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Understanding Screenwriting #99: The Bourne Legacy, Farewell, My Queen, Hope Springs, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #99: The Bourne Legacy, Farewell, My Queen, Hope Springs, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Bourne Legacy; Farewell, My Queen; Hope Springs; 2 Days in New York; Seven Men From Now, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein and I agreed yet again, this time on Political Animals. Who’d a thunk it?

“Snarpo” thinks Fincher “directed the shit” out of Dragon Tatoo. He sees that as a good thing. I see that as a bad thing. He and I agree on The Newsroom, although he joins several critics who don’t like Olivia Munn’s acting. I think she’s got great deadpan comic chops, which people think means she unexpressive. She’s not, and she has crack comic timing.

“Areasonableperson” accuses me of setting up straw men in my comments on critics of The Newsroom, and he’s not entirely wrong. I was talking about the general reaction to the show. I am also surprised that, as he mentions, the critics have whacked the female characters. I think they are very well drawn, especially Mackenzie. She’s not perfect, but interesting. And Fonda’s Leona is terrific. In the season ender she had what I has asked for in the review, another great scene with Sam Waterston.

“eyesprocket” brought up an issue that others have before. He feels that this column is not helping him understand screenwriting. Part of the problem may be that he is used to the standard self-help approaches of the screenwriting gurus. I am coming more and more to the opinion that those gurus have helped trivialize our ideas of what screenwriting can be. I tend to go for much more complex and nuanced views of what screenwriting is all about. Here, for eyesprocket and others having problems getting what the column delivers, are some suggestions of stuff about screenwriting you can learn from this particular column. The item on The Bourne Legacy deals with Gilroy’s writing problem in creating a character to replace Bourne. The item on Farewell, My Queen discusses the characterization the writers use, plus the writing problem in the ending of the film. Hope Springs shows the difficulties of writing about therapy and focusing only on two characters. 2 Days in New York compares Delpy’s screenplay to her earlier one for 2 Days in Paris. And Seven Men From Now connects, sometimes in strange ways, with the other scripts Burt Kennedy wrote for Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher. Read and understand.

The Bourne Legacy (2012. Screenplay by Tony Gilroy & Dan Gilroy, story by Tony Gilroy, inspired by the Bourne novels by Robert Ludlum. 135 minutes.)

No, Jeremy Renner is not Matt Damon. Get over it.: I was a big fan of The Bourne Identity (2002), the first film in the first Bourne trilogy, mainly because Robert Ludlum came up with a great idea: A guy is pulled out of the ocean with no idea who he is. But he comes to realize a) he is great at beating up and killing people and has many other skills as well, and b) those skills are going to be very helpful because people are trying to kill him. It is about as sure-fire a premise as you can get, and Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron adapted it into a terrific script. I never saw the 1988 TV miniseries, adapted by Carol Sobieski, but it ran 185 minutes and I doubt if longer was better.

Jason Bourne gets a “civilian” named Marie to help him out and at the end of Identity Bourne and Marie go off to the far ends of the earth to live happily ever after. Unfortunately, in the 2004 sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, adapted by Tony Gilroy alone, Marie is killed off early on and for me the film never entirely recovered. Bourne is framed for a C.I.A. op gone wrong and has to get up to his old tricks. For The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), Gilroy did the screen story from the Ludlum novel, but was only one of three credited screenwriters, the other two being Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi. In the articles about Legacy, the disagreements between Gilroy and Supremacy and Ultimatum’s director and star, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, respectively, became public. Gilroy hated the way Greengrass kept ignoring the dialogue, and Damon felt Gilroy’s writing was too confusing. Neither Greengrass nor Damon wanted to come back to the series, but it made so much money that Universal was determined to continue it. Gilroy was willing, and since he is also a director (Michael Clayton in 2007, Duplicity in 2009), he signed on to direct as well. As with most movies directed by their screenwriters, the sound is recorded and mixed so the audience can hear what is being said. (I am not the only one who complains about this: Anthony Lane in his review of The Dark Knight Rises in the July 30th New Yorker spends half a paragraph talking about the bad sound mix. He calls it the “sound balance”; you’d think a critic would know the terminology, and no, I am not going to bother with a New York joke here.)

So Gilroy’s job, on the screenwriting level, was to figure out how to extend the Bourne series without Bourne. I have no idea how long it took him to develop the elegantly simple solution he did, but he came up with not only a good idea for the script, but the basis for the great ad line for the film: “There was never just one.” Of course the government would have redundant programs.

Treadstone, which Bourne took down in the first three films, was C.I.A.. Outcome, the program here, is Department of Defense. We see a few of the leftover bureaucrats from the first three films, although Joan Allen who plays Pam Landy in the first three, is collecting unemployment insurance for all she has to do in this one. Mostly we have a new set of bureaucrats, headed by Retired Air Force Colonel Byers, played in a wonderfully cold way by Edward Norton. Maybe villains should be Norton’s forte. The heads of Outcome are determined to close it down, and being ruthless, they decide to kill off all their agents.

So when we first meet the new guy, Aaron Cross, he knows who he is. He is off in Alaska doing some kind of individual training exercise. He is very efficient, and tough, and Jeremy Renner is perfect for this character in the way Matt Damon was perfect for Jason Bourne. When Damon started beating people up, we were as surprised as his character was. Here neither we nor Cross are surprised. Well, this is the fourth film in the series so we would have to be pretty stupid to be surprised. We get some nice intercutting with Cross in the wilderness and bits of the end of Ultimatum, including a shot or two from easily the best action scene is all four films, the cat-and-mouse in Waterloo Station. And intercut with those are new scenes with Byers and his people figuring out how Outcome can be protected from the fallout of the collapse of Treadmill. So by the time Cross comes to a cabin and to his surprise finds Outcome #3, we don’t know if #3 is there to help him and just hasn’t got the word, or has got the word and is going to kill him. It is a tense scene, which Gilroy is better at directing than Greengrass was. Greengrass was all action, all the time, and I found his jittery camera increasingly annoying. The cinematographer here is the great Robert Elswit and his work will not give you motion sickness. Except when he and Gilroy want to, as in the final motorcycle chase.

The cabin is blown up by a drone, the choice murder weapon of our government these days, but Cross escapes. He cuts out the tracking device embedded in his own leg, captures a live wolf, stuffs the tracker in the wolf’s mouth, and then hangs the still-wriggling wolf on a tree so the drone will home in on it instead of him. Did I mention Cross is tough? Then the Gilroys go to a new character, Dr. Marta Shearing, who works in a lab on the meds Outcome gives to its agents. We get another scene that is as much suspense as action as Shearing manages to survive a researcher in the lab going a little wacko and shooting people. Later she is at home and F.B.I. agents come to talk to her about the shootout. We don’t know if they are really there to help her or kill her, and here is where smart casting helps the script. None of the agents are actors we recognize, which means they are going to get killed fairly quickly, which they are. But are they good guys taken out by bad guys, or are they bad guys taken out by good guys? The casting gives you no help at all. Another of Gilroy’s terrific suspense scenes.

Cross and Shearing get together and she gives us a lot of technobabble about the pills Cross has been taking. The green pills increase his physical performance, the blue ones his mental performance. And he’s running out of pills. The technobabble makes it clear that Cross does not need one of the pills and probably not the other one, since Shearing has been working on a “viral” solution. One injection gives the subject those traits without having to take the pills. So where does Cross get the injection? Manila, of course. Well, we haven’t been there before in this series, nor I think in the Bond films, so why not? And here is where Shearing becomes an equal to Cross, not in physical or mental skills, but in her knowledge and ability to get into the secure lab to get the serum and to inject it into Cross. Marie in Identity was just along for the ride, which was part of the fun, but Shearing is an equal part of the story. Especially when the serum makes Cross ill. Oops; you don’t want to get sick when baddies are after you, especially now that Byers and his friends have activated the one superkiller they haven’t killed off. So we get the extended motorcycle chase and Gilroy the director shows he can do what Doug Liman and Greengrass did on the first and the other two films, respectively. Even though Bourne and the Bond films have not been in Manila, I was in the ‘60s, and while it is nice to see the city again, we don’t get to see a lot of it as we all whiz by on motorcycles.

Since obviously Universal is hoping for more films, the ending of the bureaucrats vs. Cross story seems less like an ending than a mere pause in the action, but this film is hardly alone in doing that. I am not sure I buy the final twist in the Cross-Shearing relationship, since I am not convinced it has been prepared for as well as it might. On the other hand the final shot of the film is so gorgeous that when the credits began toward the end of it, only one person in the audience I saw it with got up to leave. The rest stayed until the fade-to-black for the long credit roll.

Farewell, My Queen (2012. Screenplay by Benoît Jacquot and Gilles Taurand, based on the novel by Chantal Thomas. 100 minutes.)

Farewell, My Queen

Not your typical love triangle: Sidonie, a young woman, works for an older rich woman, Marie, in Marie’s very large house. She is Marie’s reader, since Marie generally can’t be bothered to read stuff for herself. Sidonie has a crush on Marie. But Marie, who is married, has a crush on her good friend, Gabrielle, who is also married. Being oblivious to Sidonie’s feelings, Marie does some of her canoodling with Gabrielle in the presence of Sidonie. Well, that could be interesting. And it is. But it’s not the nice, small-scale drama you might expect from that description.

I guess I didn’t mention that the big house they all hang out in is Versailles. And Marie is Marie Antoinette, the Queen. And the film starts on July 14. 1789.

By the way, this film should not be confused with the great new documentary Queen of Versailles, about a nouveau riche American family trying to build their own version of Versailles. I haven’t written about that one in this column because all I can say is that it is yet another example of there being more interesting characters in documentaries than in many fiction films. But the character writing in Farewell, My Queen is on a par with that documentary.

We meet Sidonie first as she prepares to go read to the Queen. When she gets to the Queen’s chambers, the writers give us a great, longish scene to introduce us to Marie. She is beautiful, willful, warm, dense, spoiled, and completely narcissistic. Diane Kruger, who played Helen of Troy in Troy (2004), is much better here since the writers give her a character to play; see my discussion of the 1955 Helen of Troy in US#75 on the difficulty of writing Helen. The writing and the acting make Marie a much more interesting character than she was in both the 1938 and 2006 Marie Antoinette films. So we are going to want to watch her and see what happens. And we are going to want to watch Sidonie as she watches Marie and Gabrielle. And Gabrielle is such a self-satisfied twit that we want to watch her to see her get her comeuppance. Both Virginie Ledoyen as Gabrielle and especially Léa Seydoux as Sidonie are as good as Kruger.

And meanwhile, on July 14th the Bastille has been stormed. The news arrives at Versailles, and nobody quite knows what it means. Over the next couple of days we watch as the Court begins to fall apart. Some get out quick, including one of the servant girls who is a friend of Sidonie’s; it’s not only the upper class that are the cowards. Those loyal to the King and Queen stay. The observation and the detail in these scenes are terrific, and I suspect a lot of it comes from the novel. Unfortunately there is so much of it the last ten minutes or so that the picture gets shortchanged. In the novel we can luxuriate in the detail even more than we do in the film, but in the film we are more heavily invested in the characters, so when Marie makes Sidonie an offer she can’t refuse, we want to know how it plays out. The final ten minutes are the most compelling in the picture, but so much so we wish that sequence were much longer. I am really tempted to discuss that sequence in detail, but you really ought to see it for yourself. It may be enough for you.

Hope Springs (2012. Written by Vanessa Taylor. 100 minutes.)

Hope Springs

Rub a little therapy on it: Since this is so clearly aimed at my geezer demographic (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones starring in age-appropriate roles) and has received several very good reviews, you may be surprised to learn I didn’t like it very much. My wife, in the same demographic, liked it a little more than I did.

The story could not be simpler. Kay and Arnold have been married for 31 years and have fallen into a rut. Kay reads a book on marriage by Dr. Feld and impulsively signs up for a one-week marriage counseling session with the doctor for her and Arnold. Arnold reluctantly goes, grumbling all the while (well, he is Tommy Lee Jones, who gives great grump), and they talk to the doctor. Who gives them “exercises” to do, some of which they do, some of which end up badly, and some of which end up well. Kay and Arnold go home, briefly resume their old ways, then fuck like bunnies and are happy again. I’m a great believer in the therapeutic powers of a good schtup, but there is more to marriage than that.

This is Taylor’s first produced script for a theatrical film, but she had done a lot producing and writing for television on such series as Alias, Everwood, and Game of Thrones. The key series that may have led her to this was the 2007 HBO series Tell Me You Love Me, about three couples and the therapist they share. One of the couples was a middle-aged couple, who may have been the forerunners of Kay and Arnold. I never saw the show, but it only lasted ten episodes, and I suspect it ran into some of the problems Hope Springs does. The main problem is that therapy is awfully dull to watch. One character spills his or her guts, the therapist nods and, in this case, suggests exercises. Taylor does have an advantage here that she has a couple in counseling, so we can watch one person reacting to what the other person says. But the scenes are still long and very, very talky. And repetitive. David Frankel, the director, cannot do much to make those scenes visually interesting, although he and his cinematographer make each session take place at a different time of day so they can vary the lighting. Streep and Jones are wonderful, but it all becomes an acting exercise more than a film. And poor Steve Carell doesn’t even get to exercise his acting skills. The doctor is, like a lot of shrinks and therapists, a block of wood in their sessions. Carell’s best bit is in the scenes alongside the closing credits, although we have had no reason before to believe that character was that inventive.

We get a lot of detail about Kay and Arnold’s intimacy problems, but very little suggestion of anything else in their lives. Kay has a friend she works with, as does Arnold, but we get nothing about them. They have children, but we learn little about them. There are people in the town where the therapy takes place that they meet, but none of them get more than a scene or two. It’s all focused on Kay and Arnold.

Needless to say, the counseling works, as it nearly always does on film. In talking about the series Necessary Roughness, I mentioned that one thing I liked about it was that T.K. was not completely cured by Dr. Dani the first time out, and he continues to have a lot of problems. As I mentioned elsewhere, the general attitude in American films and television is that with any sort of problem, you can, as Rita Mae Brown put it, rub a little therapy on it and make it go away. Necessary Roughness shows us that is not true, but this film buys into it. Yes, Kay and Arnold do fall into the old patterns when they get home, but they quickly get over that. I think Taylor would have been better off if they had gotten through the therapy by half way through the movie, and then in the second half, instead of watching them talk some more, we could watch them struggle to apply the stuff to their own lives. Then they would have been doing something, rather than just talking about it.

2 Days in New York (2012. Screenplay by Julie Delpy and Alexia Landeau, additional dialogue by Alexandre Nahon, story by Alexia Landeau and Alexandre Nahon, based on characters created by Julie Delpy. 96 minutes.)

2 Days in New York

She’s ba-a-a-ck: In 1995 Julie Delpy starred as Celine in a small, charming film Before Sunrise. Celine has a brief one-night affair with Jesse, a young American, in Vienna. They agree to meet in six months. In 2004, Delpy played Celine again in Before Sunset, in which she and Jesse meet up nine years later. On that film she worked on the script with her co-star Ethan Hawke, as well as her director, Richard Linklater, and co-writer of Before Sunrise, Kim Krizan. To me it was an even better film than the first one, since the characters were older and wiser in the ways of the world. I wrote about Sunset in the book Understanding Screenwriting and ended with “And let’s all get together and force Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy to do another one in ten years.” Well, nine years seems to be their average, and they are at work on a new now. Yeah.

In the meantime, Delpy wrote and directed 2 Days in Paris in 2007. She plays Marion, a French woman who brings Jack, her American boyfriend, to Paris to try to rekindle their relationship. They run into her family and some of her old boy friends. OK, a lot of her old boyfriends. I was not as taken with this one as I was with the Before films. First of all, Jack is a rather obnoxious character, not helped in Adam Goldberg’s performance. The second problem was that Delpy laid on the jerky-cam a lot, which made it annoying on the big screen. 2 Days in New York is the sequel to Paris, and it scores points right away by a) not having Jack in the picture, and b) not using a jerky-cam style. And it is altogether a better picture in other ways as well. Marion is a photographer now living in New York. She and Jack had a child, Lulu, a boy who is now three. And she is in a steady relationship with Mingus, who does three radio shows. He is twice divorced and has a daughter Willow, who loves serial killers. OK, that’s the situation. What makes it a movie? Marion is about to have a big gallery opening, and her father Jeannot and her sister Rose are coming over. And staying in Marion and Mingus’s very small apartment. And Rose brings her current boyfriend uninvited. Boy, is he uninvited. Manu was one of those ex-boyfriends of Marion’s, and goes around proclaiming he gave Marion her first orgasm. Talk about out-of-town visitors from Hell. Delpy and the other writers (Landeau also plays Rose and Nahon plays Manu) get a lot out of the culture clash between the French and Mingus, who is not only a New Yorker, but black, which leads to a whole pile of cringe-worthy comments by the French. Which in turn leads a great payoff when we finally meet Mingus’s parents, who have a surprising amount in common with Jeannot.

Mingus, both as a character and in Chris Rock’s wonderful performance, is a great counterbalance to the relatives. If you have only seen Rock either as a standup or in his comedies, he will pleasantly surprise you, as does the script. We get a scene early in which we learn that Mingus has a standup, life-sized photo of Obama. At first it just seems like a one-off joke, but then Mingus has a whole monologue to Obama that goes into some very interesting territories. The writing in this film seems a lot sharper than in Paris (I did not remember Rose and Manu from the first film, but they really pop off the screen here), and Delpy’s direction is much better. She is good at both writing the character of Marion (she is not as adorkable as somebody else might make her; sometimes you just want to slap her upside the head) and her direction of herself in the part. So we should get Delpy and the others together for a third film in…I guess five years is hiatus time on this series.

Seven Men From Now (1956. Screenplay and original story by Burt Kennedy. 78 minutes.)

Seven Men From Now

Haunted landscapes: This is sort of one of the Ranown cycle of westerns (see US#17 and 18), but it’s not. Burt Kennedy was working for John Wayne’s company Batjac, and was trying to come up with a script for Wayne. He had this title and developed into a story and script. Jack Warner liked the script and wanted Wayne to do it, but Wayne was busy with The Searchers (1956). So they tried Joel McCrea, who turned it down, as did Robert Preston. Eventually it got down to Randolph Scott, who loved it, and brought on Budd Boetticher to direct it. It was produced by Andrew V. McLaglen (later a director) and Robert E. Morrison for Wayne’s company. It is was not until the next Scott-Boetticher western that Harry Joe Brown came on as producer, but Seven Men From Now is a Ranown film in all but name.

Ben Stride comes across two guys taking shelter in a cave from the rain. He has a cup of coffee with them. They talk laconically about a robbery in Silver Springs, which both men insist they have never been to. One gets antsy and draws, but Stride, off-screen, kills them both. His horse having been taken by the Indians, he takes their two (one of which, a dark brown horse with a yellow main and tail, is the horse Scott rode in nearly all his westerns in the ‘50s) and rides off. He befriends a couple in a covered wagon, the Greers, who are headed to Flora Vista. They pick up along the way Masters and Clete, two unsavory characters Stride knows.

Masters and Clete assure him they did not do the robbery, but figure Stride is going to track down the robbers, and if they follow along, they can kill Stride and get the lot. Kennedy is at his usual laconic storytelling pace here, and it is 26 minutes before we learn that Stride is a former sheriff whose wife was killed in the robbery. She was working for Wells Fargo because he lost his job as sheriff. Stride tracks down the robbers (the two he killed in the opening scene were two of them, and there was another that attacked him along the way). Lots of shooting, and Stride faces off Masters. And draws first to kill him! Boy, we are not in the traditional western at this point.

The one plot element that makes this less one of the Ranown series is the attention paid to Mrs. Greer, both by the characters (Lee Marvin’s Masters almost drools over her; his partner, using a line Kennedy later used in Ride Lonesome (1959), says, “She ain’t ugly”) and by Kennedy. At the end she is going off on the stage to California, then after Stride rides off saying he is going back to Silver Springs, she tells the stage driver to take her baggage off. In The Tall T, as I mentioned in US#18, there is also the suggestion of a romance, but not as much as here, and pretty soon Kennedy and Boetticher dropped it altogether.

One other element that makes this seem like a Ranown film is the use of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, for most of the exteriors. All four of the Kennedy-written films are filmed there. In previous columns I referred to the locations generally as the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, but locations are specifically the Alabama Hills, just west of Lone Pine. Filmmakers have been coming to Lone Pine, which is 200 miles north of Los Angeles, since the 1910’s. Mostly they were making B-westerns there, and you can see why. The rocky scenery is different from the San Fernando Valley, and you have the majestic Sierras, including Mount Whitney, in the background. The Hills block the view of Lone Pine itself, so you can shoot in any direction. The locations give you a much more a spectacular look than you get with most B-westerns. B-pictures were not the only ones shot here. A-pictures include Gunga Din (1939), not the first nor the last time the Sierras stood in for the Himalayas in India. In the Scott films Budd Boetticher uses the harshness of the rocky landscape as an expression of his and Kennedy’s harsh, almost existential view of the old west. (It is not surprising that the French picked up on the Boetticher westerns; André Bazin reviewed this film in 1957 and thought it better than the bigger westerns of the times, like 1953’s Shane.)

I have always wanted to visit the Alabama Hills, and so for my summer vacation this year I did. When Elaine Lennon, my Irish friend, heard I was going there, she asked me to look for anyplace that was used in Seven Men From Now. I had never seen the film, but got it from Netflix. The DVD includes a featurette about Lone Pine and it gets mentioned that the final shootout occurs in a location called the Cattle Pocket. When B-movie producers were going to shoot in Lone Pine, they called up Russ Spainhower, their go-to guy in Lone Pine, and he arranged for cattle to be herded into Cattle Pocket, a canyon with a narrow entrance. The cattle stayed there until they were needed in the film. So when I got to the Visitor’s Center I picked up a guided tour brochure, which had other locations but not the Pocket. At the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History, I got a book by Dave Holland called On Location in Lone Pine. One of its maps shows the Pocket, but the map is so imprecise I was not sure I could find it. So I just went out to see what I could see. I happened to be at a couple of locations where there was a man discussing in detail some of the locations with his colleague, and I asked the man if he were a tour guide or just knowledgeable about the area. He turned out to be Chris Langley, a former teacher who now is involved with the museum, and he and his partner were working out details for a Gunga Din tour. I mentioned the Cattle Pocket, and it turned out Chris was the guy interviewed in the featurette. He was nice enough to guide me over to the Pocket and explain who did what where in the final scenes of Seven Men From Now. The photograph that accompanies this item is not a still from the film, but a picture I took of the canyon, from the south end looking north to where the final shootouts took place.

Filmmakers continue to use the Hills. They showed up in the first Iron Man (2008), and Quentin Tarantino shot some of his upcoming Django Unchained there. The Museum now has the dentist’s wagon Christopher Waltz’s character drives in that film, complete with a large gold tooth on top of it that seems to have come out of Greed (1924). The Alabama Hills are very much a haunted landscape, part of film history in general, as well as part of my own personal film history. They are where the movies I grew up watching were made, and the movies I continue to watch, both old and new.

The Alabama Hills are not the only haunted landscapes I got to in my travels. One hundred fifty mills north of Lone Pine, up in the Inyo Mountains, is Bodie, one of the best-known ghost towns from the gold mining days. From the late 1870s to the 1930s, the Standard Mining Company took over $100,000,000 out of the hills. The town is now in what is called “arrested decay.” That means the surviving buildings are not being restored, but treated so they will not decay further. Most of the buildings are closed, but you can look in the windows at the dusty remains: books, toys, bottles, clothes among other things. Bodie is not haunted by movie ghosts, but real ones.

Closer to Lone Pine is Manzanar, the site of the one of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. When I first drove past there in 1978, there was very little left, but it has now become a National Historic Site, with reconstructions of the barracks people lived in. The old high school auditorium is now the interpretive center, and against one wall, they have a list of all those who were interned here. I looked up the name and family of the late mother-in-law of a colleague of mine. She passed away earlier this year.

In my History of Documentary Film class, I often showed the 1970 NBC documentary Guilty by Reason of Race, the first major documentary about the camps. I mentioned to my students at the end of the discussion that if they were looking for a great subject to write a script about, Manzanar was it. While Manzanar has been mentioned in a few fiction films, the only theatrical film to deal with it was the execrable 1990 Come See the Paradise, written and directed by Alan Parker. It is the usual dopey love story between a white guy and a Japanese woman whose family gets sent to the camp. What the subject needs is a writer who understands the moral and political ironies of Manzanar. Our country, with its belief in both the rule of law and the Constitution, violated both out of racism and fear. And the story needs a director who understands the visual ironies of Manzanar. The camp is located in the Owens Valley, with the purple-mountained majesties of the Easter Sierras mocking the internees’ lack of freedom. It needs a director who understands the emotional power of landscape. Like Ford, Lean, or Henry King. Or Budd Boetticher.

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.

1.5

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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.

2.5

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Maiden
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.

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Transit
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.

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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.

2.5

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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