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Review: Eulogy

1.5

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Eulogy

Unlike FOX’s brilliant Arrested Development, Eulogy‘s spectacle of nastiness doesn’t indicate a family’s greater, largely unspoken love for one another. Even when they’re kind to each other, the Bluth family from Ron Howard’s exec produced sitcom still refuses to play nice. The Bluth children are slaves to their dysfunctional upbringing, but love is clearly coded into their sarcasm. In essence: Their love is consistent with their hate. This complexity of emotion and behavior isn’t evidenced throughout Michael Clancy’s Eulogy, which betrays itself by resorting to cheap sentiment by film’s end. Sitting across the table from an about-to-be-distressed older woman, Kate Collins (Zooey Deschanel) promises to tell a doozy of a story. “All of my life my grandfather said never to pick up the phone on the first ring…and now he was dead,” begins the young woman before describing the days leading up to her grandfather’s funeral when her immediate family comes together at her grandmother’s home. In the tradition of monstrosities like Home for the Holidays and Greedy, Eulogy confuses mean-spiritedness for signs of intelligent life. George S. Clinton’s schmaltzy score is scarcely subversive, and as such belies the film’s nasty streak. Gathered around the dinner table, Mom (Piper Laurie) forces her favorite son (Hank Azaria) to speak the one-liner from his famous peanut butter commercial. When the hip dyke played by Kelly Preston announces her plans to marry her lover (Famke Janssen), her sister (Debra Winger) kills the mood with anti-gay nastiness. Everything is played for laughs, and some of it might actually be funny if it didn’t sound so outmoded. Some of the film’s random bits are amusing (Azaria’s evil twins attempt to move food products across a kitchen using only their eyes and feet), but most of the gags are less left-of-center than just plain square. Indeed, I demand an instant moratorium on films featuring moms and dads rolling doobies.

Cast: Hank Azaria, Zooey Deschanel, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Kelly Preston, Ray Romano, Debra Winger, Rip Torn Director: Michael Clancy Screenwriter: Michael Clancy Distributor: Lions Gate Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2004 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: New York, New York Movingly Wrestles with the Legacy of the Musical

New York, New York, like most Martin Scorsese films, is about the trials and glories of making art.

3.5

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New York, New York
Photo: Park Circus

With 1977’s New York, New York, director Martin Scorsese took the formulas of classic 1940s and ‘50s American movie musicals and infused them with his private obsessions. The film is a fascinating hybrid of vintage and modern aesthetics. Its sets are deliberately artificial, with streets wide enough to serve as readymade stages and cityscapes that are painterly and geometrically perfect. The crowd shots are clearly choreographed, and they’re captured in swooping dolly and tracking shots that are so virtuosic as to be subjects in themselves. Opening on V-J Day, Scorsese immediately mounts an epic blow-out set piece, as Americans celebrate the figurative end of World War II, as the camera takes us from the streets into a vast ballroom overseen by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. For a few minutes, it seems as if Scorsese is going to offer a more or less “straight” cover of the MGM and Warner Bros. musicals that he adores, giving the audience a nostalgic bath.

One element is at odds with these theatrics: the character of Jimmy Doyle, who’s played by Robert De Niro in his alienating ‘70s-era weirdo mode. It’s often said that New York, New York is an attempt on Scorsese’s part to bridge fantastic sets and songs with a realistic acting style, but there’s nothing conventionally realistic about most of De Niro’s performances for Scorsese, especially in their collaborations from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Darting into Scorsese’s intoxicating compositions, Jimmy moves with fervent speed, like Johnny Boy and Travis Bickle before him. Jimmy also has a one-track mind, and his aggressive insatiability for attention, underscored by a loud blue NYC Hawaiian shirt, stokes our unease. A dreamy epic has apparently been rested on the shoulders of a lout, which turns out to only be partially true.

The heroes of so many American musicals—as played by the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and so on—had aggressive streaks. Those films were often built around elaborate sexual manipulations, but their characters were charmers, testaments to America’s grifting spirit. De Niro doesn’t usually do charm. At this point in his career, the actor was occupied with aggression and masochism above all other human qualities; even in his greatest performances of this era, he essentially acted against himself. (An exception is his weirdly touching rapport with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.) As Jimmy initially drives the plot of New York, New York, one can’t entirely tell if the protagonist’s brashness is meant to be endearing, and this leaves a hole in the film’s first half, as we don’t enjoy the central meet cute as we do in even routine musicals. When Jimmy tries to pick up Francine Evans (Liza Minelli), a tension emerges: He’s a creep and she knows it, but he gradually wears her down.

Scorsese is often discussed as a visual maestro, but he’s always loved verbal acrobatics too, especially arias of repetitive, literate absurdism that suggest profane variations of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine. The early portions of New York, New York are often devoted to Jimmy and Francine’s bickering, which is mildly amusing until it grows hostile. This is one ‘70s influence on the film, as the emotional violence of the relationship isn’t euphemistic. There’s a relatively lighthearted moment where Jimmy, a jazz pianist, is failing to impress a nightclub manager (Dick Miller). The manager wants something lighter, where Jimmy plays aggressively as an extension of his eager-to-prove-himself personality. Francine steps in and begins to sing with him, softening Jimmy’s playing in the process, which becomes a lovely metaphor for her effect on him and for what she must see in him, in the tradition of many women inexplicably drawn to abusive, self-absorbed men: She has a hero complex.

Watching the first half of New York, New York, it’s easy to understand the film’s reputation as a strange disappointment. It’s perverse to build a glitzy musical on a dysfunctional relationship, and Scorsese’s direction lacks the sprightliness of the movies he’s emulating. He’s as obsessive as De Niro, and he’s striving for a masterpiece, stretching scenes out, trying to unearth shards of emotional truth, all against the glorious old-school backdrops. (A couple of snow vistas are straight of Swing Time and Meet Me in St. Louis.) The disjunction between tone and style engages the intellect rather than the heart, especially as Jimmy and Francine’s relationship is driven to the breaking point by her pregnancy and his drinking and drugging and infidelity.

As Jimmy’s career falters while Francine’s skyrockets, New York, New York achieves an astonishing clarity. What Scorsese is truly striving for is a remake of A Star Is Born, the greatest version of which featured Minelli’s mother, Judy Garland. At first, Minnelli is a poignantly vulnerable foil for De Niro’s thrashing about, but she gradually takes over the narrative, and the film splinters into various cinematic realities. Francine’s ascension as a movie star is dramatized via one long and brilliant sequence, the inter-movie “Happy Endings” number in which she plays a character who mirrors her own rags-to-riches story and own heartbreak over a man who can’t handle it. The sequence fuses multiple songs, multiple dance styles, offering many movies-within-movies to suggest nesting legacies of bullied women who transcended their caddish yet pitiful men. It’s even more powerful for the tonal noodling of the film’s first half, as we needed to feel Francine/Liza’s repression in order to revel in her rebirth.

An auto-critical element inevitably slips into New York, New York, imbuing it with primordial power. The film is less about Jimmy and Francine than Scorsese’s need to work with Minelli and wrestle with the legacies of her parents. (Vincente Minelli, her father, directed Garland in seven musicals, including Meet Me in St. Louis.) Scorsese needs to know if he can give Minelli a vehicle worthy of all of them, and this anxiety, this need to prove oneself, is mirrored by Jimmy’s fear of being less of an artist than Francine, which is particularly embodied by an extraordinary moment in which Jimmy leaves Francine and their boy forever in a hospital.

In the “Happy Endings” sequence, Scorsese takes A Star Is Born and crosses it with the free-associational dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain, fashioning a hall of mirrors that reflects female agency and male inadequacy. Scorsese’s films have always had a deep awe and terror of women, and here Scorsese transcends that fear to give Minelli the film she’s earned and the pedestal she has been too often denied. Belting out “New York, New York,” Francine/Liza capture the glories of singing in your own voice, of being allowed to be heard and in believing in what you’re saying, and discovering that your most unlikely fantasies of your talent might be true. But Jimmy co-wrote the song, and so it’s the one child that he and Francine had that he could acknowledge. The song is their merging, their relationship boiled down to its collaborative best. This unwieldy, ultimately quite moving musical epic is essentially about the creation of one song, and the pain that was required to forge it. In other words, New York, New York, like most Scorsese films, is about the trials and glories of making art.

Cast: Liza Minelli, Robert De Niro, Lionel Stander, Barry Primus, Mary Kay Place, Georgie Auld, Dick Miller, Clarence Clemons Director: Martin Scorsese Screenwriter: Earl Mac Rauch, Mardik Martin Distributor: Park Circus Running Time: 163 min Rating: PG Year: 1977 Buy: Video

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to score nominations, though the former’s omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the year’s best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by what’s absent than what’s present.

Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel’s contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installment’s “We Belong Together.” Cynthia Erivo’s all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldn’t be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academy’s drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen II’s “Let It Go II.”

However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disney’s top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketman’s peppy closing number “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.

Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

Could Win: “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II

Should Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

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Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole

Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.

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Kantemir Balagov
Photo: Kino Lorber

The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.

Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.

When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.

In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?

Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.

Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?

I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.

You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?

They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.

Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?

I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.

Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?

I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.

It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?

The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.

Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?

That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.

It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.

Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.

Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?

No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.

The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?

Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.

The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?

Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.

It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.

Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.

What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.

I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.

How so?

People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.

You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?

As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.

In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?

It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.

Don’t put that pressure on me!

I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.

I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.

That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.

So variation is what you hope for?

Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.

Translation by Sasha Korbut

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Review: José Vividly, If Long-Windededly, Regards Two Lovers in Limbo

Li Cheng gets much closer to capturing his characters’ predicaments when he trusts the images alone.

2.5

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José
Photo: Outsider Pictures

With José, Chinese-born filmmaker Li Cheng reminds us that, in certain cultures, apps like Grindr aren’t mere shortcuts to instant gratification, among many, but the only possible way for gay men to experience the pleasures of sex and affection, however briefly. And brief is exactly what these experiences are in the film, as the parallel life that the internet allows José (Enrique Salanic) to lead isn’t sustainable from any angle.

Indeed, everything conspires against longevity in the Guatemala City of Cheng’s film. From the owner of the sex motel that José frequents with his lover, Luis (Manolo Herrera), knocking on their door to remind them that their hour is up, to his religious mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) calling him mid-sex to come home, as well as the economically dire straits of the area, which pull men away from their partners in search of a more promising elsewhere.

This may be the strongest coincidence between José and the women who surround him: his co-worker, Monica (Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez); his grandmother (Alba Irene Lemus); and his mother. Though these women presumably didn’t need to engage in clandestine love affairs, they all seem destined to the same aftermath of abandonment. But the taboo around gayness cuts short potentially healing inter-generational exchanges around the fact that to love men today is to mourn their desertion tomorrow.

At one point in this small, beautifully shot film, José asks his grandma what happened to his grandfather, and she tells him that one day he just left and never came back. This will be José’s story, too, as the young man refuses to leave his mother behind to run away with Luis. But there’s no language, or space, to talk about love here, gay or otherwise. José listens and grieves alone, as laconic with the women in his life as he is with Luis and his other lovers.

José is at times marred by stiff acting, particularly in scenes that capture José and Luis’s quarrelling, and repetitive dialogue, as when José’s mother incessantly tells him that she could never live without him. Cheng gets much closer to capturing his characters’ predicaments when he trusts his images alone, as he does in a sequence that sees José and Luis riding together on a motorcycle, feeding each other cigarettes while en route to a secluded field where they can make love without being reminded of the temporary nature of all precious things. In fact, the bike eventually breaks down and they run out of phone credit to be able to call anyone to help them. A refreshingly long take of the bridge where the lovers stand allows us to savor their being stranded together, rooting, certainly in vain, for the limbo to last.

Cast: Enrique Salanic, Ana Cecilia Mota, Manolo Herrera, Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez, Esteban Lopez Ramirez, Cesar Lorenzo Yojcom Candido, Alba Irene Lemus, Carlos Humberto Fuentes Maldonado Director: Li Cheng Screenwriter: Li Cheng, George F. Roberson Distributor: Outsider Pictures Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.

Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)

But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Should Win: Ad Astra

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.

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Joaquin Phoenix
Photo: Warner Bros.

We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.

Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.

Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity

It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.

1.5

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The Turning
Photo: Universal Pictures

The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.

Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.

The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.

There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.

In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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