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5 for the Day: Kurt Russell

You want to talk about old school?

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5 for the Day: Kurt Russell

You want to talk about old school? Kurt Russell started his acting career at age 10, as a child actor in the Elvis Presley flick It Happened at the World’s Fair, then was promptly awarded a 10-year contract signed by Walt Disney himself. By the time Russell grew up, he’d been through all the training of a studio contract player in old Hollywood. What makes him unique, though, is he’s also a child of the 1960s and bucked the system a little. He made some maverick career decisions to break away from that squeaky clean Disney image. After playing Elvis in John Carpenter’s ABC movie-of-the-week, Russell played a series of tough guys for Carpenter, plus a sarcastic con man in Robert Zemeckis’s Used Cars.

That kick-started a career that never rose to the peak that some expected. Most of Russell’s 1980s movies were box-office flops, the ludicrous but profitable Tango and Cash notwithstanding. He’s done more than his fair share of lousy and generic movies. But Russell doesn’t seem to care that much. What does he have to worry about? He’s living on a 72-acre ranch outside of Aspen with Goldie Hawn and his son Wyatt, and he gets a phone call every now and then to do an interesting project or role. He gives an electrifying, charismatic, and relaxed performance as the serial killer Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse film, Death Proof. Sitting at the bar running through the list of TV shows he’s done, Stuntman Mike realizes nobody’s heard of him, and that he’s a relic from days gone by. But Tarantino, ever the student of movies, recognizes his iconic status from those cult classics of yesteryear. We recognize it, too, and that’s why it works when Stuntman Mike breaks the fourth wall, looks straight into Tarantino’s camera and offers a boyish smile. He’s playing the devil, for sure, but he’s a charming devil, and we enjoy being alone for the ride.

1. Escape From New York: In this lean and mean 1980s cult classic, Kurt Russell was able to successfully break away from being perceived as a Disney child actor (unlike, say, Rick Schroeder, who, no matter how many police detectives and federal agents he plays, is forever doomed to be “the kid from Silver Spoons”). Sporting a black eye patch, brown leather jacket and long hair, and speaking each line in a Clint Eastwood whisper, his Snake Plissken is the first in what Quentin Tarantino referred to as Russell’s “rogue’s gallery” of badass anti-heroes. This amoral mercenary is ordered to rescue the president, who has been kidnapped by the denizens of a futuristic New York City (the “future” of this film is 1997) that has become a walled-in maximum security prison. His response to this call of duty is nothing if not topical: “I don’t give a fuck about your war—or your president.”

Director John Carpenter specifically chose Russell over other tough guy actors (specifically, Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones) because they had a good experience working together before on a TV-movie, Elvis, and as a young director he was intimidated by working with bigger name actors who might take this low-budget picture away from him. In Russell, Carpenter not only found a strong alter-ego for the Howard Hawks brand of cynical machismo he admires so much, but also a guy that could bring surprising touches of humor to the role. Snake, for all his badass charisma, acts like a petulant kid (“I don’t like needles”) when he has to take his shots before the mission.

There’s the infamous scene where Snake wanders around a burned-out skyscraper and passes right by a woman getting raped, not batting an eyelash. We should hate him for not being a noble figure bringing righteousness to this decaying ghetto. But Russell has a certain quality that must have carried over from his Disney days: a kind of likeability that makes Snake more than just a Rambo-style fighting machine. He’s not made of muscle, but has the average build of a baseball player that never went pro. Underneath the stubble is a boyish face, so even when Snake is behaving at his worst—he’s ready to machine gun his companions Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton at one point if he doesn’t get the information he needs—somehow we stay with him. During a cynical time in American history (post-Watergate), he expressed a kind of amoral disgust; that it’s better to go your own way than the highway. Or, as the Kurt Russell protagonist shouts at the climax of The Thing, “Yeah? Fuck you, too!”

Maybe it’s because as cold blooded as Snake is, the guy still has a code of ethics. When Maggie (Barbeau) makes her last stand against the evil Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), she holds out her hand for Snake to give her his gun. She’ll hold the bastard off…maybe even kill him…while Snake gets the president to safety. It’s a silent exchange between Barbeau and Russell, and as he hands her the gun he has a small glint of admiration in his eyes. The reason Kurt Russell is so good at playing this kind of comic book hero is that he makes you recognize that he’s a real human being, with feelings and thoughts. That rouses one to cheer for him as he dives into the action; that’s what defines a true movie star.

2. The Thing: “I just want to go up to my shack and get drunk,” says Russell (as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady) a few minutes before all hell breaks loose in John Carpenter’s classic monster movie. MacReady is one of twelve men stationed in an Antarctic research station that is infected by a creature that can perfectly imitate any life form. As paranoia sets in, the chain of command breaks down and MacReady takes charge of finding out who’s human.

From the first time we see him sitting in his cabin with a huge bottle of whiskey, Russell’s long-haired, shaggy-bearded hero is the very definition of American individualism and self-reliance. (The only other screen persona he might get along well with is Robert De Niro’s melancholy thief in Michael Mann’s Heat, who consoled himself by saying, “I am alone. I am not lonely.”) As the other men congregate in the recreation room, MacReady sits by himself playing computer chess; when the system beats him, his response to the “cheating bitch” is to pour his whiskey into the computer, short-circuiting it. He’s so doggedly sure of himself that sometimes it’s comical; after the team investigates a decimated Norwegian camp, Mac’s insistence on referring to them as “those crazy Swedes” becomes a running joke. But when the going gets tough, MacReady’s stubbornness proves his saving grace. By the end of the movie, when the Thing has driven MacReady and his remaining crew to a suicide mission in the lethal snow, he’ll be damned if he doesn’t take the monster down with him. If Snake Plissken is an amoral bastard who’ll only do the job if his back is against the wall, MacReady is the reluctant hero.

Surrounded by first rate character actors (among them Richard Masur as reclusive dog handler Clark, Wilford Brimley as the increasingly paranoid scientist Blair, and Keith David as the volatile mechanic Childs), Russell is able to not only hold his own but become the center of every scene, many of them involving a half-dozen actors following his lead. Russell’s entire persona is blue-collar: a reliably dependable craftsman. MacReady’s like your grouchy old uncle. You need him to fix the car, and even though he knows he’s the only man that can do the job, he’d rather get drunk.

3. Big Trouble in Little China: The third in the triptych of great B-movie Kurt Russell characters is blowhard truck driver Jack Burton, who muddles his way into an epic kung fu battle between the powers of good and evil. The sly joke is that his “sidekick” Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is the one who has all the fighting skills, gets the girl in the end, and in general is always right, while Burton never shuts up, seizing all the credit and generally making an idiot out of himself when big trouble strikes. In a scene representative of the picture’s visual wit and wall-to-wall action, Jack shouts a war cry (“Yaaaaaaah!”), fires a warning shot in the air, gets hit in the head by falling piece of ceiling, and remains unconscious for the next reel.

Doing a full-on John Wayne impersonation throughout (director John Carpenter was especially inspired by the Duke single-handedly winning the war in Vietnam in The Green Berets) Russell doesn’t take himself or the movie too seriously. It’s one giant funhouse ride painted in broad neon colors, as subtle as Russell’s gelled-up hairdo. The low-rent analog special effects and enjoyably hokey synthesizer score only add to the pleasure of seeing a movie relic from 1986, but what makes the movie is Jack Burton’s self-aware macho goofball dialogue. “Okay, I get the picture: White Tigers, Lords of Death, guys in funny suits throwing plastic explosives while poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of heaven shake, huh? …And that’s just for starters, right? Fine!” Russell is completely game for being the butt of jokes and continually undermining his character’s so-called heroism. During the climactic battle scene where Jack thinks he’s invincible, he’s still got a giant lipstick smudge from kissing the damsel in distress. For payback, he promptly and unceremoniously dumps her before riding off into the night yammering on about his brave exploits into his CB radio. God bless Jack Burton, and God bless Russell for being man enough to play him.

4. Breakdown: When asked why he hadn’t become a major movie star in the same league as Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson, Russell responded that maybe it was because he was more interested in story than character. While his work for John Carpenter certainly had character to spare, Russell has a more substantial career in roles where he provides a backbone for the action. Like Jeff Bridges, he’s able to give substantial performances that blend into the material. He’s so good at it that he’s damned with praise for being so “dependable”—which is another way for saying that his work as the even-tempered boyfriend in Silkwood and the stoic, slow burning Wyatt Earp in Tombstone is so naturalistic that you forget he’s acting.

This talent served him well in small, efficient studio pictures such as Breakdown, which finds Russell playing the Dennis Weaver role in Duel with a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s “nobody believes me” pressure brought to bear on the hero when his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) goes missing. Dressed throughout in bland khakis and blue collared T-shirt, Russell plays a middle-class Everyman: Joe Q. Yuppie. When sadistic villain Red (J.T. Walsh, another “Mr. Reliable” character actor in top form) starts trying to crush our hero under his 18-wheeler, Russell kicks into gear. I suspect most suburban thirtysomething guys, when they’re putting up their storm windows or playing an intense game of stickball with the kids, would like to imagine their heroism coming out under pressure, and it’s easier to imagine being Kurt Russell in Breakdown than being Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner in anything. Russell is just average enough to be human, but inside he’s still got something of the former kid who could have gone pro baseball. It’s that residual toughness and protectiveness inside of Russell’s performance that we know is simply waiting for the chance to express itself—and boy, does it ever.

5. Miracle: His face creased with middle age, former Disney child star Kurt Russell returns to the studio that started his career, this time playing hockey coach Herb Brooks, who led the underdog U.S.A. to victory in the 1980 Olympics against the seemingly unstoppable U.S.S.R. What prevents the movie from being a run-of-the-mill assembly of sports clichés is Russell’s committed performance, pushing the team of young upstarts to glory by shouting, bullying, and inspiring them with tough talk and slogans. It’s basically leadership camp on ice, with Russell as the head motivational speaker, and boy, if he doesn’t look like the King of the Squares; with a pasted-down curvy hairdo and some really obnoxious looking checkered sports coats and creased trousers, Russell’s grumpy coach is certainly lacking in the style department. Luckily, we spend most of our time looking at his intensely focused eyes. There’s a note of no-bullshit sincerity in the tone of his voice when he starts speechifying about how the boys have to earn their victory. Brooks has no time for quitters.

Miracle isn’t an especially good sports movie. It’s painfully average and predictable, going through the training rituals and the games that don’t work out so well and the inevitable ascension to victory after the coach tells his boys to go for it. But in this film, more than perhaps any other (besides his Disney work as a kid), Russell bears comparison to the jobbing, rugged actors of old Hollywood. They didn’t have much say in the movies they appeared in, but they showed up, learned their lines and did the job; maybe the result seemed effortless because the actors knew were going to move on to the next film once they’d finished this one. Russell has had a similar career, moving from cult movies to broad comedies (Overboard, Captain Ron), respectable projects (Tequila Sunrise) and plain old stinkers (Soldier). With Miracle, it’s not just about a craftsman delivering a performance in a movie; it’s a movie about the craftsman himself. You can’t discuss this movie without considering Russell’s central performance. His strong work ethic merges with the character’s work ethic—the engine that drives the Miracle.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Film

Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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