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Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double



Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double

The theme of “the double” has exerted a complex and ambiguous fascination throughout the cultural history of the last century. Arguably, every form of contemporary art has been touched by this powerful theme and its many implications. Indeed, the double is more than a theme: it is a basic figuration, an archetype whose flexible structure can express multiple meanings and associations. In a sense, the double is, appropriately, a multi-faceted mental form.

The relationship between the double and the cinema is especially intriguing: we could say that the double, born mainly in literature and poetry, has found in cinema its natural medium of expression. The reasons for that are more structural than aesthetic: in fact, in film the double is often not only a theme or a form, but also a fundamental subtext directly connected to the particular nature of the cinematic experience.

Filmic universes

The specificity of cinema is an expression of its inherent characteristics, its unique way of representing reality, its technologies, its implicit structure. The unique features that comprise filmic representation are powerful tools in the hands of a skillful director: for instance, the complexities of editing, the varied uses of sound and music, the control of cinematography, or the application of special effects. Perhaps the most peculiar and important of these filmic specificities is point of view, or more specifically, the manipulation of the camera, of its position and movement. Cinema is the only fictional and photographic medium over which the artist (in this case, the director) has total control of point of view, unlike painting, comics, and photography, that deal only with still images.

Another essential characteristic of cinema is its explicit formal boundaries. A film is a very delimited work of art: two-dimensional, it has specific boundaries in space (i.e., the screen) and time (i.e., a continuous experience generally of 1-3 hours), and is ideally experienced in a specific architectural space (i.e., the theatre). Furthermore, a film is a relatively fixed and reproducible object: we can see it as many times as we want, and, in one sense (but not every sense), it is always the same.

That’s why a movie is such a powerful tool for representing reality: it is, indeed, a finely delineated microcosm with a powerful tendency toward objectivity, yet is simultaneously open to various levels of subjectivity and vision. A movie is a mandala, a hologram of reality, of the artist’s vision and conception of reality. Like a miniature universe, it has a structure, a geometry, a continuous interaction of forms on an indefinite number of planes, texts and subtexts; and, above all, an insistent meta-commentary derived from its various points of view. As in Wagner’s Wort-Ton-Drama, in which the music realizes a meta-structure that comments and gives meaning to the theatrical action, so in movies the sum of the camera’s points of view and its movements provide interweaving levels of information, emotion, beauty and meaning. Not every director is able to exploit these levels to their full capacity; but those who can are certainly, if not the greatest, the most medium-specific artists: in their hands, cinema achieves its full stature.

Basic doubles

In a sense, creating a universe means to create a double. The creator-creation axis is one of the most fundamental dualities, the most archetypal division of consciousness. Such an axis is similar, if not identical, to another important duality: the subject-object division between a consciousness that perceives and something else, the object that is perceived. And, becoming more specific, and getting nearer to the stuff of cinema, it is the same axis as the seer-seen, observer-observed, voyeur-objective world dualities.

In cinema, the director is the creator and subject, while the movie is the creation and object. Yet immediately, we can see that something very interesting occurs in this fundamental duality. Another, more ambiguous division occurs: the subject splits in two, the director-creator and the spectator-perceiver; the first one owns, in a way, the vision of the second.

This structure is complex, indeed. The ambiguity of vision in cinema—its being shared between and asymmetrically controlled by two “minds”—is a basic double in cinematic experience. The spectators are in a way “possessed” by the director’s mind; their vision is guided, their emotions manipulated, their perceptions molded and structured. At the same time, spectators actively become new creators, masters of the world that is lent to them: their consciousness, perceptions and interpretations are given new form, a new synthesis; and they become, in the ultimate sense, directors of their own experience of a movie. Thus, cinema and double are inextricably intertwined.

Brian De Palma’s movies are a beautiful catalogue of the possible methods by which the double can find its full realization in a filmic structure. Remember, for instance, the wonderful sequence in The Untouchables when Malone is murdered. The director’s vision is viewed, for the most part, through both the spectators’ and the killer’s eyes. We see through the killer, and we see through De Palma. Our consciousness is immediately and tragically split: our cognition is bound to the camera’s vision, (“owned” by the bad guy), while our heart and feelings are projected onto Malone, the “object” (and target) of this vision (indeed a loved and cherished object, the sum total of what a De Palma “good guy” can be). With our spirit and aesthetic sensibility fully awake and focused, we perceive the beauty of the scene, the meta-meaning that is beyond its images, as if through a premonition achieved in only a few instants, which is always the case in truly great scenes. And, beautifully, this vision that penetrates Malone’s house, that spies and hides, shifting behind a wall, dancing through space and time in search of its object with calm complacency, becomes immediately the best incarnation of a metaphysical voyeur, of our desperate observing consciousness. We are outside the scene, spectators, helpless, but at the same time inside, as accomplices, maybe as killers. And perhaps, in a sense, we are also, ultimately, victims. Only in the end of the sequence, when geometries converge and meanings collapse, our consciousness is reconnected to its primary object, to Malone’s body and mind: but only in death, the only possible singleness, and in the final sign of his blood, which will give meaning to his death and guide his friend Ness to the next clue, the next level of truth.

Consciousness and awareness

A significant ambiguity that results from splitting a consciousness in two (or, similarly, blending two consciousnesses into one) is the mirror game of comprehension, of conscious acknowledgement: how much one knows about the other, how much the other is aware of what one knows. In the ultimate sense, life itself, like cinema, seems to be a complicated game of relative awareness. The sensation of “being observed while observing” is a fundamental component of our state of consciousness. It influences our judgements and our emotions, and as we try to see ourselves through the eyes of all, and to be aware of their awareness, the cloning of vision stems from the cloning of identities, and the theme of the double naturally gives space to that of voyeurism.

The fundamental movie about voyeurism as a symbol of the human condition is Rear Window, as the fundamental movies about the double are Psycho and Vertigo (Hitchcock had indeed a very special sensibility regarding film archetypes). Especially in the first half of his career, De Palma has enjoyed re-interpreting these Hitchcock movies, deepening and enriching their themes and contents, interweaving them in new fictional structures. From the beginning, therefore, the double and voyeurism were main obsessions in De Palma’s cinema, and so strong is their connection in the powerful and complex vision of his individual films that, often, it is difficult to say if what we are seeing is double or voyeurism, or both.

In Body Double, for example, the importance of awareness is expressed with extreme power in the film’s condensation of De Palma’s themes. Here the protagonist’s voyeurism is the effect of complex manipulation: his “friend” puts him in the right place at the right time with the right suggestions, so that he can “peep” on a woman. The set up’s metaphorical similarity to a film’s spectator and director is almost perfect. We can identify with the protagonist, and be unconsciously reassured in our role as voyeurs of the film, mirrored in his role as a voyeur of a body. The friend-actor-manipulator lurks in the background, but at this point in the story, we still have little comprehension of his real purpose.

Then something crucial happens: Jake Scully sees something outside the frame of the scene he has been set up to watch: a danger, a menace, perhaps a mystery, in the form of an Indian working on a satellite dish and “peeping” on the same woman. His role becomes more active; he pursues, he comes in contact with Gloria Rivelle, the object of his voyeurism. When Jake stumbles, on the beach, to explain his identity to her, this moment is one of the most moving and perfect in De Palma’s work. The voyeur cannot explain himself. His role is, in some way, fraudulent, incomplete. Similarly, man cannot explain his role in reality. In a sense, we are incomplete, fraudulent. We can “peep” on the movie of reality, sometimes even try to possess it, to interact with it. But always, something is fundamentally lacking. We cannot really become its heroes, let alone its protagonists.

At the same time, in the scene on the beach, the hero-villain double is expressed with unusual beauty. Jake, the would-be hero, and the menacing “Indian” are each other’s mirror. When Jake at last speaks to Gloria to disclose that someone is following her, she readily agrees, suggesting that she understands that he has been following her. Which is, literally, true.

And then something else happens. Gloria is killed, while Jake, the “hero,” is watching, still unable to save her. And so another strange facet of the double is expressed: the voyeur, the would-be hero, becomes a witness. Which is, in a way, an intermediate state: one who can only perceive and not act, but whose perception can in some way define reality, create the truth. Or at least what appears to be truth.

The truth here seems simple. The killer is an Indian, a mysterious pursuer we have already seen before—and decidedly not Gloria’s husband, Alexander Rivelle, who should be the natural suspect. But, as the story unfolds, we realize that nothing is as it seems: the killer is indeed her husband, who is also “the Indian,” who is also “Sam,” Jake’s so-called friend who has orchestrated the entire scenario. Sam is the creator, artist, manipulator and bad guy all at once: a mise en abyme of doubles, a summa of role-playing.

Amidst the ingenuity of the plot, a single question arises that we may not think to ask after a single viewing: why is Jake’s role as witness so important to convincing the police that Alexander Rivelle is not the killer? After all, he is the killer, but was only disguised as an Indian when he murdered Gloria. Jake, after all, has observed a perfect truth: a husband who, in disguise, has killed his wife. The more important point is that, in the apparent reconstruction of the murder scene by the witness and the police, the killer could not be aware that he was being observed. Jake was observing him through a telescope, from a distance. How could the Indian know? And therefore, why would the killer wear a disguise, and bother to enact such a complex show? The conclusion is therefore “obvious” that Gloria’s killer is not her husband.

But once we understand the larger scenario, and realize that the Indian and Sam are both Alexander Rivelle, who knows that he is being observed, we recognize a perfectly reasonable motive for the disguise, for the show, with no alibi available for Gloria’s husband.

Therefore, the subtext of the plot suggests that the interpretation of reality and comprehension of its structure depend on shifting modes of observation. In a word, vision and awareness of vision are the two strongest determinants of truth.

Moral mirrors

The double is, ultimately, a selection of information. It is, in this sense, a choice. And, as a choice, it has a moral value.

In an existence made of infinitely plural universes (a reasonable theory of quantum physics, not merely a fabrication of science fiction), every thing and every body can be everything and everybody. But if all chances are equal, then there is no choice, no value, no purpose. In the poetic world of Borges, for instance, the infinite is only an accumulation of chances; eternity is only the death of any individual value and hope. Thus, a repetitive view of the infinite leads to a completely void vision of humanity. It is the void space of Mission to Mars, the purposeless chance in which human stories seem to fail or die.

Identity, instead, is the choice of a specified form, of specified information. It is a choice among possible meanings. If one adopts a specified identity, a specified role, the dice have been thrown. And such a choice, such a selection of information, such a deletion of all other possible occurrences, fractures reality. Choice gives birth to similar, but different, chances. It certainly gives birth to opposite chances: one can be good or bad, can love or hate, be faithful or betray, protect or destroy.

The disincarnate consciousness seeking a role (i.e., the voyeur) is constantly trying to comprehend a “reality.” But an uneasy rule applies: you can look, you can “peep,” but if you touch, everything changes (as quantum mechanics students certainly know). If you look, the many are in you. If you touch, you are in the many. You are someone, but you can also be (or become) someone else. You are no more alone. You have to confront yourself and your multiple reflections. You have to confront your opposite. You must fight. You can lose. You can be a victim. You, or some part of you, can die. In a word, you have become a body.

Such is the ambiguity, and the fascination, of the double. It invokes specification, and at the same time it casts the shadow of a doubt. You can no more be anyone and anything. You can be someone, or someone else, or someone else again. But in each case, there is meaning. And the meanings, although elusive, are always different.

Mirrored moralities

Though the confrontations with the variations (or reflections) of one’s identity create a sense of uncertainty, meeting one’s opposite may be the cause of a moral crisis. In Snake Eyes, for example, Rick Santoro is morally superficial and ambiguous until he has to face his double-opposite, the good-guy-turned-bad-guy, Kevin Dunne. Likewise, in Casualties of War, Erickson is forced to become an “incomplete” hero when he confronts the “bad” Meserve and his accomplices.

Heroes are more or less ambiguous; fascinated by their own sense of duality, they split reality within themselves—good and evil, cognition and feeling, truth and power—and are never able to make an ultimate choice. Villains, in contrast, are fascinating. They seem to have achieved an attractive singularity; they act as though they really are simply a “body”, a permanent reality, an objective “truth,” as though they have found a seeming harmony with their physical role, and with the violence inherent in it. They have sex, and make a weapon of it (as Meserve clearly states in Casualties of War), while, for the voyeur-hero, sex is destined to be only a symbol, an impossible goal, the figuration of the failure to physically possess matter. Bad guys, instead, do possess things and people (or at least believe they do). In the words of Tony Montana, they have “balls.” But their ambition to own “the world and everything in it,” is a pitiful ideal, so similar to the voyeur’s ambition of knowing the world through vision alone. The negation of the double generates monsters, careless fighters doomed to destroy themselves and the things they (may) own. So in the end Montana is attacked, with tragic irony, by a baroque multiplication, almost a cloning, of a special, virtual double, a single-minded, powerful “metaphysical” killer: at the “excessive” ending of Scarface, Montana stands impossibly alive against crowds of repetitive enemies, while their leader, the origin and synthesis of all of them, easily destroys him with a single shot in the back. Thus, this “killer without an identity” becomes a perfect incarnation of the impersonal evil, which, in De Palma’s movies, seems to be the real substance behind the various villains, and is ultimately and completely triumphant over the physical, perishable bad guy.

Conversely, being in the many can also be an instrument of constructive choice, and sometimes of salvation. In Femme Fatale, for instance, the doubling of a consciousness and of a life becomes, perhaps, a useful tool to change destiny—to throw the dice a second time without coming up snake eyes. The way to freedom may not always require a moral recognition; instead, it may spring from the intuition of a pattern, from a reconstruction of reality with different space and time relationships, from a blinding ray of light. In any case, the result is all that matters. Freedom, salvation, these are the ultimate goals.


The double is always a mirror of the unsolved mystery of consciousness: if we are single, we are alone and helpless; if we are multiple, we are lost. The doubling and multiplying of vision in cinema is an extreme expression of a state of consciousness common to all: perhaps we are observing, perhaps we are being observed; perhaps we are not as simple as we like to think, not as lonely as we fear, not as free as we imagine. Perhaps good and evil are not so clear-cut, and yet they are not really blended either. As in the yin-yang symbol, black and white are separate and united at the same time, but in different ways.

This powerful figuration, this archetype so close to the very essence of cinema, is a form difficult to control. Not every director is able to manage its intimidating power, its deceiving complexity. When dealing with doubles, a director needs a very specific touch, a great mastery of his art; otherwise, he is bound to fail. He cannot be too explicit. He cannot be predictable. He cannot be moralistic, philosophical, or generic. The double is pure form, and requires absolute mastery of form to express its values.

De Palma has made the double (and voyeurism) a very private obsession. He is the best at dealing with the theme. His doubles live in the structure of his artistic vision; they are never too explicit, never vulgar, never contrived, never the same. Other great directors have incorporated the theme of the double in their work, with various results. Among the best examples are David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and David Lynch’s sublime Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Dead Ringers is more about the body than the double. Through the twin protagonists of Cronenberg’s movie, the body and the double are inexorably connected: they are identical; both are gynaecologists; in their physical being and occupation, the mystery of the body’s origin and duplication is passively and actively prominent: being twins, they share, in a sense, a same body while being physically separated; and by choosing to work and act on the generation of the physical body, they are trying to gain power over the same forces which were originally responsible for their condition. But the balance of this fragile gestalt is compromised by the love for one (single) woman; and the whole two-brothers-in-one system, once so efficient for sharing and compensating for all of life’s experiences, has to face a sudden crisis, and is ultimately destined to failure, madness and death. In a perfect scene, one of the twins, already aware of the fracture of the inner link between himself and his brother, hires a couple of twin prostitutes to recreate, by the power of names, his lost integrity: during their sexual intercourse, he instructs one of the girls to call him by his own name, and instructs the other to call him by his brother’s name. Thus, the fracture of a pristine symmetry—that is of the pre-existing, harmonious relationship between the twins—evokes the generation of new dualities on multiple sublevels. That’s how the structure of duality (or of the mind) evolves in new, (random?) branches, like a fractal image, or rather like a web.

In Lynch’s extraordinary movies, so similar and so different, a very radical double is displayed: two different persons with two different lives and stories tragically overlap, intruding one into the other. The way this is accomplished, at the plot level, is a true formal miracle, an aesthetic intuition that easily transcends any conventional treatment of space, time, causality and narration, following exclusively the inner, deep thread that only pure art can reveal. Thus, we see the body of one character simply substituted for that of another one (for example, the wonderful scene in the prison cell in Lost Highway), or rather, in Mulholland Drive, the cloning of one’s life story from another, through a very complicated web of totally irrational but extremely powerful connections. The films’ meaning, denied to the intellect, becomes a strong, chilling subtext that finds its devastating way directly to our hearts and souls. In Lynch’s movies, however, the double is only one of many doors to the ultimate mysteries of existence; and a surreal sense of subjective, unsolved tragedy takes the place of the objective failure of identity in De Palma’s classical, geometrical work.


Toto le Héros, from Belgian director Jaco van Dormael, is an extremely complex and rich work of art, touching on many deep subjects with inspiration and grace. A unique plot structure based in the double beautifully supports its themes.

Essentially the “birth-to-death” life story of Thomas, it is more accurately his “death to death” story (à la Sunset Boulevard and Carlito’s Way), as his death scene frames and colors the story as a grotesque and ironic film noir. The actual starting point of the plot is the process of birth: the protagonist, indeed, lives his whole life with the firm conviction (maybe justified, maybe not) that, as a newborn, he was exchanged with another baby during a nursery fire. Thomas believes he is living a life not his own, and secretly hates the other child, Alfred, who has supposedly stolen his destiny, and who happens to live nearby in a wealthier family. The consequence of this mental fracture is that Thomas lives with the feeling that he is not really living, that his story is only a pale double of what could and should have been, a void without value or justification. Over the course of the plot, however, the lives of Thomas and Alfred interweave in beautiful and unpredictable ways, and the ambiguity and irrelevance of Thomas’s basic assumption becomes evident: the two parts of the double reveal their total incompleteness, their personal failures, their mirroring diversities. Dormael masterfully creates a precious vision of love, loss, solitude, friendship and compassion. In the end, we are left with the astonishing evidence that Thomas’ life has been all but void: he has touched, lived and lost almost any deep value of life, without being able to acknowledge that value.

Again, the double is a powerful symbol of the basic dissociation in human life, but given a different perspective. In De Palma’s movies the voyeur lives in a disincarnate state, and tries, without success, to “grasp” and possess the objects of life, to gain an identity and a role. In Toto le Héros Thomas lives a full and deep life, while being deprived of any sense of possession, of any chance at identification. In both cases, the result is the same: dissociation, failure, suffering.

Le coeur fait bum

Suffering, in the end, is key to the double. Lost in a jungle of multiple meanings or the desert of their absence, consciousness fights and observes, splits and multiplies; meanwhile, the heart suffers. It suffers in the innocent victims of Casualties of War, of Blow Out, of The Untouchables. It suffers in the voyeurs, in Jack Scully of Body Double or Jack “the écouteur” of Blow Out, in their lack of resolution and dignity. It suffers in the bad guys, in Tony Montana and Meserve, in their stolid absoluteness, in their cold, meaningless cruelty. It suffers in the body of Thomas, and in all of us who are looking at him, who are his voyeurs and doubles. And in the end, it suffers even in his ashes, when, during one of the cinema’s most beautiful endings, Charles Trenet’s wonderful song reminds us that, while all other things in the world may find their sound and their expression, “le coeur fait bum.” The heart is bound to pulse, suffer, feel, blow out: it constantly burns, and its ashes are thrown everywhere, all over reality.

In movies such as Body Double, Casualties of War, and Toto le Héros, we witness a complete universe that is a perfect double of our own, so tragically similar, so fascinatingly different. Our search for meaning, feeling and truth in this precious mirror-world is, in the end, not different from the touching quest of its characters.

Giuseppe Puccio lives in Palermo, Italy, with a wife, two sons and a cat. He is a pediatrician and works as a neonatologist at the Palermo University, but cinema is one of his most important interests. He has harbored an insane passion for Brian De Palma’s cinema in dignified solitude, until, tired of simply speaking endlessly to reluctant friends, he started a website (Brian De Palma’s Split World) to express a few personal thoughts about his favorite director, realizing soon, to his great surprise, that there were a few people in the world who seemed interested. Other fundamental directors in his life are Lynch, Buñuel and Truffaut.

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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.



Once Upon a 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.



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.



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.



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.



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.




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.




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.



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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Review: Intrigo: Death of an Author Is Damned by Its Lack of Self-Awareness

The film evinces neither the visceral pleasures of noir nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.




Intrigo: Death of an Author
Photo: Lionsgate

“Surprise me!” demands reclusive author Alex Henderson (Ben Kingsley) near the start of Intrigo: Death of an Author of budding novelist Henry (Benno Fürmann), who’s come to him in search of advice. As an audience member, it’s difficult not to end up making exactly the same exhortation to director Daniel Alfredson’s film. With each plot point being not only easy to predict, but also articulated and elaborated on multiple times by an awkwardly on-the-nose narration, the only shock here is that a film apparently concerned with the act of storytelling could be so lacking in self-awareness.

Henry is a translator for the recently deceased Austrian author Germund Rein and is working on a book about a man whose wife disappeared while they were holidaying in the Alps, shortly after her revelation that she would be leaving him for her therapist. Most of the tedious opening half hour of the film is taken up with Henry telling this tale to Kingsley’s enigmatic Henderson, after he meets him at his remote island villa. The pace picks up a little when David switches to giving the older writer an account of the mystery surrounding Rein’s death and how this could be connected to his story, which (surprise!) may not be entirely fictional.

Death of An Author is the most high-profile release of the Intrigo films, all directed by Alfredson and based on Håkan Nesser’s novellas. Alfredson was also at the helm of two film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but he still doesn’t appear to have developed the stylistic tools necessary to elevate his pulpy source material. Here, his aesthetic seems to be aiming for the icy polish of a modern noir, but it leans toward a safe kind of blandness, evincing neither the visceral pleasures of the genre nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

While Fürmann’s stilted central performance at times threatens to sink Death of An Author, Kingsley always appears just in time to keep the unwieldy thing afloat. Nonetheless, his character’s cynical meta commentary, alternately engaged and aloof, is ruinous: As Henderson criticizes Henry’s story, he effectively draws too much attention to the film’s own flaws.

Death of an Author’s mise en abyme framing device has a similarly self-sabotaging effect. It initially promises an interesting push and pull between a writer’s literary perspective on reality and their own lived experience, but as so much of Henry’s psychology is explained through clunky expository dialogue instead of being expressed visually, no such conflict is possible. The structure ends up just distancing us further from the characters, as well as undermining the tension generated by the more procedural elements of the plot. Ultimately, aside from some picturesque scenery and a satisfyingly dark ending, all we’re left to enjoy here is the vicarious thrill of Kingsley’s smug, scene-stealing interlocutor occasionally denouncing Henry as a hack, and implicitly dismissing the whole scenario of the film as trite and clichéd.

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Benno Fürmann, Tuva Novotny, Michael Byrne, Veronica Ferres, Daniela Lavender, Sandra Dickinson Director: Daniel Alfredson Screenwriter: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Weathering with You Lyrically and Mushily Affirms the Sky’s Majesty

Contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed the film’s increasingly mawkish tendencies.




Weathering with You
Photo: GKIDS

The lyricism of director Makoto Shinkai’s new animated film, Weathering with You, should shame the impersonality of the CGI-addled blockbusters that are usually pitched at children. An early scene finds a teenage girl, Hina (Nano Mori), floating through the sky, at times almost seeming to swim in it. This moment introduces a suggestive motif: In the film, scientists speculate that the sky possesses a habitat that, for all we know, is full of similar properties to the one in the world’s oceans. The Tokyo of Shinkai’s conception is plagued by rain that sometimes falls so hard as to suggest a tidal wave dropping out of the sky, which is a memorably scary and beautiful effect. Sometimes such rains even leave behind see-through jellyfish-like creatures that evaporate upon touch.

At their best, Shinkai’s images affirm the majesty and power of the sky and rain, intrinsic elements of life that we too often take for granted. Raindrops suggest bright white diamonds, and storms resemble cocoons of water. But Hina’s new friend, Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo), doesn’t take the weather for granted, as he’s introduced on a large passenger boat, surveying a storm that almost kills him. Running away to Tokyo from his parents, Hodaka first glances the city as the boat approaches a port, and at which point Shinkai springs another marvel: a city of vast neon light that’s been rendered with a soft, watercolor-esque delicacy.

The first 45 minutes or so of Weathering with You promisingly merge such visuals with the story of Hina and Hodaka’s blossoming romance, while introducing an amusing rogue, Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri), who offers Hodaka minimal employment as a junior reporter for a tabloid magazine. Suga gives the film a lurid quality that’s surprising for a children’s fantasy—as he milks the young Hodaka for a free meal and carouses around Tokyo at night—until Shinkai sentimentally reduces him to a routine father figure. And it’s around here that the plot grows more and more cumbersome and gradually takes over the film as Hina and Hodaka become typically misunderstood youngsters on the lam, evading the law and the Tokyo crime world. The free-floating visuals are eventually tethered to a metaphor for the specialness of Hina, who’s a mythical “sunshine girl” capable of bringing light to Tokyo’s endless storms, and for the fieriness of Hina and Hodaka’s love. Shinkai over-explains his lyrical imagery with YA tropes, compromising the dreamlike mystery of the film’s first act.

The narrative is also an implicit story of global warming, as Tokyo’s storms threaten to destroy the city, with Hina representing a potential balancing of the scales at the expense of her own earthly life. That’s a resonant concept that Shinkai never quite steers into overtly political territory—and contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed Weathering with You’s increasingly mawkish tendencies. A free-floating atmosphere, in which sky and ocean are merged, suggesting collaborative gods, is more than enough for an evocative fable. It’s a pity that Shinkai overthinks his project, frontloading it with borrowed plot machinery that goes in circles, separating lovers mostly for the sake of separating them.

Cast: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori, Shun Oguri, Kana Ichinose, Ryô Narita, Tsubasa Honda, Mone Kamishiraishi, Kana Ichinose Director: Makoto Shinkai Screenwriter: Makoto Shinkai Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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