Superhero movies are no longer events. They’re routine, as expected as the sun rising and setting, and considerably less beguiling because their narrative and box-office formulas, unlike a literal force of nature, hold little room for surprise. There’s too much money at stake. There are too many on-screen personalities and off-screen demographics to placate. Prepare for sabotage by alt-right dudebros or death by woke think piece, and sink into the social media cacophony of shouts and murmurs, sound and fury—all of it, yes, signifying nothing. Leeched of much of anything challenging, and bled dry by a vampiric commentariat (though still breaking bank on opening weekend), the film itself is ultimately beside the point. Bury the exsanguinated corpse in the virtual Netflix graveyard. Then, move on to the next victim.
A conundrum though: What to do when there’s obvious artistry in one of these vacuous behemoths? Say, Loki getting Hulk-smashed in The Avengers, or Wonder Woman rising toward the camera in all her Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL-scored glory during the climactic battle of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Up to now, such moments have been diamonds in the rough, few and very far between. Let’s acknowledge, too, that they’re a low bar by which to judge real genius, cinematic or otherwise. Now we can take some small pleasure in what director Ryan Coogler achieves with Black Panther.
This is a Marvel Studios production first and foremost, and you’re never going to forget it in light of the pro forma plotting, CG sturm und drang, and gratuitous Stan Lee cameo. Yet the external pressures surrounding the film—chiefly its status as the superhero flick involving and revolving around people of color—have kept the bean counters somewhat at bay. That, plus the fact that Coogler, who penned the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, is able to give many things here that impassioned, obsessional tinge required of memorable, if not always masterful, art. This is apparent from scene one, a lovingly crafted animated prologue in which N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) narrates the history of the fictional, scientifically advanced African nation of Wakanda, in addition to explaining the origins of vibranium, the metal that has allowed his people to stay hidden in plain sight for generations. (It’s also, as comics fans know, the base element of Captain America’s whip-it-good! shield.)
Wakanda is an effective utopia, while the rest of the world is beset by war, famine, poverty, and other ills; the great sin of slavery is glancingly referenced by N’Jobu, yet its damning, deleterious effects linger and resonate in how the story plays out. It’s clear that Coogler is more in charge than most Marvel hirelings when he smash-cuts from this fantastical opening to a basketball court in Oakland, California circa 1992. The sudden verisimilitude doesn’t feel faux, but lived-in. (Coogler is himself Oakland born and raised.)
While a group of boys shoots some hoops, an otherworldly drama plays out in a nearby apartment complex. It turns out that N’Jobu is in self-exile because of his disgust at Wakanda’s non-interventionist policies. Why should they harbor state-of-the-art technology while others (those with dark skin, especially) suffer at the hands of myriad oppressors? T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), N’Jobu’s brother and Wakanda’s king, finds his alienated sibling, brands him a traitor, and, in a heated moment, kills him. In the present day, this sin of the father comes back to haunt both men’s children: T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the eponymous hero, who’s next in line to rule Wakanda, and N’Jobu’s offspring, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who’s out for vengeance and his own chance at sovereignty.
The first section of Black Panther traces T’Challa’s ascent to the throne after the death of his father (who was murdered in Captain America: Civil War), as well as Killmonger’s exploits in the company of the demented, mechanical-armed mercenary Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “Claw” and played by a non-motion-captured Andy Serkis). Coogler immerses us in the arcadian sights and sounds of Wakanda, which counts characters portrayed by a dream cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Isaach de Bankolé among its many residents. And he has just as much fun with the James Bond-ian derring-do of the Klaue plotline, which culminates in a South Korea-set casino standoff/car chase. It’s an imaginatively visualized sequence, featuring a splendid sight gag involving the remnants of a wrecked vehicle screeching to a halt. And it’s a terrific showcase for two scene-stealers: the spear-wielding female bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and T’Challa’s smart-ass, tech-savvy sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright).
“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” says Shuri to white C.I.A. operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), whose hilariously befuddled reaction just about encapsulates the centuries-long absurdities (and accompanying horrors) of subjugating others based on their skin color. It’s evident that Coogler is attempting to use Marvel’s galaxy-guarding template against itself, and not just to address the immoral disparities of race, but also the ruinous civil wars that can erupt within an exploited and persecuted community. The Wakandans’ decision to hide from the world rather than work to better it is ultimately an act of cowardice. Killmonger is the flesh-and-blood result, a take-no-prisoners antagonist with a more-than-justifiable grievance against the society that quietly disavowed him. And Jordan—Coogler’s muse between this, Creed, and Fruitvale Station—plays the character with such moving, occasionally gut-wrenching commitment, as in a scene in which he visits his deceased father on the ancestral plane, that it nearly mitigates the goofiness of his moniker and the superficiality of the film in toto.
Could any film that features lumbering CGI rhinos and two guys duking it out in skin-tight wildcat costumes really bear the thematic weight for which Coogler strains? Never say never, but in this case—almost not quite. For all its delights of performance, production and costume design, and cinematography, there’s a narrative lopsidedness to Black Panther, one that sharply undercuts Killmonger’s emotional journey. His villainy crests slowly and crashes much too quickly; this is a case where an entire TV season might have leant some poignant and provocative layers to his character, though given Marvel’s dismal small-screen output, it’s more likely it would be a botch of a different sort. And for all of Boseman’s quick-witted charisma as T’Challa, he’s ultimately more of an in-motion action figure than a shades-of-gray superhuman, which puts him in lackluster line with the rest of the Marvel stable—soon to team up in Avengers: Infinity War.
The tension between commerce and craftsmanship is a key facet of American pop cinema. But as the budgets for blockbuster tentpoles have gotten larger and the projects more risk-averse (with Marvel Studios and its parent company, Walt Disney Pictures, as Exhibit A overlords of the trend) it’s become much too easy to acclaim fleeting inspiration and shallow gesturing toward diversity and goodwill as some kind of apogee. There is no doubt that Coogler makes the most that he can out of this property. And it’s more than certain that Black Panther will give audiences, especially underrepresented ones, a vision of themselves that Hollywood historically denies. And still the film seems, even at its best, like an apex of lowered expectations.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Sydelle Noel, Isaach De Bankolé Director: Ryan Coogler Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 134 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2018 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole
Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.
The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.
Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.
When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.
In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?
Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.
Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?
I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.
You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?
They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.
Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?
I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.
Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?
I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.
It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?
The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.
Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?
That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.
It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.
Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.
Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?
No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.
The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?
Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.
The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?
Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.
It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.
Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.
What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.
I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.
People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.
You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?
As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.
In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?
It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.
Don’t put that pressure on me!
I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.
I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.
That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.
So variation is what you hope for?
Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.
Translation by Sasha Korbut
Review: José Vividly, If Long-Windededly, Regards Two Lovers in Limbo
Li Cheng gets much closer to capturing his characters’ predicaments when he trusts the images alone.2.5
With José, Chinese-born filmmaker Li Cheng reminds us that, in certain cultures, apps like Grindr aren’t mere shortcuts to instant gratification, among many, but the only possible way for gay men to experience the pleasures of sex and affection, however briefly. And brief is exactly what these experiences are in the film, as the parallel life that the internet allows José (Enrique Salanic) to lead isn’t sustainable from any angle.
Indeed, everything conspires against longevity in the Guatemala City of Cheng’s film. From the owner of the sex motel that José frequents with his lover, Luis (Manolo Herrera), knocking on their door to remind them that their hour is up, to his religious mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) calling him mid-sex to come home, as well as the economically dire straits of the area, which pull men away from their partners in search of a more promising elsewhere.
This may be the strongest coincidence between José and the women who surround him: his co-worker, Monica (Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez); his grandmother (Alba Irene Lemus); and his mother. Though these women presumably didn’t need to engage in clandestine love affairs, they all seem destined to the same aftermath of abandonment. But the taboo around gayness cuts short potentially healing inter-generational exchanges around the fact that to love men today is to mourn their desertion tomorrow.
At one point in this small, beautifully shot film, José asks his grandma what happened to his grandfather, and she tells him that one day he just left and never came back. This will be José’s story, too, as the young man refuses to leave his mother behind to run away with Luis. But there’s no language, or space, to talk about love here, gay or otherwise. José listens and grieves alone, as laconic with the women in his life as he is with Luis and his other lovers.
José is at times marred by stiff acting, particularly in scenes that capture José and Luis’s quarrelling, and repetitive dialogue, as when José’s mother incessantly tells him that she could never live without him. Cheng gets much closer to capturing his characters’ predicaments when he trusts his images alone, as he does in a sequence that sees José and Luis riding together on a motorcycle, feeding each other cigarettes while en route to a secluded field where they can make love without being reminded of the temporary nature of all precious things. In fact, the bike eventually breaks down and they run out of phone credit to be able to call anyone to help them. A refreshingly long take of the bridge where the lovers stand allows us to savor their being stranded together, rooting, certainly in vain, for the limbo to last.
Cast: Enrique Salanic, Ana Cecilia Mota, Manolo Herrera, Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez, Esteban Lopez Ramirez, Cesar Lorenzo Yojcom Candido, Alba Irene Lemus, Carlos Humberto Fuentes Maldonado Director: Li Cheng Screenwriter: Li Cheng, George F. Roberson Distributor: Outsider Pictures Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.
We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.
Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)
But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.
Will Win: 1917
Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Should Win: Ad Astra
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.
We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.
Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.
Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.
There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.
Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.
Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.
Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.
Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Could Win: In the Absence
Should Win: In the Absence
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.
If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.
Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.
Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.
So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.
Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.
But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.
Will Win: Brotherhood
Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window
Should Win: Brotherhood
Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity
It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.1.5
The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.
Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.
The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.
There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.
In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.
Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
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
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
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. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. 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