two makeup tables getting made up for their joint appearance in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), which mirrors a similar scene in the film between the two old vaudevillians. My favorite steal is when Claire Stewart uses the changing seasons titles from the opening of Seven Chances (1925) to show the beginning of Keaton’s romance with his third wife, Eleanor. You don’t have to have seen the film to be charmed by it, but if you know the film, you will love the reference even more. The one Keaton bit he used a lot in vaudeville and his films is the housefront coming down around him. It is used here to show his world falling apart, and even though it is just a theatrical flat, it is just stunning to see it “live.”

Stewart and the rest of the cast are great, and I was particularly impressed with Tegan Ashton Cohan, who plays Natalie Talmadge. Natalie appeared in a couple of Keaton films, but she had none of the talent of her sisters. Claire Stewart makes Natalie more ambitious than she was, but this gives Ashton Cohan a lot to do, and she is brilliant, much more entertaining than Natalie ever was.

Oh, yes, one other thing. The small theater the world premiere is playing at in Los Angeles is about a block and a half away from Los Angeles City College, where Keaton made one shot for his 1927 film College. The theater is called Sacred Fools. Sacred indeed.

War Horse (2007. Stage play written by Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo. 155 minutes.)

War Horse

Stage and Screen, Take Two: July was a busy theater month in Los Angeles. The night after I saw Stoneface, I saw the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of the stage version of War Horse at the Ahmanson. About time it got around to Los Angeles. You may remember that I had a lot of quibbles about last year’s film version and I was curious how the play stacked up.

The play is better, for some curious reasons. I knocked the script for the film because the characterization was so shallow. I was “at a loss to explain why the characterization in this film is so bland and standard issue.” I suspect after having seen the play it is because the characterization in the novel is bland, etc. There is not more characterization in the play than in the film, and the play works better. Why? First of all, Spielberg loves actors and I think stayed on them too long in the film hoping that could deliver what is not in the screenplay. The stage version moves a lot quicker, and we get caught up in what the people are doing rather than what they are feeling. What also helps is that the play has a great sense of humor, which the film does not. Under Spielberg’s direction it is ponderously unfunny.

The play is conceived in very theatrical terms. The horses are not real horses, but puppets, each one run by three puppeteers. Several reviews and regular viewers have said they forgot completely the horses were puppets and “believed” they were real. That’s known in the trade as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” I was so fascinated by how the puppeteers did what they did that I was not as emotionally moved as some people are with the play. One of my snarkier comments on the film was that I couldn’t tell if the two main horses, Joey and Topthorne, were gay. Here there is no question they are straight, since the puppeteers give them strongly masculine, almost macho, attitudes as they play in their first scene together. There is a precision in the horses’ “acting” on stage that was not there on film, and that applies to the entire show.

The Exorcist (2012. Stage play by John Pielmeier, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty. 95 minutes.)

The Exorcist

Stage and Screen, Take Three: And two nights after I saw War Horse, I saw the world premiere production of this stage version of Blatty’s novel. The playwright is John Pielmeier, best known for his play and screenplay for Agnes of God (1985), which deals with many theological issues. Well, so does The Exorcist, so you can see why it occurred to somebody to match them up. And Pielmeier made the very high-minded decision to focus on the theology rather than the scarier elements of the book as the film. Unfortunately…do we really want a discussion of the issues involved? As Bob Verini said in his review in Variety, the play’s talk is mostly from “the pages [of the novel] you flipped past en route to the next outrageous set piece.” It is not very dramatic. Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow in the film, Richard Chamberlain here) becomes a sort of Greek chorus, explaining it all for us like Sister Mary Ignatius. So every time the story begins to pick up, we get him pontificating. Chamberlain is a wonderful stage actor, but there is only so much he can do.

Blatty’s screenplay to the 1973 film delved much more into the characters, as well as the horror elements, which makes the film much more compelling, even if director William Friedkin made it the gross-out champion of the decade. The play is directed by the inventive British director John Doyle, and alas, no, they do not play musical instruments as they act. I had gotten the mistaken impression a month or so ago that the play was going to be a musical and looked forward to what Doyle would bring to it, his having done a nice job on Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd a few years back. But Doyle’s direction is depressingly straightforward, and he often has the actors standing on opposite sides of the stage talking to each other about the issues. The only detail even vaguely resembling a special effect is a bit when Regan levitates about a foot above the bed. For that they went to the trouble of bringing in Teller, of Penn and… I am not asking for all the stuff in the movie, but the theater does have a long tradition going back a couple of thousand years of being able to shock audiences with the horror of a situation. The guys here could take a few lessons from Sophocles and especially Euripides, the William Peter Blatty of ancient Greece. Or they could go downtown (the play is at the Geffen in Westwood) and see how the National Theatre tells the story in War Horse. The Exorcist is going to need a lot of work before it goes anywhere else.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 158 minutes.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Second time around: My wife and I, having liked the Swedish version of this, kept intending to see this one when it was in theaters. We missed it because we tend to go to the late shows (my wife is a night owl), but given the running time I knew I would never stay awake all the way through a screening that started at 10 P.M. So I recently picked it up on Netflix. On Blu-Ray no less. My wife assumed that given the movies I watch I really needed a Blu-Ray, so after consulting with my friends who know about this stuff, we got a Sony Playstation 3. It has not been a joyous experience. Sony is not alone in this, but when did companies stop putting information on how to use their equipment in the little brochures that come with it? I noticed this first several years ago, when I realized the book of instructions for the Time-Warner Cable Box talked about all the wonderful things you can do with it, but at no point did it tell you how to do any of them. I would guess that Sony figured if you are buying a Playstation 3, you probably have had a 1 or a 2. Well, I haven’t. I tried when I first fired it up to use the controller that comes with it, and that caused nothing but confusion. I talked to my techie friends and they all had had the same problem. They advised me that you can get a regular TV remote that will do what I need to do. So I did, and it worked the first couple of times I tried it, but when I went to run Girl, it would not do anything. I finally figured out the batteries were dead. After only two previous uses. I eventually got it up and running, but one major flaw in Blu-Ray is that, unlike DVD, you cannot stop the film, turn off the player, and then come back and pick up where you left off. So it means you can only pause, which is useful if you need to go to the bathroom, but you don’t want to leave it on pause overnight.

So we eventually get going on Girl and it starts out badly with a title sequence that belongs in a James Bond movie: all liquid animation in blues and blacks. Guys, this is just a simple story of a girl, her piercings, her tattoos and her helping a reporter solve a forty-year-old mystery. Except that Zaillian’s script has shifted the focus to Mikael Blomkvist. I did not sit down with a stopwatch on both versions, but it felt to me that we spent more time with him than we did with her. My wife, who read the novels, says that the novel does spend more time with him than it does with her. But the Swedish film changed all that. Rooney Mara gives a good performance rather than the great, feral one Noomi Rapace gives in the Swedish version. Zaillian’s script seems to be going through the motions on Lisbeth rather than being invested in her.

The American version is only six minutes longer than the Swedish version, but it feels longer. After the Vanger case is solved, Lisbeth’s revenge on Wennerström takes way too long, much longer than it does in the Swedish film. At that point we are ready to wrap things up as quickly as possible. I was also disappointed that Zaillian does not do as much with the Vanger relatives as the Swedish film does. It is part of the Swedish texture that I missed here, although I should point out that my wife, whose mother was Swedish, loved the shots of the Swedish countryside.

Compared to the Swedish film, this one is incredibly over-directed by David Fincher. Especially on Blu-Ray, I found his soundtrack extremely annoying, with all kinds of whines drowning out the dialogue. You would have thought that one of the twelve credited producers, and Zaillian was one of them, would have mentioned this to Fincher. That’s part of the producer’s job: to keep the director from making a fool of himself. The guys failed the test here.

Anger Management (2012. Multiple episodes. 30 minutes.)

Anger Management

He’s Ba-a-a-a-ck: As I’ve written before, I was a great fan of Charlie Sheen’s acting on Two and a Half Men. He made doing that kind of comedy a lot easier than it looks. Needless to say, I was disappointed in his off-screen activities, especially since they ended up getting him kicked off the show. But he is determined to come back, so he now has a new show in which he plays a former baseball player who now is a therapist dealing with clients with anger management issues. That is maybe a little obvious, as in the pilot episode “Charlie Goes Back to Therapy,” written by the show’s creator Bruce Helford, which begins with Charlie talking to the camera saying things like, “You can’t fire me” and “You can’t replace me with another guy.” All very meta, but not as imaginative as it could be. He’s talking to a punching bag doll in front of his patients to show them how to deal with situations. Then we meet his patients. And they are pretty much standard issue, and would not have been out of place on The Bob Newhart Show back in the ‘70s. Charlie has an attractive ex-wife and a teenage daughter, again all standard issue. He also has a woman he occasionally sleeps with, Kate. We later find out that she used to be his therapist. Now he wants to go back into therapy, and both are insistent that they can no longer has sex if he is her patient. Guess how long it takes for them to get it on? Not even that long. That relationship has possibilities, but in the three episodes I have seen, the writers have not done much with it.

Sheen left Two and A Half Men because he was constantly fighting with the writers, but the writing quality on that show was much, much higher than it is so far on this one. Sometimes, Charlie, you just have to suck it up for the good of the show.

The Newsroom (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

The Newsroom

Well, it’s Aaron Sorkin, what the hell did you expect?: The reviews on this show, which premiered at the end of May were brutal. There is too much talk, it’s too political, it’s too liberal, it’s too self-satisified. Why didn’t Aaron Sorkin give us a nice, pleasant, non-political show like…uh, wait a minute, wasn’t this the guy that was acclaimed for The West Wing? Yes. And wouldn’t nearly all those complaints listed above apply to The West Wing? Uh, yes, well, they would. So what happened here? The easy answer is that Jeff Daniels is not Martin Sheen, and the less easy answer is that Will McAvoy, Daniels’s character, is not as warm and loveable as Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett. In the pilot episode (“We Just Decided To,” written by Sorkin) McAvoy, a television newsman, goes off on a college student who asks him what makes America the greatest nation in the world. He snaps at her all the reasons why it’s not, and he’s got a lot of reasons. As the series has progressed, he is obviously driven by a lot of demons, which makes him a fascinating character.

In the pilot episode, there is a lot of pontificating, but there has been less as the series continues. The pilot laid out who the major characters are going to be, but they are not as immediately compelling as the gang on The West Wing was after we go to know them. I particularly found the love triangles with the young whippersnappers less than interesting, although the characters are getting developed more in their newsroom scenes than in their romantic scenes. In “5/1,” written by Sorkin, the whippersnappers’ romantic problems drag down the main story of the night we killed bin Laden. The adults are already more interesting, and I am particularly taken with Charlie, Will’s boss. He is played by Sam Waterston, who gets to display his natural twinkle, which you never knew he had if you only saw him on Law & Order. Waterston gives great twinkle.

McAvoy, after the dustup with the college student, is brought back to a cable news network to head a nightly news show. His producer is his ex-girlfriend, Mackenzie MacHale, and they still have issues. We get, over several episodes, how the news show is put together, and what Sorkin and his team do is set it in a real time, with real news stories as the backdrop for each show. That means there is not only video coverage of the actual events, we often get clips of real people talking about the events at the time. (The standard disclaimer in the end credits about all characters being fictional is more of a crock than it usually is.) That sets up a degree of difficulty for the writers that even The West Wing did not have. And then Sorkin and the writers use it in a interesting way, not unlike what Frank Capra did in his World War II documentary series, Why We Fight. Capra figured that the best way to deal with the Nazis was simply to quote what they had said over the previous years. Sorkin does the same thing with the right wingers. In “I’ll Try to Fix You” (written by Sorkin), McAvoy is covering the stories he tells the viewers they should have covered more but did not. One of them is the dustup over how much Obama’s trip to India cost. Sorkin uses clips of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others and we see and hear how ridiculous they sound. More please.

Sorkin may well have been setting the show up to undercut the critiques about the self-satisfaction of the show. In the “Bullies” episode, again written by Sorkin, we see Sloan, the financial reporter, betray a friend by telling the audience what he had said off the record. McAvoy bullies a former campaign worker on Rick Santorum’s staff, and later admits to the bullying.

So all this, and Jane Fonda as well, playing the head of the company, and basing her performance not on her ex-husband, Ted Turner, but on Rupert Murdoch. She shows up in “The 112th Congress,” co-written by Sorkin and Gideon Yago, to remind Charlie that the corporation has its own rules. It’s a nice mano-a-mano between Fonda and Waterston. I look forward to more of them.

Political Animals (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

The Newsroom

Estrogen City: Elaine Barrish Hammond is the former First Lady who is now Secretary of State in the cabinet of the man she ran against in the primary. Hmm, remind you of anybody you know? But she was never a Senator, although she was a governor, and while her husband, Bud Hammond, did screw around on her, he has none of the intelligence and seductive power of Bill Clinton. He is more likely Lyndon Johnson was in private, but except here they have him behaving that way in public. It is a major miscalculation on the part of the show.

On the other hand, Elaine is played by Sigourney Weaver in one of the best parts she’s ever had. And boy is she up to it. She mostly goes head to read with Carla Gugino as Susan Berg, the reporter who broke the stories about Bud’s infidelities. Susan and Elaine almost seem to be forming an alliance, but I am not sure we should trust either one, which makes them fun to watch. Ellen Burstyn plays Elaine’s mom, who is a real pistol. And if that is not enough estrogen for you, Vanessa Redgrave shows up as the first gay Supreme Court judge.

Elaine has two grown sons and we get soap opera stuff about their lives. Like their counterparts on The Newsroom, the whippersnappers are the least interesting element of the show. And I do object to making the gay son the screwup (drugs, stealing money, etc.) What if he was the rock and the straight son was the screwup? Just for a change of pace.

Twenty Twelve (2011-12. Various episodes. 30 minutes.)

Twenty Twelve

How about if we get the Queen to jump out of a helicopter?: This show began last year in England, and it is an Office-like (way too much like) mockumentary about the “Olympic Deliverance Commission,” a fictional version of the London organizers of the Olympics. We got it only in the last couple of weeks before the actual Games. The problem was that real events had taken over, and as often happens, reality is better at satire. There is nothing in the show the equivalent of the company supposed to provide security acknowledging that they are several thousand people short of their goal. Or that the immigration workers at the airports threatened to go on strike just as everybody was arriving.

And then we have the harebrained idea that the Queen should jump out of a helicopter and skydive into the opening ceremonies. I doubt if anybody collected with Twenty Twelve would have dared to come up with anything that outrageous. But Danny Boyle and his team did, and they talked the Queen into it. I don’t know who wrote the film that led up to the jump, but it gets my vote for Best Original Screenplay for this year. It begins with typical British Heritage shots of a car driving up to Buckingham Palace. We don’t see who gets out of the car, and Boyle diverts us by showing kids on a tour more interested in the car than the tour. As the man from the car walks up the stairs inside, we know it’s James Bond, because it’s Daniel Craig in a tux. If he were in Bermuda shorts, we wouldn’t think Bond. And he does not have Judi Dench with him as M, since Boyle does not need her. One of the servants knocks on a door and announces “Mr. Bond.” Bond goes in and waits for the Queen to finish writing. She turns and it is the real Queen, not Helen Mirren. She says, “Good evening, Mr. Bond,” although the line is garbled (she is better at official speeches than dialogue). They leave, followed by her corgis, playing themselves. Everybody keeps a straight face, which is essential. There is not a bit of unneeded action in the scene. When we get outside, we are now with body doubles as they get into the helicopter and leave the palace behind, with a great shot of the corgis looking up at them leaving and Bond smirking down at them, a great detail. We get a flight over London, complete with Churchill’s statue waving at them, and cut to the live action as the stunt doubles of the Queen and Bond jump out of the helicopter to the music of the James Bond theme. And the real Queen shows up in the official seats, looking none the worse for wear. Beijing spent a lot more than Danny Boyle had, but they had nothing that was this inventive.

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

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Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up

The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.




Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.

Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.

In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.

Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.

The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.

Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family

The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.




Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?

At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.

The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.

Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.

One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident

Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.




The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.

It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.

As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.

While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.

Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón

Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.



Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.

Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.

Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.

If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.

Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.

Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.

More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.

And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”

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Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects

Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.




Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.

The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.

Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.

By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.

Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.



Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown

3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac

Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac

The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg

Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti

Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same

By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.




Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.

The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.

It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.

Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

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




Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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