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Duelle (Une Quarantaine) (1976)

References to films-as-dreams in film criticism have risen in inverse proportion to the actual dreamlike quality of the cinema, which is all but extinct.

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Duelle (Une Quarantaine) (1976)

“There were brought together under the Empire and in Paris, thirteen men all equally possessed by the same sentiment, all of them endowed with sufficient force to remain constant to one idea, sufficiently honorable not to betray one another, even when their individual interests conflicted, sufficiently politic to conceal the sacred ties which united them, sufficiently strong to maintain themselves above the law, courageous enough to undertake anything…”
— Honoré de Balzac, History of the Thirteen

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second time as farce.”
—Karl Marx

Play is free, is in fact freedom.
Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.
—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

“Do you play often? For a lot? Which game?”
—Hermione Karagheuz as Lucie, Duelle

“You’ll find one in every car. You’ll see.”
—Tracey Walter as Miller, Repo Man

References to films-as-dreams in film criticism have risen in inverse proportion to the actual dreamlike quality of the cinema, which is all but extinct. This seems intuitively correct, insofar as dreams are dissolved in waking awareness, so a conscious endeavor to construct the dreamlike certainly sounds like a foolish enterprise, and indeed it is often met with failure. The truth is even more intangible, I think: the “ordinary” movies that were seen before the Cold War—before the game changed, and the overarching, global conspiracies once thought impossible became commonplace, even somewhat sordid—seem the artifacts of a dream country as much as, for example, the more contemporary movies of David Lynch or Alain Resnais, for whom the oneiric is not a byproduct of traditional narrative, but becomes the narrative.

These “older films,” for lack of a better label, an unnumbered quantity of which are now lost (enhancing their stature as apocryphal wonders), were produced during times when story forms were being imported from other media, or invented anew, and are obscured from our vision by the confederation of nostalgia, memory, legend and dreams. In many cases, the artifacts with the most banal trappings—the B movie (e.g. Richard Fleischer’s Follow Me Quietly, Arthur Ripley’s The Chase, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Tomorrow We Live), the whodunit (e.g. Alfred Hitchcock’s Number 17, Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour), the comic one- or two-reeler (which are legion and, consequently, defy summary)—blindsides us as they reveal themselves to be the legitimate oracles of hypnagogic, illusory illogic.

This brings up one of the universal drives that motivates cinephilia, the contradictory urges both to experience a mystery undiluted, and to solve it. For many, certain films are elevated because of this paradox—a film that is what it is, and what it isn’t. Appropriately, the surreal often selects a kind of prosaic truth-seeker as its avatar: explorers, investigators, detectives and similar figures—authoritative but alone, distinct from the miasma, looking for leads. Agents. (A lead is a thread that is pulled, in the hopes of provoking a revelation.) These people symbolize and are the desire to impose a pattern on the chaos. Marlowe, Maigret, Juve and Judex, Agents Dale Cooper and Fox Mulder, Nick and Nora, Philo Vance. The work of the investigators makes it possible to have, together in a single ring, the puzzle as well as its solution. The thrilling tales and pulp fictions are solved but not dissolved, acquired but not contained. There’s “another movie,” an unreal one that took place while you were watching the real one: the reward is that a film is more than the sum of its components. The viewer sees more than what’s onscreen, and hears more than what’s on the soundtrack. Perhaps this is what inspires some to view cinephilia with a lightly panicked suspicion: the idea that the cinema, especially that of the derelict era of volatile nitrate and rudimentary sound recording, represents the last vestiges of mysticism in our human life.

The fact is, films and dreams never have been, and are never going to be, the same thing, but films and spectators can interface in ways that spin independently of rigid, three-act etiquette. In rare cases, verbal inventory of these exchanges can sometimes prove difficult, not because we’re struck dumb with awe (although that may sometimes be the case), but because the conveyance, the quality of the transmission, even the information itself seems to have been sourced from a period before the framework of descriptive language was established, or even suggested. This, too, can unman.

If the birth of motion pictures as an art form can be traced back to the Lumière-Méliès dichotomy, i.e. the cinema as a recording of reality versus the exhibition of wondrous charms and effects, Louis Feuillade’s fictional forms, in particular the crime serials, pioneered ways to view the two fundamental impulses as a single, fused mutation. A new species. The thrilling tales of crime, sabotage and narrow escape are set in “the real,” usually in the physical city of Paris (presented for the most part with unadorned, documentary-grade authenticity), but the images are always infused with a dreamlike quality, and so too is the city. This “effect” is not achieved through mirrors, smoke, makeup or cutting, but by way of the viewer’s role as eyewitness to the strange narratives, which do not dissolve the integrity of the city’s sidewalks, parks and skylines, but show that all solid floors are porous, that all walls and doors are subject to filtration from the other side. A mirror is not a mirror; a window is entry and egress; rooftops become game arenas. A painting, curiously, is half-shielded by an elegant curtain. In the Feuillade matrix, the movie seems to be happening in two places: on the screen before us, and just past the edge of cognition.

This doubling is repeated in countless ways in Feuillade’s universe, which is rife with dual identities, an overlap between documentary and artifice, dead characters who return to life, paintings that conceal secret passages. His crime serials weld together meticulously arranged sets at Gaumont with real life on the streets of Paris, effectively cloaking our view of that city with the patina of a past that existed only in dreams. Given that Feuillade is one of Jacques Rivette’s spiritual forefathers, one can imagine the atmosphere in which the latter made his first films. Rivette deals with the anxiety of influence in a manner similar to his New Wave compatriots, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, through visible contemplation, rather than denial, of his inheritance.

There is also the impulse to go beyond the progenitors of the moving picture, beyond even the writers and artists of the 19th century, beyond Aeschylus: in Rivette, characters often find themselves in states of absolute euphoria, or mania—sometimes induced, sometimes beset—during which they seem to be experiencing the familiar world as if they were prehistoric humans, or infants. Experience is shattered, torn up, hurriedly erased and redrawn. The primal-infantile dimension is crucial, for it’s here that the explorer is far enough away from the world to witness its infinite lattice of connective tissue.

But is it all an act? The Rivette model of the universe, which is delineated by his unique approach to narrative, performance, shooting, cutting and sound, but crucially the recurring variety of themes (including investigation, play, paranoia, as well as the mundane, workaday life of his large cast of Parisians) is not the one that has a center and a defined edge. It’s the one that you cannot exit without reentry, and in which all perfectly straight lines ultimately inscribe a perfect circle. Logically, in Rivette, if you “freak out,” as an exercise or as an affliction, you experience not a departure from Earth, from the human race, but an arrival.

The Rivette landscape is littered with an infinite variety of paradoxes, doublings, matched pairs whose components should dissolve on cohabitation but remain stable. One cause-effect that keeps coming up is the game that becomes real, and this happens almost subliminally in the director’s 1976 masterpiece, Duelle (Une Quarantaine): reconfiguring the premise of Celine and Julie Go Boatinga> (in which a Marilyn Monroe-Jane Russell-style pair of beautiful young women, meeting each other by chance, assume the role of amateur detectives in what may be a case of metaphysical dimensions) by turning the deceptively flaky protagonists of Rivette’s 1974 film into otherworldly opponents in a skirmish across planets, across dimensions. The film opens on playacting (dancing on a globe in the lobby of a decrepit hotel; the second girl arrives on the scene and, with minimal pretext, the new pair are inspired to embark on a little sleuthing) and some time passes before the first casualties appear, and it dawns on us that it’s been serious business all along.

Along the way, the film careens in, out, and across many of the spaces employed previously by Feuillade, and some others that recur in other of Rivette’s work: places of ritual and game, seedy dens of vice, dive bars, dance studios, open-air parks, bridges, hotel suites, metro stations and, memorably, an aquarium. The zones seem emptied-out, curiously underpopulated, as if crowds would disrupt the signal, break the spell. Each zone, too, is thoroughly exploited for its theatrical utility. Dance (legitimate dance and balletic movement sewn into the fabric of the actors’ movement) is performed as often as it is not, under a variety of circumstances (getting information, rearing to strike at one’s opponent), and while 99% of film and television stories are almost abjectly desperate in their compulsion to reassure audiences that characters are different from actors, that characters are earthly while movie stars are divine, and that everything is painlessly literal and dry of poetry, the characters in Duelle play make-believe so often (pretending to be drunk, to be naïve, to have been wounded) that the fantastic aspects of the tale literally consume what precious little was prosaic to begin with; the characters amplify the celestial qualities of their actors to mythic levels; and nothing but nothing is as it seems.

As I mentioned earlier, an inventory of the contents of the house doesn’t do much to convey the rhythm and style of Rivette’s wide-awake-and-dreaming style, which imbues every tableau with the sense and texture of a dream (of falling, of drowning, of being chased). You can survey his matrix of codewords, amulets and other objects of talismanic significance, and references to underground groups (before, they were The Thirteen, this time they’re the Salamanders), but a full assessment of Duelle must also take into account the “other movie,” the one we thought we caught a glimpse of, but never entered into view—the film beyond the door, behind the wall, and under the floor. Rivette grants permission to believe that his films often have a phantom twin with subtle gestures, such as the piano music, played for a private party, that turns out to be diegetically sourced. It’s a comic reveal—it’s not like you’re not free to laugh with Rivette—but it’s also not the last time the director tips his hand in this regard, pointing to the curtain but maintaining concealment.

Eric Rohmer’s most Duelle-like film, 1984’s Full Moon in Paris, pays visual and spiritual homage to Rivette in a number of ways—not so much the casting of the ill-fated Pascale Ogier (who died of a heart attack one day before her 26th birthday, in October of 1984, who worked with Rohmer first in Perceval le Gallois [1978]), but with its uncharacteristic (for Rohmer) vision of Paris as a series of twilit zones inhabited by dragging insomniacs, and early mornings of architecturally perfect but grey and depopulated urban landscapes, punctuated at a key moment by a full moon over the abyss, an insert that occurs three times in Duelle. Is Paris the most haunted city? In Alphaville, Godard was able to turn the city into an alien planet using only a few night shots and the power of suggestion, and Philippe Garrel’s 2005 Regular Lovers is nothing if not about the ghosts of 1871 and 1968.

The half dozen pages of notebook paper I scribbled across during a recent viewing of Duelle (a pristine 35mm print) are, of course, only slightly less adequate at capturing the power of the film than a fleshed-out review or essay. Curiously, each jotting summarized a piece of visual or aural evidence, individually retaining the character of a talisman, a prop from a magic show, a one-of-a-kind dress, jacket, or gown. Everything was charmed: it wasn’t just champagne, it was “the champagne in Duelle,” you put some behind your ear for luck. The tortoise, the red key and the red stone, the cracked mirror. All evidence of great, unfathomable truth, or a pattern of misdirection. Either way, I was an accomplice.

Jaime N. Christley spends his time with flickers and shades, filing his correspondence at Out, damned spot! and Unexamined/Essentials.

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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

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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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