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Building a Better Bomb: The Alternatives to Suspense

It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.

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Alfred Hitchcock

It’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master. Any sensible person will tell you so. On the subject of cinema, there is probably nothing more foolish and outright uncool than to question Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t question Hitchcock; you shut up, listen and learn. The man didn’t just revolutionize the medium, he wrote the official Book of Rules. Every filmmaker since, especially those with dread on the repertoire, builds on the foundations Hitchcock left behind. Steven Spielberg, Alejandro Amenábar, M. Night Shyamalan, Hideo Nakata: they all owe the one who is commonly referred to as the Greatest Director of All Time.

Like I said: it’s always a bad idea to argue with the Master.

Wish me luck…

Anticipating the bang: the Suspense Formula

Why bother telling a story if no one’s interested? Surely, attention is the first thing a filmmaker demands from an audience. It’s easy enough to grab spectators by the collar, but how do you keep them intrigued? A movie must push them to the edge of their seats and gain momentum without running out of steam. Because no one could seduce audiences better than Alfred Hitchcock, his formula for storytelling has been studied and followed over and over. According to Hitchcock, the most powerful means of holding onto the viewer’s attention is suspense.

There it is, the magic word: “suspense.” Whisper it in a room full of cinephiles and watch them get all misty-eyed. Suspense! François Truffaut described it as “the stretching out of an anticipation.” Dictionaries define it as “a state of uncertain expectation,” “a feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen” or “pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome.” If there is one guarantee for audience involvement, suspense is it. Just trust the Master of Suspense. Whenever he was preparing a script, Hitchcock always put himself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. Whenever there’s a pause in the mother’s narration, the child will always ask: “What comes next, Mommy?” Hitchcock knew that nothing is more fascinating to us than the Next Thing and he taught filmmakers how to dangle that carrot in front of our faces, barely out of reach. That is the essence of suspense: a tantalizing and often threatening hint of what’s to come.

Even though Hitchcock was no stranger to shock (he used it to memorable effect when he killed off his beloved leading lady, Janet Leigh, a third into Psycho), he always thought surprise was the lesser alternative to its twin brother suspense. In Vertigo (1958), his adaptation of the French novel D’Entre les Morts, he even sacrificed the book’s final surprise twist (“Judy is Madeleine”) in order to inject a firm dose of suspense into the story (“When will Scottie find out that Judy and Madeleine are the same person and how will he react?”). Although critics at the time had trouble understanding Hitchcock’s intention for us to watch Scottie unravel, rather than figure out a “whodunit,” and were quick to remark that the director had broken his own rules of dramatic tension by ruining the mystery, Hitchcock reasoned:

“To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”

In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock compares the two complementary dread-inducing techniques of surprise and suspense, and makes a convincing plea for the latter. To properly illustrate his argument, he used the setting of the interview itself as starting point:

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

A lecture like that makes a strong point about the limitations of surprise as a means to thrill an audience. Surprise is overrated, so it seems. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that decades later, Hitchcock’s argument for the superiority of the Suspense Formula still stands. Critics and academics alike continue to find it nearly impossible to punch holes in this mentor’s rock solid reasoning, backed up by a legacy of some of the most forceful films in the history of cinema. When it comes to keeping an audience alert, suspense is simply more bang for your buck, to use a fitting phrase.

So why bother questioning its lonely status at the top? Bear with me, please. Let’s not declare the element of surprise bankrupt just yet. And hold on: let’s not exclude alternative ways of building tension either. There’s no doubt that fear in the face of impending evil, otherwise known as dread, is unique in its way to fuel our immediate interest, but suspense is only one approach. Has Hitchcock’s groundwork really been so all-encompassing that he left no area unexplored for the generations of filmmakers following in his footsteps? I think not. The Dread District went through a couple of interesting changes since a few non-commissioned officers took over the reins. Yes, you heard it right: changes. The fact that Hitchcock practically invented the grammar of the modern thriller cannot stop a language from evolving.

Inside the bang: the Hidden Threat

When Roman Polanski’s Repulsion came out in 1965, it was heralded as a staggering work of suspense. It’s fairly obvious that his film about a young beautician’s descent into madness was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a classic that paved the way for all psychological thrillers in its wake. But is Polanski’s film really a work of suspense? To adequately answer this question, we may have to ask ourselves what suspense is not: Let’s listen to the Master himself:

“It is indispensible that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.”

According to this assertion, obscuring the facts rules out the very possibility of suspense. If we take Hitchcock’s word for it, as I suggest we do, how is Repulsion able to generate suspense by consistently withholding the facts from its audience? Polanski doesn’t achieve tension by supplying detailed information. On the contrary: Repulsion is all about surprise. A typical example is the scene where Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, is walking around the apartment that she shares with her sister, unable to sleep. A minute passes by. No anticipatory music, no creepy camerawork, no manipulative cuts. Just the sound of a dripping tap. Suddenly, without a single warning, the wall cracks open with a thunderous sound. That’s it. The scares come from nowhere and catch the audience off-guard.

Hitchcock might have seen the implicit nature of scenes like these as a missed opportunity. Chances are he would have looked for another way of staging its dramatic potential, concrete enough so he could let his audience in on what’s going on and stretch out a few lousy seconds of shock to fifteen fat minutes of anticipation. Yet Repulsion almost categorically refuses to take this route. The only time a genuine moment of suspense comes along is when the audience is offered a glance at the knife that Carol hides behind her back while the landlord tries to come on to her; but this moment is strangely understated, and we are so “repulsed” by his sexual advances that we’re more likely to cheer Carol on to stab the bastard than to fear for his life. So, strictly evaluated from the suspense school of reasoning, Repulsion doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t explain, however, why the film is such a jolly effective nailbiter. How did Polanski pull it off?

Carol’s emerging insanity is the real threat in Repulsion. Much like Miss Giddens in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, she is a danger to herself. We care for Carol’s safety, but cannot predict where this situation will take us, leaving us helpless. Since Polanski forces us to experience the narrative in first person, through the prism of Carol’s psychotic mind, the cause of our dread is not under the table, but all around us: we are inside the bomb. And trapped as we are inside Carol’s head, we lack a clear overview. Our anxiety stems from not knowing what to expect: a Hidden Threat. Under the blinding spell of subjectivity, we don’t know what will trigger the bomb. We’re left with no clue as to when precisely it will explode, because even when we do hear the clock ticking away in the background and nearly smell the skinned rabbit carcass rot in the living room as days pass by, time is nothing but an abstraction, a metaphor for mental regression. The irrational fractures in its dramatic flow give Repulsion a trippy, unnerving mood that gradually breaks down the securities of the audience in perfect sync with the protagonist’s twitchy sense of paranoia. The only thing that becomes clear to us is that we need to get out of that apartment quick, as soon as we realize it is a reflection of Carol’s crumbling state of mind.

When Madame Denise says to Carol: “I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s the matter,” she also articulates the reason behind the audience’s sense of unease. It is confusion and a lack of information, as opposed to Hitchcock’s abundance of it, what gives Polanski’s elliptical horror its edge. Repulsion is obviously shocking and masterly executed, but suspenseful it is not. Come to think of it, probably the most suspenseful thing about Repulsion is the chance to watch French goddess Catherine Deneuve in see-through nightgown. What a sly move to make a frigid woman so insanely attractive!

Polanski was the first to follow his own example, with the bastard child Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as the diabolical result. Slowly, other directors followed: Nicolas Roeg personified a couple’s sense of loss over their drowned daughter in the shape of a mysterious dwarf in a red coat in Don’t Look Now (1973), Paul Verhoeven surreally depicted the Catholic revelations of an alcoholic, bisexual writer in De Vierde Man (1983), Adrian Lyne blew life into the paranoid hallucinations of a dying Vietnam veteran in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Christopher Nolan turned time backwards for a brain-crushing representation of amnesia in Memento (2000). No one has explored the twisted territory of the Hidden Threat more thoroughly, however, than David Lynch. While Repulsion carefully balances on the line between fantasy and reality, Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) blur the same line into a shadowy region of its own. Lynch even dares to sacrifice his own story logic and leaps back and forth between present time, flashbacks, wish fantasies and foreboding nightmares to submerge the senses in the subconscious. If little Alfred would ask his Mommy “what’s next” two thirds into Lost Highway, I’m not sure the answer would clear things up. After all, his mother isn’t really telling him a bedtime story. She’s just talking in her sleep…

Facing the bang: the Revelation Response

The opposite to a threat lurking in the shadows is the kind that taps you on the shoulder and thrusts its tongue in your mouth. In the suspense camp, this kind of frontal assault is seen as more or less a dead end. “There is no terror in the bang,” Hitchcock said, “only in the anticipation of it.” Hitchcock experimented with subtle gore in his time, but as a rule he believed suggestion had greater impact. What could be creepier than one’s own imagination?

Well—maybe a lack thereof. A new breed of filmmakers was less convinced of the public’s ability to form their own picture and filled in the gaps for them. And it has to be said: some of all time’s most terrifying movies could not for the love of God be typified as “less is more” material. The tolerant spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s opened up the door to new levels of carnage and exploitation, spawning a wide range of cinematic subgenres, from the zombie flick and the splatter movie to the Italian giallo and the occult thriller. Some of them were grounded in harsh realism, while others delved deeper into the fantastique for some old-fashioned grand guignol. Unapologetic nasties like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) pretty much put aside the idea that implying is more effective than showing. Across the Atlantic, European shock maestros Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento dispensed with suggestion altogether by serving piles of gore on a platter. No anticipation there: the audience is thrown before the wolves barely halfway into the first reel. Just the grueling details—on the double please!

Whereas Hitchcock usually chose to keep his audience in the know at the cost of revelation, this radical movement excelled in what Clive Barker, writer and director of Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990), called “the Revelation Response”: the appeal of the morbid and surreal. “Appeal” may seem an odd word in reference to horrors designed to appall, but this paradox is integral to a concept that no longer strictly revolved around throwing the monster out, but embraces the monstrous as a part of ourselves—or in the case of Barker: invites a bunch of them over for an orgy in the dungeon to celebrate “the intricacies of perversity.”

This time, Hitchcock’s bomb under the table is exploding right before our very eyes and we’re forced to witness the anatomy of destruction. Hell unfolds in slow motion as we face the biggest threat of all: the Bitter End. We see body parts twitching, we smell the stench of burned skin and we hear the victim next to us utter his last breath. This is as close to a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper as we can get without actually having to stop living for it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is just the introductory scene. If our stomach is up to it, we can stick around to watch the decomposing corpses transform into flesh-eating creatures of the night…

Needless to say, this no-holds-barred mentality could not count on a lot of affection from the refined critical establishment: hence the generalization that an inordinate application of the gross and grotesque indicates an incapacity for building tension. That’s about as crude a statement as saying that pornography is unable to arouse. What it all boils down to, like it frequently does, is taste. There is plenty of tension left in the explicit, and the tremendous anxiety these graphic confrontations generate in the spectator can be attributed to our ambiguous response to the question: How much farther will this movie go, and do I really want to go there? Sure I do! Like hell I don’t! The Revelation Response taps into our darkest hopes and fears and beguiles and disturbs in equally extreme measures. Exactly the kind of push-pull attraction that keeps the hardcore crowd coming back for more. For recent evidence, look no further than Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and James Wan’s Saw (2004).

Echoing the bang: the Pavlovian Minefield

The element of surprise made an unexpected comeback in 1976, when audiences around the world were treated to the mother of all shock endings in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. It is fascinating to see how different De Palma’s surprise tactic was to the way suspense is achieved. Instead of building tension by feeding expectation, it sets the viewer at ease until it seems there’s nothing left to fear.

After a bombastic climax in which Carrie subsequently unleashes her full telekinetic powers at the high school prom to quite deadly effect, causes a fatal car crash, impales her God-fearing mother with a set of flying kitchen knives and gives up the ghost during an apocalyptic inferno, things finally seem to calm down. The night fades to black and sunlight appears, introducing the obligatory epilogue. Composer Pino Donaggio lays over one of his most soothing adagios as good girl Sue Snell, played by the angelic Amy Irving, strides towards us in a slowed-down pace. Sue is dressed in white, lensed in soft-focus, with her long, wavy hair lit up by magical backlight. Tears well up in her almond-shaped eyes as she bends down to lay some flowers on Carrie’s grave. We’re almost completely reassured: the nightmare is over… And just when a sigh of relief escapes our lips, Carrie’s bloody arm shoots out from the gravel and grabs Sue by the elbow. Then we wake up. And just like our reminiscence of an actual dream, it is only in hindsight that we recognize the surrealism of the scene.

It wasn’t until two years later, however, that surprise fully emancipated itself from the degradation it got from Master Hitchcock and evolved into a technique that deserves a category of its own. Halloween (1978) was danger stripped down to its bare essentials and taken to its extremes at once: Michael Meyers, a faceless, unstoppable murdering machine without a motive, was out on the loose. Turn the wrong corner and he’d be there to slice you to threads. Like Carrie, Halloween had its feet firmly planted in classic suspense, but it had more up its sleeve. While De Palma saved the best for last, John Carpenter was in a generous mood and perforated his narrative with “popcorn flyers” from beginning to end. He multiplied Hitchcock’s bomb under the table and changed it into a minefield, where every step you take can be your last. The trick payed off. Whereas Hitchcock mainly concentrated on the period leading up to the bang, Carpenter exploited the aftermath of the explosion. In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, he explained his method as such:

“I always thought that you could also have another effect on the audience if you blow the table up suddenly. If you do it suddenly, everything after that is changed a little bit. You won’t trust the movie anymore, and you will have doubts about what you think it will do. So you have a different level of suspense.”

Here is an example where suspense is generated by the apprehension of surprise. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds. The repetitive use of meticulously timed jumps as a tactic to evoke a nerve-wracking atmosphere has a lot in common with the famous way that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov got his dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell, just because it was the sound they heard each previous time food was served. In the course of just one movie, Carpenter conditions his audience to recognize repeating patterns, like a catchy yet creepy musical cue or a slow crawl of the camera followed by a shock appearance of the killer, to elicit a trained reflex. By echoing what led to a bang before, the Pavlovian Minefield stimulates a feeling of dread that turns spectators into petty little Pavlov puppies, masochistically awaiting the next jolt to give them that much-expected rush of adrenaline. It is this roller coaster aspect that has made the Pavlovian Minefield so commercially lucrative. Halloween spawned not less than seven sequels and became the definitive blueprint for the slasher genre, resulting in highly popular franchises like Friday the 13th (1980-2001), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-1994), Scream (1996-2000) and countless others.

Beyond the bang: the Cerebral Spiral

The next step in the evolution of cinematic tension came in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That may seem a bold statement now, but it was completely in line with expectation at the time. Kubrick, the genius director who redefined science fiction, black comedy and just about any other genre he cared to touch, was to adapt a bestselling novel by the new King of Horror, Stephen King. What could possibly go wrong?

Boy, were some people in for a disappointment. Sure, there was plenty to marvel at in Kubrick’s The Shining—the gliding Steadicam shots, the larger-than-life production design and a bone chilling score are the vivid marks of a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. But all the technical and artistic joie de vivre in the world can’t revive a graveyard of missed opportunities. Or can they? Critics called the film stagy, muddled, heartless, wordy, deliberately paced and poorly contrived; while many fans of the book simply found Kubrick’s adaptation not scary enough. Stephen King himself accused Kubrick of having no apparent understanding of the genre, and not entirely without reason. Here was a horror film with no suspense hooks, no cheap thrills, no gratuitous gore, no snappy editing, no catharsis—what in bloody hell was Kubrick thinking he was adapting: Jane Austen? King compared the film to “a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery—the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere.”

It makes you wonder what kept the engine running in King’s relentless page turner. The answer isn’t hard to find. As one of the finest practitioners of literary suspense, King never made a secret of it how much he values characterization. To use his words: “You have got to love the people… that allows horror to be possible.” Such a notion goes right back to the principles of Hitchcock, who frequently stressed that “fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.” Audience identification: quite possibly the most fundamental ingredient for suspense. Identification? With these people? Kubrick makes it almost impossible for us to connect with the characters in his version of The Shining. Jack makes a pretty bonkers impression from the moment we lay eyes on him (not surprisingly, since Nicholson inhabited Milos Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest five years earlier), and there isn’t a great deal to admire about his spouse Wendy either, who is neither pretty nor clever, and curiously devoid of female intuition. Sure, we care about the kid, but Danny’s split personality conversations with Tony—the boy that lives in his mouth—freak us out just as much. It’s not for nothing that King chose to portray Danny’s imaginary friend as a separate entity; that made his youngest character easier to like. And as far as the instantly sympathetic Halloran is concerned, well, you remember what happens to him…

It is evident that Kubrick had no intention to conform to expectations. He was following his own compass and waved a lot of the novel’s scare tactics good-bye. The question is why he seemed intent on poking fun at the rules of the genre, when he had such a fine example at his disposal. Such was King’s frustration that he initiated a four-and-a-half-hour TV mini-series that stayed faithful to the source material, aptly called Stephen King’s The Shining (1997). Nevertheless, even though King’s traditional emphasis on myth and psychology worked wonders for the novel, the same approach made the mini-series remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it only testified to the brilliance of Kubrick’s adaptation. Sometimes a different medium benefits from a different approach.

Since its initial lukewarm reception in 1980, the reputation of Kubrick’s film has steadily improved. Two decades after its release, British movie magazine Empire called out The Shining as the Scariest Movie of All Time, describing it as “the only horror film that gets scarier the more you see it.” The magazine had a point there: Repeated viewings of scary movies usually suffer from the Law of Diminishing Returns, but The Shining’s fear factor tends to grow with age.

True innovation always takes some getting used to: Kubrick’s film so drastically deconstructed the genre in which it operated that it falls flat when judged by conventional standards. That doesn’t mean it is a failure; it just means Kubrick once again altered the form to fit his idiosyncratic sensibilities. In this particular case, he moved the horror film beyond the primarily visceral level to the cerebral. What he ended up with in many ways represents the antithesis of King’s fiction. Taken on their own terms, though, the film and the book are equally frightening in a diametrically opposed fashion. Whereas the novel built suspense by means of interior monologue, Kubrick externalized the conflict and let his images do the real talking, the way a true visual stylist should.

Kubrick’s creation is open to an infinite number of readings, of course, but it’s fair to presume it is less about an all-American family being torn apart by a malevolent supernatural force than it is about, say, the trappings of social convention or one man’s struggle with his own insignificance. Jack suffers from some good-old existential angst, doomed as he is to aimlessly wander the inscrutable paths of Destiny’s maze, forever and ever and ever. Who can blame him, really, with the evil Overlook as his hermetically sealed universe. In nearly every shot, the hotel and its surroundings loom large over the Torrances, at once intimidating and claustrophobic. Kubrick frames the lobbies, rooms and corridors with an obsessive eye for realism and geography, consistently showing both the floor and the ceiling of each area through wide-angle lenses, as if we’re looking into a kid’s diorama. In sharp contrast with the almost reassuring use of darkness, shallow depth of field, skewed angles and subjective points of view that have become stereotypical of the Gothic haunted house flick, Kubrick disorientates the viewer with labyrinths bathed in broad daylight, crystal clear symmetry and curiously objective camerawork, evoking a distanced, Brechtian feel that in a substantial way discourages emotional involvement—the very purpose of suspense!—, and urges us to focus on the grander scheme of things. Meanwhile, page after page of dialogue is recited in long, lingering takes that would make Andrei Tarkovsky blush, giving the spectator oodles of time to contemplate the Big Picture. When Jack finally goes after Danny and Wendy, it’s not the sudden crush of his axe splitting through the door that forces an emotional response in us, and it’s not so much the apprehension of the kill or a lust for blood that gets us excited. Trivialities like these would only distract from what Kubrick sees as the real horror of the situation: the very idea of a father fucked-up enough to murder his own family. This Cadillac can drive alright; we just didn’t notice it moving.

Kubrick’s The Shining is constructed like a Cerebral Spiral that draws the spectator in with the kind of slow-burning tension that gets under your skin in retrospect, exactly because it appeals to sluggish thought processes rather than immediate instincts. By using our minds to trigger emotion, its scare tactic is considerably less direct than others, but those who are willing to take the detour are in for a long and bumpy ride. The thing about Kubrick’s bomb is that it’s not under, but on top of the table, where everyone including the protagonists can see it. We can try to defuse it, but we don’t know which wires to cut. We can try to escape the building, but we’ll get lost in its mazelike architecture looking for the Exit. And what’s more: that bomb on the table… it never goes off. Whereas the wicked in King’s novel comes from an external factor blown to pieces in the last act (along with the lost soul corrupted by its power), Kubrick’s film doesn’t offer such relief. Jack and the Overlook Hotel are not purged and destroyed in a climactic resolution, but literally frozen in time. There’s no release to the tension, no re-established status quo; Kubrick guides us all the way into his maze, offering endless possibilities for speculation, and then leaves us alone in a permanent state of uncertainty. Are we safe now or is the bomb still ticking? The epilogue only amplifies this lack of closure. When the camera closes in on Jack Torrance’s smiling presence in a group photograph taken in 1921, hanging in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel, does that mean he has found in reincarnation an escape route to the past, that his spectre has been absorbed by the hotel, or does Kubrick imply that time is of no relevance in purgatory? (Remember the words of Delbert Grady: “You have always been the caretaker.”) No matter what the answer is, the characters in The Shining are caught inside a perpetual loop, and each time we revisit their story, we enter a little lower on the downward spiral.

Few filmmakers had the balls to pick up on Kubrick’s groundbreaking experiment in fear, but some names should be mentioned. David Cronenberg’s filmography shifted from visceral to cerebral in the ‘80s and ‘90s, although the Canadian director never turned his back on the fetishistic body horror of his early work, which typically falls under the aforementioned Revelation Response category. Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) flirt with cold existentialism in their own bizarre ways and share The Shining’s distancing storytelling techniques. So does the austere and highly disturbing Safe (1995), in which Todd Haynes terrorizes Julianne Moore as well as the viewer with a thought-provoking concept called “environmental illness.” To this day, the Cerebral Spiral remains the most easily misunderstood alternative to suspense. During a press-screening at the Venice Film Festival, Jonathan Glazer’s metaphysical Birth got booed by an audience that took its risqué subject matter at face value. Seasoned auteur Paul Schrader went through the humiliating process of having his finished film Exorcist: The Beginning rejected and completely remade by Renny “Deep Blue Sea” Harlin, for being introspective and cerebral instead of fun. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” Morgan Creek executive James G. Robinson told L.A. Weekly about his odd decision, “this is the entertainment business.” Coming from the man who brought us Freejack and Soldier, this is a notion decidedly scarier than the released end result.

Augmenting the Dread Palette

Fair enough: In the realm of audio-visual pyrotechnics, it is doubtful that filmmakers will ever discover a better recipe for gun powder than good old suspense. On the other hand, with a larger variety of alternative recipes to mix and mess around with, the door to a more lethal combination is still wide open. Hitchcock spent an entire career pioneering and developing devious cinematic devices as a means to thrill his audience in the most effective way possible. The thought of four daubs of extra paint on his Dread Palette might not have been so disagreeable to the Master of Suspense after all.

Alternative tension-building techniques like the Hidden Threat, the Revelation Response, the Pavlovian Minefield and the Cerebral Spiral do not undermine the strengths of the golden suspense formula, but they do enrich the filmic vocabulary. It is precisely this enrichment—a wider range of choice rather than the individual potential of said alternatives—that can be seen as progress. And progression is what this medium needs, for as any Latin professor can assure you: a language that stands still is a dead one.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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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 his 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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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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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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Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it.

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.

Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.

The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.

Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.

Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.

By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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