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Darkness Visible: David Fincher’s Zodiac

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Darkness Visible: David Fincher’s Zodiac

Narratively, David Fincher’s Zodiac is the plainest movie he’s made. It lays its chronology out in a nice, straight line. The direction is mostly prosaic, not poetic. With a few notable exceptions—including a callously aestheticized opening murder, which has the titular maniac shooting a couple in a car in slow-mo while Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy” plays on a car radio, and a montage where newspaper headlines and psycho heiroglyphics are superimposed on walls, Fight Club/Ikea style, to suggest the Zodiac killer’s contamination of California’s psyche—Fincher avoids overt expressionism and lets the dialogue explicate the movie’s ideas. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s scenes are theatrically shaped and polished; so are his characters, who are often defined with vaguely sitcom-ish bits of business (Mark Ruffalo’s detective David Toschi, the primary in San Francisco’s long investigation of the Zodiac murders, mooches food from his partner through several presidential administrations). And the dialogue has a bone-dry absurdist sensibility which, while pleasing, is probably 30 years out-of-period. (“What do you want?” a character asks a burned-out colleague. “Time off? A hug?”)

Because these are the movie’s only pro forma aspects, they stick out like wads of gum on a Faberge egg; but they can’t be written off as evidence of shallowness because they’re integral to the movie’s conception. Zodiac is much of a rebuke to the the soothing, Hollywood-sanctioned lie of closure as The Black Dahlia. It’s been designed and built as carefully as the Transamerica pyramid, a San Francisco landmark that’s first glimpsed in a high-angled tracking shot as a hole in the ground, then shown in time lapse as it rises into the sky and tapers off to completion, simultaneously indicating an ellipse of many years and serving as an analogue for the payoffs this movie won’t give us. Fincher is a purposeful director; I don’t doubt that Zodiac’s more predictable or ungainly elements are put there to be exposed as inadequate. Still, this strikes me as a failure of imagination, because it results in a movie that feels too much like other entries in the police procedural/serial killer genre even while it’s insisting, “Life is not like the movies.” You’d think a work of such ambition could find a more original way to communicate the destructive effect of one character’s Zodiac obsession than by having him come home after a long night of snoop work to find that his wife has taken the kids and left a note.

Fincher also falls prey to Oliver Stone/Steven Spielberg syndrome—making his points through situations, compositions, sound cues and cuts, then having characters make them again verbally, with much less sophistication. For example, throughout Zodiac, search warrants are denied and evidence excluded because the cops didn’t follow procedure, and Fincher, unlike most thriller directors, never panders to the viewer’s inner yahoo by suggesting that we’d be safer if it wasn’t for that damned Miranda ruling; this thread pays off in a scene where Toschi goes to see Dirty Harry , a 1971 film whose bad guy, Scorpio, is the Zodiac killer by way of Snidely Whiplash. When Toschi sees the onscreen cops and politicians examining a taunting letter from Scorpio—a plain-language version of the code-written letters the Zodiac killer sends to newspapers—he walks out in disgust. It’s one of the movie’s richest moments—a comment on Hollywood’s callow exploitation of real trauma, and the difference between right-wing cowboy fantasy and police work; the fact that Toschi was the model for Steve McQueen’s performance in Bullitt makes it richer still. Then, while Toschi is standing in the lobby smoking a cigarette, another moviegoer recognizes him and teases, “That Harry Callahan sure did a hell of a job with the case.” “Yeah,” Toschi replies. “No need for due process, right?” Not content to hit nails on the head, Fincher pounds them through the wood.

But these flaws (or marketplace concessions?) don’t seriously damage the picture. Zodiac is a good movie made nearly great on the strength of its ideas and their articulation through picture and sound. In its own, outwardly squarer way, it’s as vivid an example of style equalling substance as Inland Empire and Miami Vice. Zodiac moves with familiar rhythms, but it looks eerily new (more on the visuals in a moment), and its story methodically violates the expectations we carry into pictures of this type. It’s conventionally structured but unconventionally conceived and shot—a long, deliberately repetitious movie with an inconclusive ending about people whose obsession with justice bore no fruit. Its three central characters—Toschi, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)—believe, like all driven movie heroes, that they can succeed where others failed; obsession gives them delusions of grandeur, alienates them from their colleagues and families and leads them to the edge of madness, but never to the truth.

Zodiac’s 138-minute running time contains scenes that repeat as the story unfolds; the versions have different, often frustrating outcomes. About a dozen years after the killer’s first appearance, Toschi’s original partner (Anthony Edwards) retires, and Toschi lamely tries to repeat the shtick with his new partner, who isn’t having it; likewise, after Avery flames out from paranoia and substance abuse, his acolyte Graysmith tries to re-create their unlikely newsroom friendship with Avery’s replacement (Adam Goldberg) who can’t be bothered. Time changes everything but the narrative’s forgone conclusion (or non-conclusion). Nearly four decades after Zodiac’s first kill, his identity is still shrouded in darkness.

About that darkness: as a number of critics—including screenwriter Larry Gross and our own Ryland Walker Knight—have pointed out, Zodiac is also the first High-Definition feature made at the studio level whose images were recorded straight to a hard drive, without the intercession of videotape. One could make the case that the material non-existence of Zodiac, the motion picture, is of a piece with the film’s unclosed narrative and still-anonymous killer—but I don’t buy it. Zodiac’s marriage of technology and subject matter is a fluke of timing; if the first studio film to be shot this way had been Legally Blonde 3, nobody would fixate on it. Modern filmmaking technology is critical to Zodiac’s effect, but it’s not the hard drive that makes the difference: it’s Harris Savides’ cinematography, which takes fuller advantage of HD’s low-light capacity than any movie to date. For Savides and Fincher, the camera isn’t just a means to shoot at night with fewer lights than a film production would require. They take the technology one giant aesthetic leap further and use it to scrutinize the shape, the texture, the essence of night—to unveil it onscreen for the first time.

I first saw Zodiac on opening night, and when I left the theater and looked around the intersection of State and Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, I realized that movies have never really shown me what night looks like. On film, darkness reads as black, or very dark grey; for generations, moviemakers have responded by abstracting night into the Idea of Night, carving out discrete portions of each frame and letting gloom swallow the rest. If a 35mm studio production equipped with enough generators to power the U.S.S. Nimitz illuminated the same nocturnal panoramas seen in Zodiac, I still doubt we’d see a tenth of the detail Savides and Fincher capture on HD, a medium that’s more sensitive to gradations of shadow. Watching Zodiac, we’re forced to acknowledge that while film captures daylight more comprehensively and accurately, night belongs to video, which presents an image that’s closer to what the human eye can discern. In Zodiac’s opening murder, the killer cruises past a necking couple, then drives off down the road, receding into a speck; not only can you follow his taillights, you can make out the texture of individual leaves from foreground to deep background (which must be a quarter mile away). In a deep focus tracking shot of Graysmith crossing a suburban lawn, you don’t just see Graysmith moving from middleground to foreground, and the tree on the lawn behind him, and the street behind that, and the houses with their illuminated windows behind that, and still more trees and houses behind that; you can see the residual yellow-orange light from the city reflected in overhanging clouds, etching every billow and whorl. Michael Mann’s HD experimentation in Collateral, Robbery Homicide Division and Miami Vice cleared this visual wilderness; Zodiac builds itself a home.

But the technology isn’t just being used for “Gee whiz” effect. The movie’s cinematography is its simplest and most powerful means of emphasizing the notion of unknowability. In Zodiac, we can see night as clear as day, but this transparency doesn’t help us, or the characters, expose the killer, much less determine his identity or anticipate his next attack. The contrast between the absolute clarity of the visuals and the absolute mystery of the narrative is Zodiac’s very best joke.

Along the way, Fincher and company make a tangential but equally compelling point about how technology has shrunk the world. Thirty or forty years ago, America had a smaller population, but seemed bigger than it does today. This point is made repeatedly (but subtly, unlike the “Life is not a movie” aspect) in dialogue establishing that it takes longer to get from Point A to Point B than characters think, and in situations where people urgently need to know certain facts but are forced to wait. Edwards’ character asks if a cop (Donal Logue) in another town could send him some information via Telefax—a technology the San Francisco P.D. installed six months earlier—and is told that the other department doesn’t have the technology, so they’ll have to use regular mail, which will take three days. Graysmith has his first date with the woman he’ll later marry (Chloë Sevigny) on a night when Avery’s decided to drive alone to another city to meet an anonymous tipster; when she points out that it’s dumb for Avery to agree to such a meeting after having been threatened by the killer, Graysmith becomes obsessed with his friend’s safety, bums a dime to make a pay phone call to Avery’s wife to see if he’s checked in, then goes home and sits by his own phone to await further word.

By reminding us of how much life has changed thanks to the Internet and cellphones, Zodiac performs a small but valuable public service—and it just happens to be one that feeds back into the movie’s preoccupation with the limits of certainty, of rationality, of fact itself. Things happen faster now than they did 40 years ago, and we find out about them sooner, but we still don’t know as much as we’d like or control as many things as we might wish. Jim Emerson points out that the movie takes pains to establish exactly where we are at any given moment and periodically remind us how many people have been killed, which suspects are still in play, which supposed leads and clues have been verified or debunked. Emerson writes: “The two effects shots that stand out—following a taxi from directly above as it moves through the streets to an intersection where a murder will take place; and a time-lapse view of the construction of the Transamerica pyramid building—both emphasize the unity of time and space, one as a measurement of the other. Scene after scene in Zodiac begins with a timecode that places it not only in a historical context (month, day, year) but in relationship to the previous scene (’two days later’; ’three months later.’” But these specifics don’t lead to The Answer. The movie’s timestamp title cards ultimately prove as useless as the ones in The Shining.

In this context, the obsession with detail that’s the hallmark of police work, journalism and history seems, in retrospect, like the characters’ understandable attempt to distract themselves from the awful realization of how much they don’t know and will never know. When you look back over the whole movie, the characters’ fanatical pursuit of certainty seems like an epic form of busywork—rituals occuping time that might otherwise be spent huddled in fear of the unknown. Repetition with meaningless variation is encoded in the screenplay’s superstructure. Zodiac is really three movies on the same theme, the impossibility of certainty—which turns out to be a Philosophy 101 way of describing the movie’s deeper, more primal story, that of a band of righteous warriors who set out to capture or kill Death, but fail. Fincher and Vanderbilt equate the desire for closure—whether in a real-life murder case or a fictional narrative—with humankind’s enduring need to be reassured that life is not a question mark; that its arc can be mapped and its endpoint predicted; that through hard work, intelligence and lucky breaks, we can control what happens to us; that there’s something beyond The End; that we are driving our own stories, not vice-versa.

The first movie in this existential three-fer is an epic policier about cops and journalists trying and failing to catch a killer, and the effect of the killer’s rampage on California for a decade, starting in the late 1960s. The second movie is an unofficial sequel—almost a remake—in which cartoonist Graysmith, who lived vicariously through his buddy Avery while he wrote columns about the case, tries to play detective and synthesize everyone else’s information. Graysmith (whose two books about the case yielded the movie you’re now watching) gets closer to the truth, but not close enough. The final title card, a lame substitute for closure, will draw groans from any viewer who didn’t know going in that the murders were never solved. The viewer, meanwhile, undertakes a similar journey, synthesizing Movie 1 and Movie 2 in his or mind, but getting no closer to resolution. All three movies—the epic policier, the lone hero narrative and the meta-story of the viewer watching Movies 1 and 2—are about the unknowability of evil and the implacability of death. They’re about wanting an answer and realizing you’ll never get one. They’re about fearing the dark even when you can see, or think you can see, every detail. All anxiety is born in darkness. Fear is mystery’s child.

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

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

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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

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Film

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

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

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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