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He’s the Internet: A Conversation on Japanese Director Satoshi Kon

Oshii, Miyazaki, and Kon.

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Satoshi Kon
Photo: Eleven Arts

“Satoshi Kon: Beyond Imagination” opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs through July 1st. In anticipation of the retrospective, Brendon Bouzard, John Lichman, and Keith Uhlich gathered at Grassroots Tavern to discuss Kon and his work. See after the break for their podcast conversation and a transcript, slightly edited for clarity. To download the podcast, click Shooting Down Pictures.

John Lichman: Hello and welcome to a House Next Door podcast featuring myself, John Lichman, contributor and author of “Idiot Savant Japan,” the somewhat bi-weekly column if I remember to write it. Joined here with Keith Uhlich, editor of The House.

Keith Uhlich: Howdy, howdy John.

Lichman: And Brendon Bouzard of My Five Year Plan. Which is currently on the third year.

Brendon Bouzard: Yes! Just entered my third year on the five year plan.

Uhlich: And we’re here today to talk about…

Bouzard: …the films of Satoshi Kon. As well as his television series, Paranoia Agent.

Uhlich: And this is because of an upcoming retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Lichman: Which runs June 27th to July 1st, where on the opening night we have a conversation with Satoshi Kon after a screening of Paprika. So I think it’s fitting we start off on his most recent film.

Uhlich: And before we do, I should say that where I’m currently coming from is I’ve watched all of Kon’s movies, but I haven’t watched them recently. So I’m going mainly by memory on everything, and what I’m actually is that the movies are pretty fresh in my memory in spite of having some distance from them. Brendon, what about you?

Bouzard: I just rewatched all of the features. I have not seen Paranoia Agent, but I rewatched all the features over the past couple of weeks so they’re relatively fresh in my mind. And being able to see them all together at a clip allowed me to see a lot of the similarities and some of the subtle differences between the films, which I really appreciated.

Uhlich: And John?

Lichman: And I’m coming from somewhere.

Uhlich: Coming from where?

Lichman: Somewhere.

Uhlich: That’s fine. You’re the middle ground.

Lichman: Brendon, you’ve actually brought up an interesting point of how Kon’s films tend to blend together. He’s had four major motion pictures and one TV series, and most of the films, aside from Tokyo Godfathers, follow a very new media nightmare—it’s always an information driven society that eventually destroys itself and then rebuilds after the fact. Do you see any recurring themes like that? How would you interpret those?

Bouzard: I think Kon is up there with De Palma and a few other filmmakers working today whose films are grounded in a very strong understanding of theory and, specifically, of the means by which film communicates, theoretically, as a medium. I think that three of his films—Paprika, Millennium Actress, and Perfect Blue all sort of work together. Obviously two of them are specifically about filmmaking in one way or another. But they all sort of comment on the relationship between the spectator and the onscreen figure—the female onscreen figure—in a way that is really compelling.

Uhlich: And always a female onscreen figure?

Lichman: Aside from Tokyo Godfathers all three have lead female figures. Part of the reason, at least from what Kon said in an interview, is that he thinks women are more interesting than men, and that having a male lead is pointless.

Uhlich: Which is something that De Palma actually has echoed in his own filmmaking as well—an interesting point of comparison.

Bouzard: Both of them are extremely intelligent about film. Both of them have seen a lot of films, obviously, and they both draw a lot on the same filmmakers. Both have been compared to Hitchcock. Perfect Blue has gotten the Hitchcock comparison quite a few times and of course De Palma can’t quite escape that in criticism. But I think the two are very similar, at least in terms of their understanding of the female figure as relates to the audience.

Uhlich: This brings up a point: in anime I know the portrayal of women is something that’s often discussed, sometimes disparaged. John, I’d turn to you on that and say does Kon bring a different perspective on the female form to his movies than is traditional in anime or does he tweak it in some way?

Lichman: Well I think he tweaks it in that you’re not dealing with a magical pretty sailor girl or a buxom bouncy bubbly person. You’re dealing with very averagely drawn characters; the only people who really are exaggerated in Kon’s work are either the elderly or the male figure. Women are always drawn in a very subtle, non-assuming style, unless he makes them be extravagant. Like in Paprika and Millennium Actress where the women portray characters in order to protect themselves.

Uhlich: Where they have alter-egos.

Lichman: When the alter-egos are used as protection. They’re not used to attack. They’re not used to pry. They’re used as a defense mechanism. There’s that great scene in Paprika where—I’m not going to remember any of their names, which is awful—where Paprika is being stripped of her alter-ego and then she’s a very plain looking woman left naked on the table. And the co-worker who’s doing that to her remarks how beautiful that is. So even though Paprika is this beautiful pixieish woman, this is what’s really underneath her and it’s better than being the pixie. So I think Kon has a very interesting realism when it comes to a female character, one I’d say that’s not used anywhere else. The only others who may treat women that well the two other major anime directors: Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. With Kon, they’re the only three. I think it’s worth it to say: they’re the three mainstream directors of anime.

Bouzard: They’re the three that have sort of crossed over to Western audiences on that level. I think it’s interesting though that Kon’s treatment of women has developed over the course of his career. If you look at something like Perfect Blue and the treatment of Mima: to a certain extent, one could make the argument that he includes a few fan service shots of Mima over the course of the film. Mima is of course nude at various points, but I think that even then he’s very intelligent about how he does that. Perfect Blue is so much about spectatorship that it makes the audience complicit in the exploitation of Mima when, for instance, she’s being photographed by that photographer who basically takes advantage of her and sort of elevates the stalker’s insanity to the next level. Whereas later Kon films, I think, go more towards a level of respect and understanding of femininity.

Lichman: I want to bring up a point since we got on the track of Oshii and Miyazaki. These are the three best received anime directors for Western audiences right now.

Uhlich: Oshii, Miyazaki, and Kon.

Lichman: And I think it represents a great trio because you have Miyazaki who is heavily the mainstream favorite. He has family-friendly fare that is actually social satire. And being repped by Disney doesn’t hurt because that guarantees box office. Then you have Oshii who is basically art-house. No matter what he does he can’t get out of the art-house, and he likes it there. And then you have Kon, who straddles this middle ground of extremely highbrow thinking. I mean in terms of identity, of femininity, of what it means to be a digital culture, of what it means to be an apocalyptic culture, of living in the shadow of the bomb… you can go on and on. But he’s very much a 21st-century thinker. And yet he juxtaposes that with extremely cartoony images, like the parade sequence in Paprika. And I’m trying to figure out, do we think Kon is happy there? Does living in that middle ground give him the freedom to do something like Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers?

Bouzard: Well the thing about Tokyo Godfathers: on so many levels that is a film that can be appreciated by pretty much anyone. It’s a very heartwarming film. It’s got a lot of extremely funny stuff in it. The characters are extraordinarily likable. And yet there’s this darkness to it that I feel nevertheless would prevent its reception by a large cross-section of the audience. And so in terms of it being a middle ground—I feel Kon really is a middle ground. He blends elements in Tokyo Godfathers and the art of the film reflects this in the very realistic portrayal of these three homeless people in Tokyo.

Lichman: See this also brings up another idea of mine: If you look at how Kon’s work has progressed, when Perfect Blue first premiered in New York it played the Angelika. That was it. Then when Millennium Actress came out: Angelika and Landmark. Tokyo Godfathers comes out: Angelika and Landmark. Paprika comes out: most of the chain theaters, Angelika, and Landmark. It just shows that he’s being more and more accepted, but I think it’s unheard of for an anime director to get that acclaim.

Bouzard: Especially with what I’d say is probably his most difficult film, Paprika. It’s probably the hardest to glean a lot of meaning from, at least on a first viewing.

Uhlich: And especially if you’re not familiar with some of the earlier works because it really does grow out of them. (As you were pointing out, John, the ending of Paprika with the three movie posters of the films that Kon had directed previous on the marquee—that sort of cyclical thing that’s there in pretty much everything he’s done). Just to go on something with the middlebrow idea.

Lichman: I don’t think it’s middlebrow. I think it’s middle ground.

Uhlich: Yeah, I know what you mean, but it just brought up something in my mind about my first reaction to Paprika. I liked it more on the second viewing, but the first time out… I’ve always found that Kon’s apocalypse’s, and there are a few, save for Millennium Actress which I actually think does that more psychologically and emotionally than the others. Yet I felt like the ones in Paranoia Agent and Paprika kind of paled in comparison to what I feel is the definitive anime apocalypse, which is Evangelion by Hideaki Anno.

Lichman: Going into Eva’s a whole other can of worms.

Uhlich: I’m sure it is and that’s why it’s probably something of an unfair comparison. Kon approaches it differently than Anno does, but I’m just saying purely from the visceral sense of apocalypse portrayed, I’ve always felt like that’s one of the weaker aspects of Kon because it seems so tossed off and thrown away to me. And maybe that’s the point. If we’re talking about getting the anime out of the ghetto, maybe it’s getting it out of the “we’re influenced by the atomic bomb” ghetto.

Lichman: But you’re never gonna get out of that. Every part of anime is taken from the Little Boy standpoint of Takashi Murakami, which is robots, atomic bomb, apocalypse, atomic bomb, changing oneself, atomic bomb, dystopian future, atomic bomb. These are all things that are ingrained in their culture. You can’t take away that and still expect to get the same product.

Uhlich: Right, but what you’re saying is that Kon is appealing to a more Western audience.

Lichman: He’s appealing to them through the art style. He’s always had a very mundane style of art. All his characters look very humanesque and no one’s really exaggerated except for in Paprika where she dons the avatar. Paprika is the bubbly pixie, and she flies through billboards and she flies through signs for eating fast food, J-Pops behind her. I mean that’s the deal. But as her regular self she’s a boring, flat, straight-lined, dark-haired figure.

Uhlich: But then there’s the guy, her assistant, the big portly assistant…

Lichman: He’s otaku. He’s fat. He likes robots. And, eventually, when the dream world takes over, he sees himself as a robot. Not just any robot, but a 1950s sci-fi chic robot that goes out and wants to help people, but yet causes more damage, which—you can say right there—that’s the US Army. That’s how people can see that.

Uhlich: But I’m just thinking of this appeal to Western sensibilities as much as Eastern because there’s even history of that in, say, Iranian culture with Kiarostami or Majidi or Panahi. I would say at their worst they play to prejudices that Westerners harbor about Easterners. Because they know that will get them more exposure. And I’m not saying they always do that. And I’m not necessarily saying Kon is doing that, but just because of his appeal, do you see anything of that in his work?

Lichman: I do, but let’s go back to the main three argument. Miyazaki, Kon, and Oshii all use apocalypse. All use dystopian future. All use a corruption of modernity. And I think that’s what appeals most. They’re moving out of the whole Little Boy phase and into the fact that the world is a corrupt place anyway, and there’s no more perfect example of that than the Internet. Than digital culture.

Uhlich: Oshii’s Fast Food Grifters movie is very much about that.

Lichman: Oshii is huge into that style. He also did that adaptation of Avalon. I mean Oshii is very much stuck in that and maybe that’s why he’s doomed for the art-house. But Kon knows that he can trick his viewers. He’s going to show you a very pretty thing, but really it’s going to be much darker. It’s not going to be Miyazaki level pretty. Actually, this is important. When you say Miyazaki, you say anime. When you say Kon, most times you say film. Kon’s transitioning out of anime into some other weird realm.

Uhlich: Well bringing up this idea of the trickster is interesting because that really is ingrained in a lot of his work. And I’m thinking especially of Paprika when Kon is actually in the movie as one of the cyberbar bartenders who help out the detective. And he’s sort of copping to the fact that he’s playing with your mind and such.

Lichman: It’s a bar that you can only reach by going on the Internet. So that takes into account the whole aspect of social networking. You pretend you’re going to a bar without going to a bar. Is the detective actually in a bar or is he sitting at his computer watching this animated feature play out? I mean Kon is a master, pardon my French for a second, of mindfucking. He was working on Paprika while doing Paranoia Agent and those two rub off on each other.

Uhlich: They really do, yeah.

Lichman: So I wonder, Keith, if you can actually go into the themes of Paranoia Agent, ’cause we’ve been going over Paprika nonstop. Paranoia Agent was the 24 episode…

Uhlich: No it’s only…

Bouzard: …13. A 13 episode series.

Lichman: Gosh, it seems a lot longer. A 13 episode series focusing around what we at first think is the Little Slugger attacks, but quickly turns into another story.

Uhlich: There’s basically this figure attacking people in Tokyo, and he’s this kid on rollerblades with a cap down over his eyes, and he has a hockey stick, and he comes at you, and he basically hits you…

Lichman: It’s a baseball bat. It’s a crooked baseball bat.

Uhlich: Right. Right. It’s a crooked baseball bat. This is why I need to have seen it more recently, but yeah, it’s a crooked baseball bat, essentially I assume from all the people he’s hit—it’s just gotten that shape. And once you’re hit you become part of this shared madness in the city…

Lichman: You become part of it, or you wake up to it? It’s like being hit and once you’re hit, you’re awakened to what’s going on.

Uhlich: Right, exactly. When that’s first happening, it seems like madness because it’s only affecting a few people, but the minute madness tips into the majority, it can become sanity. And the whole opening of Paranoia Agent is everyone in the series laughing in maniacal unison while the city around them moves in fast motion. And that’s definitely a Kon image in that it’s an image of shared madness.

Lichman: Don’t forget the final sequence of the opening as a mushroom cloud comes up over Tokyo. And yeah, it’s a great image for Kon. I think he’s coming back to the whole theme of apocalypse, which he and a bunch of other directors are very much accepting of.

Uhlich: It’s an image of unitedness. And I’m remembering this one episode of the series (“ETC”), which basically takes place among these ladies in an apartment complex who gossip to each other, and each of their stories that they tell about Little Slugger is shown as a five minute interlude. At the end, Kon zooms up above the apartment complex and you see the buildings themselves are shaped into either a number or a symbol that specifically refers to Little Slugger. So it’s like they’re gossiping about it, but they’re also being affected by it without even really knowing it. And that’s later in the series, so at that point Little Slugger is infecting the populace whether or not he’s actually hit you.

Bouzard: The collective experience of madness comes up again and again in Kon’s films. And I think the example that stands out strongest for me is in Millennium Actress. The way that the three figures of the actress as well as the documentarian and his cameraman all find themselves collectively in this world that exists between her memories of the past and her films, sort of blending the two together. And in a way it represents the collective memory of the audience—the filmgoing audience of Japan over this very historically specific period—and it regards collective historical memory as a sort of shared delusion. Of all his films, I think Millennium Actress is the one that’s the most grounded in reality, and yet it’s the one that I think formally interrogates that question of where reality and fantasy blend together in the strongest sense.

Lichman: I’ve always enjoyed how Kon assumes his audience is global. Millennium Actress is inherently Japanese. As you were saying earlier before we were recording, he looks at Ozu and never says you’re looking at an Ozu film. He looks at Chanbara, but you’re not looking at a Chanbara film. In Paprika he models one of the characters after a screenshot of Akira Kurosawa. And another shot in Paprika is entrusted to Son Goku, not of Dragon Ball, but of Journey to the West. And most people won’t get that image.

Uhlich: They won’t get it, but they will. I think that’s probably the key.

Bouzard: Yeah, he draws on images that are part of the collective visual culture of Japan, but also more, in Paprika, of the West.

Lichman: And that’s why you can tell that he’s spreading. ’Cause either he’s spreading or we’re all combining—Eastern and Western images are combining. And there’s no longer a big divide. Now it’s: “Oh that’s the rising sun flag. I know exactly what that means.” Or: “There’s the battleship Yamato. I know the history behind that now.” Or: “There’s two smoking towers. I know that.” Or: “There’s a square-jawed white guy on the TV screen. That’s Kennedy.” That’s actually another weird tangent I want to get off on for a sec. Kennedy is the most iconic American president figure in Japanese animation. And I don’t know why.

Uhlich: Really? Hm. I seem to recall Oshii put him in a movie.

Lichman: In 70s and 80s anime, Kennedy is the American president. And even in the early 90s. I don’t know if that builds up from the whole icon aspect of the animation, and of the global figure. ’Cause Kennedy’s probably one of the most globally known US presidents.

Bouzard: He died young. He was a very telegenic figure. A lot of the myth of Kennedy comes from the whole idea of the television age and people being able to see him, which helped him win the debates against Nixon. So I think the iconic image of Kennedy is one that’s very strong for all viewers.

Uhlich: Kennedy was coming up during a time when televisions were really, really infiltrating worldwide. Moreso than with Ike. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if, in Japanese culture, especially post-war, he was the first American president that the masses of Japan had a collective image of. That’s a proposition. I’m not entirely certain.

Lichman: Here’s a theory for you all. If we consider Miyazaki to be the storyteller who relies on fantasy imagery. If we consider Oshii to be the avante-garde New Wave. Is Kon then truly middle ground in that he is television?

Uhlich: See middle ground just sounds so negative to me…

Bouzard: Yeah.

Lichman: I know, but he just seems the perfect balance of the art-house and the mainstream.

Uhlich: Maybe it’s because I don’t necessarily think of movies in terms of art-house and mainstream that I’m resisting that. I think that there are just figures who are more polarizing to people than others. Oshii I can absolutely see why because his movies can be very lethargic and really disturbingly hypnotic, and—I don’t mean this as a criticism—incoherent. There’s an incoherence to Oshii that actually works on the level of a dream. I think Kon is a bit more coherent. I think you can read a Kon film with story. You can read it as a dream. There are a lot of elements and layers that he works on for different people and I can see why because if you go to it as, say, a fanboy I think you’ll get your anime fix. If you go to it as, “Oh, I want to see something at the art-house” I think you’ll get that with Kon. If you even just want to see a kind of mainstream, plot-driven whatever, I think you can get that out of him as well. Again, I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, I just believe there’s something of an incoherent dream logic to a lot of anime. But in Paprika I think you can pretty much figure out what the story is. I don’t think that it’s that hard to figure out for anybody. I think he delineates what the dream space and the real space are enough that people get it.

Lichman: Or blends them together.

Bouzard: The word that you use that I think is really good is “delineate.” “Linear.” There’s a linearity to Miyazaki that is part of what I think makes him so accessible to people and I think part of what makes Kon accessible to people is that there’s a basic linearity to the narrative, vs. what you see as the incoherence of Oshii. The fact that there’s this sort of through-line temporally, even though his films blend fantasy and reality, and even venture into the past. I feel as though there’s a definite through-line that you can follow in any of Kon’s films. And yet they do sort of fold in fantasy and the past. And if you can say he’s a middle ground between the two, I think it’s in the degree to which he relies on linear storytelling. John. you brought up the issue of “Is Kon television?” I would actually say he’s the Internet. You can follow the pathway between various hyperlinks and you can find a coherent narrative, but there’s also so many other tangents that are being drawn into every moment. He uses the Internet motif so often in his films.

Uhlich: And I think that this differentiates him from Miyazaki as well. Brendon, you were positing him as something of a more popular figure than Miyazaki. Certainly Miyazaki’s films have made a lot of money in this country, but at the same time there’s also a kind of antiquated fairytale aspect to his films, whereas Kon is engaging in the present tense and the present moment. I would say Miyazaki tends to model his characters, at least to Western eyes, and maybe he’s not doing this consciously, but I think his characters would appeal more immediately to children. Or those, let’s say, with younger eyes. Whereas Kon is drawing adults in animation realistically.

Lichman: I agree with that. Miyazaki’s a radical, leftist…

Uhlich: Environmentalist.

Lichman: Yeah, I mean he would hate Kon because Kon champions technology. I mean that’s where they split right there.

Uhlich: Do you think Kon is championing technology or that he just accepts that it’s there and he looks at it in all its complexity?

Lichman: I think he realizes what… you know the complexity argument… he sees it and he realizes that that’s what the society is based on right now.

Uhlich: Now that I think about it, when I look at the apocalypses in Kon, maybe what is bothering me that I’m now starting to put together is I don’t necessarily find them horrifying. In Anno’s Evangelion, it’s horrifying and legitimately like a psychological scar, a wound being ripped into your brain. Whereas in Kon, you look at it and it’s just a fact. It’s a fact and it’s there. Technology can lead to this, but it can also lead to Paprika (the doctor who is Paprika) and her assistant connecting on a very human level. So he sees the beauty and the horror at the same emotional level.

Lichman: But if you do have, like the scene in Paprika where there is the big apocalyptic moment that I think actually “Eschers” Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira. You know, the gigantic white light, the sphere appearing around the city. It’s like the final scene from Akira when Tetsuo’s about to explode and the entire city gets destroyed in another blast. Yet it gets swallowed in on itself and instead of death it brings back the entire world. And let’s the world be reborn.

Bouzard: And, of course, Ôtomo was Kon’s mentor.

Lichman: Kon does show the grittiness of what happens, but he’s also very careful to follow it up with, “But look at the bright side. It’s not going to happen. If we have someone to check it, we’ll be fine. If there was no one like Paprika who would want to stop this from happening, then we would all be dead.” Which is fatalistic, but hey… Brendon: We keep talking about Paprika and Paranoia Agent. You have drawn some comparisons between Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue.

Bouzard: I think they’re two sides of the same coin. Both of them are essentially about the relationship between a woman and her audience, specifically a fan. In Perfect Blue it’s this extremely dangerous relationship between Mima and her stalker, as well as her other stalker as it turns out. And in Millennium Actress, it’s the documentarian who’s been a lifelong fan of the actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. And throughout the film, as she’s reliving these moments from her various films, or these moments from her life, the documentarian consistently reinvents himself as this knight in shining armor who rushes in and saves her at the last moment. To a certain extent, I think both of the films are about the way that the audience injects themself into a narrative. The way that they relate to the onscreen figures. And the way that they project themselves into these stories. In the same way that Paprika shows you the apocalypse, but then pulls back and says, “But this isn’t gonna happen,” I think that Perfect Blue shows you an extremely dangerous relationship between a performer and her fan and then Millennium Actress pulls back and says “Okay, but this is more likely.”

Uhlich: So those two films engage in the dialectic that then in subsequent films he blends into a single story.

Bouzard: Absolutely. And I think Paprika is where he blends that most cogently. Tokyo Godfathers I consider a bit of an anomaly.

Lichman: It’s funny because Kon’s next film is going to be a children’s fairy tale, which has me really worried.

Uhlich: What is it called?

Lichman: It has a name. I don’t know it offhand. I just know that it’s about two kids who find a book and then they live out the fairy tale. And I’m wondering if we’re not supposed to be seeing some theme here: we have Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Paprika and Paranoia Agent. And then Tokyo Godfathers and this fantasy film. Is he creating these dual notions?

Uhlich: I would just say that in terms of Tokyo Godfathers: it does fit in with his other films in terms of people living as a collective mind. Having their own very defined individual personalities in Tokyo Godfathers, and very disparate personalities in a lot of ways, and then having that thing, essentially, that brings them together. Paprika, as you say, bringing the darkness and the light together in harmony. As the baby in Tokyo Godfathers bring this trio together. I think the trio… it’s taken from John Ford, but certainly I think there’s a Catholic reading, or a Christian reading to be given to it.

Bouzard: A very explicit one because in the beginning of the film, the first images are of the three wise men showing up at a Nativity scene.

Uhlich: Indeed. But also acknowledging the present day in the sense of: there’s a transsexual, there’s a girl, there’s a man. They all have their traumas. One of the things I’d actually like to get into, and this is a comparison between Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, is that both that film and that TV series hinge around a character’s relationship to a pet that died when they were a kid. This is something that a lot of people were nonplussed by… that the pet was the cause of this girl’s psychological grief. As it is in Paranoia Agent. I have this feeling that that is something that’s very specifically Japanese, this worshiping of a pet or an animal. I wonder if either of you might be able to expound on that.

Lichman: I don’t think it would be the worshiping of a pet. I think it’s more about childhood and being forced to move on.

Uhlich: Right. But in hearing and reading about Japanese culture, in seeing that most signs and other public spaces have cartoon animals that are everywhere telling you what to do and where to go, I don’t think of it just as a childhood thing. There’s something about the way Kon puts those two incidents across. He portrays it very seriously. It’s not just flippant: “Oh, the reason she’s fucked up is because her dog died.” No. It’s a real big trauma. And yes it happened during childhood, but it’s still rooted in the culture in some way. Or so it seems, from what I understand about Japanese culture, the place animals have in it, and the way that’s it’s portrayed in Kon’s films, those two specifically.

Bouzard: Yeah.

Uhlich: In Paranoia Agent, it’s essentially the catalyst for the entire series. The reason the whole city is going mad is because this girl created a toy based on her dead dog. Her emotion surrounding that event, of that dog getting run over, infects the populace. And they all react to varying degrees in shared emotionalism, in shared madness.

Lichman: I would read that as bad childhood memories, but moreso of remembering hardships from early on in your life. And having that affect you later. I don’t know how much I would read the animals into that. But…

Uhlich: So do you think it’s more metaphorical?

Lichman: I’m gonna go with more metaphorical. The animal thing is interesting and there may be something to it, but I don’t know what because I can’t speak to it. I’m going to lean towards the more metaphorical aspect of being brought up and having this awful memory in your past, and you can’t quite define it. But it sets you for the rest of your life—who you’re going to become. Which also leads back into the whole Little Boy theory. Of an entire infantilized culture.

Bouzard: I’m not of an opinion either way on this animal issue, although I do remember in Perfect Blue one of Mima’s obsessions are these pet fish that she has. And she has a traumatic vision of all her pet fish dying.

Lichman: Man, this is like an untapped animal thing that we’re getting on now. We got to write to Film Comment right away.

Uhlich: I remember thinking about it just because I saw Paranoia Agent and Tokyo Godfathers in close succession and it was striking to me ’cause it seemed to tap into something very much of Eastern culture. When I first saw it I didn’t quite know how to react to it. It didn’t really touch me that deeply on any level. But then when I saw other critics writing from a Western perspective and saying, “Oh, it all comes down to that?” I thought, “Well why not.” And I don’t think Kon’s necessarily saying it all comes down to that. But he is portraying something that’s very ingrained and deeply traumatic to these particular characters. I can’t think of anything comparable in Millennium Actress or Paprika necessarily, but it seems like these are driving psychological stressors in the other films, just another avenue of exploration.

Lichman: That might be a good note to end out on as we uncover a brand new aspect of Kon that I actually have never thought about before.

Uhlich: Well… Film Comment I hope you come calling after you hear this. If you’ve listened to the end, as Vadim says. Any final thoughts on Kon?

Lichman: I stand by the fact that I think he is going to become more influential in the coming years. I think it’s interesting that he’s backed by Studio Madhouse who are one of the main independent studios. (All creator-run and creator-owned for the most part, unless they’re hired out to do backgrounds or something of the sort.) And it shows in that he’s only worked on his own projects, which is a rarity for an anime director or for anyone involved in anime. Even Miyazaki had to do background—in-betweens, foreground, background. Was Kon Otomo’s apprentice or was he…

Bouzard: Otomo was his mentor and I think Kon did scene design for one or two of Otomo’s projects, but yeah he didn’t have to pay that many dues in order to get his directing position.

Lichman: Which is unheard of. In the anime system today, you have to wait until you’re 30 or 35 until you’re even given art director or until you’re put in charge of a group. In your twenties you’re told to do in-between. You’re told to do background, and that’s why there’s a lack of current anime. Or a lack of current anime directors, ’cause you have guys like Shinichirô Watanabe who did Cowboy Bebop. He’s fairly old. Most younger guys are leaving the studio system and handmaking everything. And Kon exerts amazing creative control.

Uhlich: His hands are all over everything.

Lichman: And that’s extremely admirable… I love Kon’s work…

Uhlich: And it should be seen on the big screen on Walter Reade.

Bouzard: Absolutely.

Uhlich: So everybody get there because he’s well worth it.

Lichman: So to change our usual ending. For The House Next Door, I’m John Lichman.

Uhlich: I’m Keith Uhlich.

Bouzard: I’m Brendon Bouzard.

Lichman: And if you see us at Walter Reade, please buy us a soda pop.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love

It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.

Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.

The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.

Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?

Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.

Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?

Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—

Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.

Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?

Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.

Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?

Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.

I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.

Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?

Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”

When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?

Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.

Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.

There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?

Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.

Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?

Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.

We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?

Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.

Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.

You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?

Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.

Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.

In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?

Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.

Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.

Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”

Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.

Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!

Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?

Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.

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Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More

The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.

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Angela Schanelec
Photo: Joaquim Gem

One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.

Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.

That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.

Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.

Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?

I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.

What’s so difficult about it?

Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.

Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?

It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.

In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.

This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.

To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?

To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.

I agree.

And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.

Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.

What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.

One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.

You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.

You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?

Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.

I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?

I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.

I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?

No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked

Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Photo: Neon

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.


Crash

92. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz

What Should Have Won: Munich


Cimarron

91. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Front Page


Out of Africa

90. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Color Purple


A Beautiful Mind

89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Gosford Park


Braveheart

88. Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick

What Should Have Won: Babe


The Broadway Melody

87. The Broadway Melody (1930)

Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona


Around the World in 80 Days

86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion


Shakespeare in Love

85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin

What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line


Gladiator

84. Gladiator (2000)

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have Won: Traffic


The Greatest Shot on Earth

83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man


American Beauty

82. American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Insider


Argo

81. Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley

What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Picture

How could the essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in our cultural moment?

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

We now have roughly a decade’s worth of data to postulate how ranked-choice ballots have altered the outcome of the top Oscar prize, and we’ve come to understand what the notion of a “most broadly liked” contender actually entails. And in the wake of wins for The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, The Shape of Water, and most especially Green Book last year, we’re left with the impression that the biggest change in what defines a best picture is no change whatsoever. In fact, what appears to have happened is that it’s acted as a bulwark, preserving the AMPAS’s “tradition of quality” in the top prize during a decade in which the concept of a run-the-table Oscar juggernaut has shifted from the postcard pictorials of Out of Africa to immersive epics like Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which won two to three times as many awards as the films they lost out to for the top prize.

We’re far from the only ones who’ve noticed that—Moonlight eternally excepted—the contours of best picture winners seem to be drifting in the opposite direction of where Academy representatives have indicated they want to go. Wesley Morris recently concluded that, despite his fondness, if not downright love, for the majority of this year’s top contenders, the slate still just doesn’t jibe with a purportedly forward-thinking, brand-spanking-new academy: “Couldn’t these nine movies just be evidence of taste? Good taste? They certainly could. They are. And yet … the assembly of these movies feels like a body’s allergic reaction to its own efforts at rehabilitation.” Melissa Villaseñor’s jovial refrain of “white male rage” two weeks ago knowingly reduced this awards cycle down to absurdly black-or-white terms, but if the YouTube comments on that SNL bit are any indication, raging white males aren’t in the mood to have a sense of humor about themselves, much less welcome serious introspection.

Neither is that demographic alone in its disgruntlement. What was yesteryear’s “brutally honest Oscar voter” has become today’s “blithely, incuriously sexist, racist, and xenophobic Oscar voter.” As the saying goes, this is what democracy looks like, and given sentiments like “I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with the regular films” and “they should have gotten an American actress to play Harriet,” it looks a lot like the second coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age gorgons of gossip, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

It might be a stretch but we can imagine that, to many voters, the presumptive frontrunner, Sam Mendes’s 1917, comes off a lot less like a first-person video game mission and a lot more representative of what it feels like to navigate our landmine-strewn cultural landscape as your average politically neoliberal, artistically reactionary academy member circa 2020. Especially one forced to make snap decisions in the midst of an accelerated Oscar calendar. And even if that is, rhetorically speaking, a bridge too far, there’s no denying the backdrop of representational fatigue and socio-political retreat liberal America is living through.

How could the stiff-lipped, single-minded, technically flawless, quietly heroic, and, most importantly, essentially non-political 1917 not arrive as sweet solace in this moment? It’s the same reason why we suspect, despite ranked-choice ballots pushing Bong Joon-ho’s insanely and broadly liked Parasite in major contention for the prize, it’s actually Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit we most strongly fear pulling off an upset. After all, how many Oscar voters are still more concerned about Nazis than they are global income inequality? Or, if you’d rather, how many of their homes look more like the Parks’ than like the Kims’?

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Jojo Rabbit

Might Win: Parasite

Should Win: The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, or Parasite

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the seven titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.

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Every DC Extended Universe Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
Photo: Warner Bros.

This week marks the release of the eighth film in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey, which Slant’s Chris Basanti dinged for its “rote crimeland plot, over-eager and unsuccessful stabs at subversive humor, and failure to bring its ensemble together until far too late in the film.” Still, it effectively claps back at Suicide Squad at one point, and resists falling under the spell of the Joker. On the occasion of the release of Birds of Prey, we ranked the eight titles in the DC Extended Universe from worst to best. Alexa Camp


Suicide Squad

8. Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

Jared Leto’s hollow character work matches the empty style of David Ayer’s visual rendition of the Joker, all silly tattoos and teeth grills. Ayer’s direction aspires to the kind of frenetic pop-trash redolent of Oliver Stone’s most outré work, and coincidentally, the film’s best moments depict the romance between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker similarly to the relationship at the heart of Natural Born Killers. In one of Suicide Squad’s few mesmerizing moments, the pair leap into a vat of the same acid that disfigured the Joker and share a passionate kiss as their clothes melt off, sending streams of red and blue dye into the dirty yellow liquid. Elsewhere, however, the film adopts the functional shot patterns and desaturated palettes common to contemporary superhero cinema. The hyperactivity that propelled films like End of Watch and Fury is ideally suited to this material, but Suicide Squad never gets to be a manic, freewheeling alternative to the genre’s propensity toward dour severity and increasingly uniform aesthetics. Like the recruited criminals themselves, the film longs to be bad, yet its forced by outside pressures to follow narrow, preset rules. Jake Cole


Justice League

7. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)

Beyond the substitution of one intellectual property for another, practically nothing about Justice League distinguishes itself from what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing five years ago. The film’s style, though, is very much Zack Snyder’s own. The filmmaker continues to fixate on fitting his characters into a political framework, with material gloomily rooted in economic malaise. Images of the Kent family farm being foreclosed in Superman’s (Henry Cavill) absence speak to a kind of banal, mortal villainy more subtly at work on people than the cataclysmic horror visited upon them by super-powered beings. But Snyder again leans on his propensity for desaturated images, so much so that even scenes full of sunlight appear faded. Such dreariness is consistent with his past DC films, but it’s still difficult to square how much Justice League wants us to look up to its superheroes with the way the film underlines how little they enliven the world they protect. Cole


Aquaman

6. Aquaman (James Wan, 2018)

“Call me Ocean Master!” King Orm (Patrick Wilson), the villain in James Wan’s Aquaman, portentously shouts at the outset of the film’s climactic scene. Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to shift its DC brand away from the dour masochism that marked (and marred) such films as Man of Steel embraces high fantasy, but for Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, this turns out to mostly mean having characters proclaim their silly comic book names as assertively as possible. At its best, the film’s underwater action, with its traveling shots that zoom through crowds of fantastical marine species and past moss-encrusted classical ruins, are vibrant, aesthetically engrossing spectacle. At its weakest moments, though, the film offers a parade of ocean-floor vistas that evoke the substanceless world-building of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, a supersaturated digital landscape of smooth surfaces and expensive-looking designs. The weightlessness of fights rendered with CG is compounded by that of fights between people suspended in water, and the sexlessness of superhero movies is only emphasized by the perfunctory romance between two leads who seem to have been cast largely because they look good dripping wet. Pat Brown


Birds of Prey

5. Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)

The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Cathy Yan’s Birds of PreyAnd the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a traumatized but ultimately triumphant “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her scenery-chewing villain boyfriend to carve out a name and a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. Also in theory, surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for the launch of a great franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or gin up a halfway engaging caper for her to lead us through, what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for her. Chris Barsanti


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)

Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an overstuffed sketchbook of ideas for a half-dozen potentially striking superhero adventures. One can feel Snyder aiming for an obsessive masterpiece while attempting to please investors with the expository generality that’s required of global blockbusters. The film wants to be a treatise on How We Live, dabbling in incredible religious iconography and glancing infrastructural signifiers, yet it can’t commit to any specific view for fear of alienating consumers. It comprises self-contained moments and gestures, some of which are impressive in their own right, but which fail to cumulatively breathe. It offers an apologia for the massive collateral damage that marked Man of Steel’s climax while reveling in more damage, resulting in more of the thematic hemming and hawing that belabored Christopher Nolan’s comparatively elegant Batman films. Every few minutes a character utters a bon mot that’s meant to impress on us the film’s depth and relevance to a culture racked by terrorism and a dangerous distrust and resentment of the populace toward governmental authority. After nearly two hours of this busy-ness, one wonders why we still haven’t gotten to see Batman fight Superman. Chuck Bowen


Wonder Woman

3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Wonder Woman is, particularly in the first hour, a remarkably buoyant and even laidback film, allowing a long conversation between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to play out uninterrupted, simply basking in the atmosphere of thick sexual tension between them. Gently edited and genuinely funny, it’s the kind of scene that would be hacked to pieces and laden with ominous portent in a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At its core, the film is about watching a badass female kick some ass. And on this score, the film delivers, offering up lithe, supple fight sequences featuring Diana gliding through the air, punctuated by painterly smears of light and fire. And it creates at least one indelible image: Diana calmly but determinedly striding across a no man’s land as German artillery fire whizzes around her. However, as in so many superhero films, the final battle is an overcomplicated jumble of CGI explosions and ubiquitous blue lightning, waged against a seemingly arbitrary villain—in this case an armor-suited giant who looks like he stepped off the cover of a Molly Hatchet album. This gets to the film’s fundamental weakness: that the genre in which it’s operating has ossified. The central character and lightly kinky undertones may distinguish Wonder Woman from its predecessors in the superhero universe, but the film still falls victim to familiar pitfalls: a glut of underdeveloped side characters and unintimidating villains, an overcomplicated mythology, and a reduction of its characters’ interior lives to bland pronouncements about Truth, Duty, and Love. Keith Watson


Shazam!

2. Shazam! (David F. Sandberg, 2019)

The movies don’t lack for superhero stories that deal with the angst and isolation of young people who’re radically different from those around them. But few of them are quite like David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, which foregrounds the rush of bafflement and elation that grips a down-and-out child who’s suddenly given the power of a god, potentially allowing him to bypass all of the pitfalls and anxieties of adolescence. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a prickly 14-year-old foster kid who’s transformed by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) and tasked with defending the world against the Seven Deadly Sins. To the film’s credit, it smartly treats this premise as inherently absurd, embodied right away in Billy’s inability to stop cracking up when he’s first presented with this quest. Shazam! sees DC combining the golden-age optimism espoused by Wonder Woman and the jubilant, self-aware silliness of Aquaman into a satisfying whole, even if the narrow scope of Billy and Sivana’s conflict does lead to stretches of downtime where thematic and narrative points are rehashed to the detriment of the film’s otherwise brisk pace. In stark contrast to the politically nihilistic and aesthetically grim Batman vs. Superman, Shazam! offers a charming, even moving throwback to the aspirational sense of belonging that marks so many comics. Cole


Man of Steel

1. Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility, and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. Its militaristic without being fascistic, patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction and overt religious allegory. It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother. Rob Humanick

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Director

Given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs, we’re not holding our breath for an upset here.

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Sam Mendes
Photo: Universal Pictures

Last week, when Eric brought to my attention the New York Times article that exposed the myth of Hollywood being in the tank for movies about the industry, I used the piece as a jumping-off point for why Quentin Tarantino was vulnerable in the original screenplay category. At the time, I thought I was stepping on Eric’s toes by referencing his intel, believing him to be charged with giving our readers the lowdown in this category. Turns out he was tasked with whipping up our take on the film editing contest, meaning that I had stepped on my own toes. Which is to say, almost everything I already said about why QT was likely to come up short in original screenplay applies here, and then some.

Indeed, just as math tells us that the academy’s adulation for navel-gazing portraitures of Hollywood has been exaggerated by the media, it also tells us that this award is Sam Mendes’s to lose after the 1917 director won the DGA award, the most accurate of all Oscar precursors, having predicted the winner here 64 times in 71 years. A win for the pin-prick precision of Bong Joon-ho’s direction of Parasite would be a welcome jaw-dropper, as it would throw several stats out the window and, in turn, get us a little more excited about predicting the Oscars next year. But given the academy’s long history and resurgent embrace of technical triumphs—trust us, the math checks out—we’re not holding our breath.

Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917

Could Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.”

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

This past Monday, while the nation waited hour after embarrassing hour for the Iowa caucus results to start rolling in, Film Twitter puzzled over an AMPAS tweet that seemed to leak this year’s Oscar winners—before the voting window had even closed. It didn’t help matters that the slate of “predictions” tweeted by the academy seemed plausible enough to be real, right down to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite for best picture.

As it turned out, the academy’s problems weren’t so unlike the DNC app gumming up the works in, as the New York Post shadily dubbed it, “Duh Moines.” And sure enough, AMPAS fessed up to a quality-control gremlin (sorry, “issue”) that resulted in someone’s personal predictions going out on the main account. As Iowa’s snafu reaffirmed that Occam’s razor isn’t just something you need to keep out of Arthur Fleck’s hands, we’re 100% certain that the intern who posted that ballot on the academy’s account meant to post it on their personal one.

Speaking of Joker, if you would’ve asked us even just a few days ago whether we thought Ford v Ferrari was any more likely than Todd Phillips’s dank meme to take the Oscar in the category that has frequently been characterized as the strongest bellwether for a film’s overall best picture chances, we’d have probably collapsed in a fit of incontrollable giggles. And yet, with a BAFTA film editing win in Ford v Ferrari’s favor, we’re not the only ones wondering if the least-nominated best picture nominee actually has more in its tank than meets the eye.

The only thing louder than the vroom-vroom of James Mangold’s dad epic, however, is the deafening chorus of “Best. Movie. Ever.” being sung on Parasite’s behalf, and indeed, it was selected as the academy’s unofficial, accidental prediction in this category. As Ed noted yesterday, momentum is in its favor like no other film this year. Well, maybe one other, and it was mere providence that the one-shot gestalt kept Sam Mendes’s 1917 off the ballot here, or else one of the tougher calls of the night could’ve been that much tougher.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Ford v Ferrari

Should Win: Parasite

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode, Ranked

As the series comes to a conclusion, we take a look back and rank all 77 episodes.

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Every BoJack Horseman Episode Ranked
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is about many things. How we make sense of a senseless world. How we find happiness amid constant crisis. How we assert and give others power. That’s a lot for any show, let alone the animated misadventures of a famous horseman, one whose life stands on the razor’s edge of celebrity privilege and deeply internalized emotional self-abuse. Contending with BoJack Horseman, now as it comes to its conclusion, has meant contending with my own life these past six years, which have been made markedly better by this series. This exercise would have been much more difficult had the final episodes failed to deliver. (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)



Bojack Horseman

77. “BoJack Hates the Troops,” Season 1, Episode 2

First, let me be clear: I love this episode, which feels like an early performance by a beloved artist who went on to greater and more daring things. Maybe there’s a note or two out of place. Maybe they aren’t stretching their talent as much as you think they can. BoJack’s (Will Arnett) profound pettiness makes him an asshole to many—here, it’s the contested dibs over a box of muffins at the grocery store that lands our remorseful horse in the national spotlight—and it’s admirable how this episode leads the charge in painting that fact unambiguously. In a way, it feels like a foundation stone of sorts (one of several), featuring as it does BoJack’s decision to open up to Diane (Alison Brie) for his memoir. Full truth: From here, mountains are made.



Bojack Horseman

76. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish”

The mere existence of this holiday episode made it unambiguous that BoJack Horseman was created out of love. Further enriching the world so thoughtfully laid out in the first season, this metatextual holiday episode, in which BoJack and Todd (Aaron Paul) watch one of the Christmas episodes from Horsin’ Around, came as an unannounced Christmas gift in 2014. It also, hopefully, satisfies those who will inevitably be curious about what a proper episode of the show-within-the-show looks like, and Todd’s four-word refutation (“I can’t, can’t I?”) of BoJack’s faulty logic stands with the funniest moments of the series.



Bojack Horseman

75. “The BoJack Horseman Show,” Season 3, Episode 2

A novel exposition dump, this episode goes back to 2007, when BoJack and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat, first slept together. Its title refers to the name of BoJack’s sophomore TV series, a vulgar satire that tanked and was promptly canceled. This episode also lays general groundwork for episodes and seasons to come. Lots of obvious references abound—e.g., Princess Carolyn pitches scripts for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, though films actually being shopped around at that time instead of those just arriving in theaters might’ve been a better touch—not unlike a Trojan horse for the ongoing world building. The highlight herein is an updated version of the show’s end credits song, adapted to underscore BoJack’s much less successful follow-up to Horsin’ Around.



Bojack Horseman

74. “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” Season 1, Episode 1

This first episode doesn’t get its due. Brilliantly juxtaposing scenes from BoJack’s interview on The Charlie Rose Show with a gotcha shot from this world’s version of Maury, this first look at BoJack’s anxiety-ridden existence had the difficult task of establishing the show’s very particular tone (think Chuck Jones meets Don Hertzfeldt meets Albert Brooks) while also making blatant the sadness beneath it. The serious and silly rub shoulders here, like travelers on a crowded bus trip. It’s subversive, too, in warning against the dangers of over-binging; BoJack re-watches his old show obsessively, including the finale in which his character dies, at the expense of almost everything else in his life. This episode features Patton Oswalt in three parts, a Sellers-esque stunt that will prove to be one of the show’s regular hat tricks, while the closing gag exhibits the raw confidence required to deploy both guffaws and sobs with such simultaneous precision. In hindsight, it’s no surprise.



Bojack Horseman

73. “Zoës and Zeldas,” Season 1, Episode 4

It was a small stroke of genius to introduce early in the series a pop-cultural dichotomy specific to this world. Leonard Cohen sang of a bird on a wire, and here the either/or stems from characters on Mister Peanutbutter’s House, a knockoff of BoJack’s sitcom in which the eponymous canine raised two little girls: Zelda, a fun extrovert, and Zoë, a cynical introvert. This episode features some of BoJack’s funniest quips and nastiest deeds. As for Todd’s rock opera, I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t want to see it brought to greater fruition. This episode does a lot of prep work for the season and the series, and does it well, while Wyatt Cenac’s performance as one of Diane’s exes provides a weary vantage point, effectively underscoring what makes this world feel so emotionally real in the first place.



Bojack Horseman

72. “BoJack Kills,” Season 3, Episode 3

Plot-wise, this is a lowkey key episode in the series, establishing the source of the heroin that ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death. That would be Richie Osborne (Fred Savage), former Horsin’ Around cast member and current proprietor of Whale World, a family-friendly strip club that doubles as a drug front. BoJack and Diane get to catch up and establish a greater understanding of themselves (“I can’t keep asking myself if I’m happy, it just makes me more miserable,” says Diane, summarizing my 30s so far in 14 words), but my favorite moment is probably the chef’s-kiss perfection of Mister Peanutbutter’s LL Cool J reference (a close second is Angela Bassett’s line delivery on “you betcha”).



Bojack Horseman

71. “Our A-Story Is a ‘D’ Story,” Season 1, Episode 6

If BoJack Horseman’s flair for wordplay wasn’t already clear, this episode is tantamount to a flag planted on the moon for all to see. Hollywood becomes Hollywoo when BoJack steals the “D” from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor, all in the hopes of impressing Diane after squaring off with Mister Peanutbutter—and buying the restaurant Elefante in the process. Todd, having found himself in prison at the end of the previous episode, navigates the various gangs courting him in sublimely naïve fashion, while BoJack’s backup plan to fix the “D” situation results in a tragedy befalling Beyoncé and, relatedly, one of the very best verbal gags in the entire series.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

One of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

So much has happened across the home stretch of this perversely shortened awards season that it’s almost difficult to process it all. Believe it or not, at the start of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, just after the Golden Globes and a few days before the Producers Guild of America Awards announced its top prize, I was still confident in my belief that we were heading toward another picture/director split, with Jojo Rabbit taking the former and Quentin Tarantino the latter. But flash forward two weeks and we’re now looking at an Oscar ceremony that will be in lockstep with the final wave of guilds and awards groups, leaving frontrunners in various categories up to this point in the dust.

Case in point: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in original screenplay. Even after a recent New York Times article used old-fashioned math to expose the myth being propagated by awards pundits—even us!—that Hollywood is in love with seeing its image reflected back at itself, we figured that the film, even if it isn’t our stealth best picture frontrunner, and even if it isn’t Tarantino’s swan song, couldn’t lose here. After all, the category is practically synonymous with QT, who only needs one more win to tie Woody Allen for most Oscars here.

And then—tell us if you’ve heard this one before—Parasite happened. Here’s a category in which Oscar voters aren’t reluctant to award genre fare, or re-imaginations of that fare. That’s Tarantino’s stock in trade…as well as Bong Joon-hoo’s. Parasite’s screenplay, co-written by Bong and Han Jin-won, found favor with the WGA last weekend, and while we weren’t ready to call this race for the film at that time—Tarantino isn’t a WGA member, and as such can’t be nominated for the guild’s awards—we’re doing so in the wake of the South Korean satire winning the BAFTA against Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. That victory proves, among other things, that one of the realities of the Oscar race is that you never want to peak too early.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Should Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors.

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Jojo Rabbit

As soon as the Oscar nominations were announced and the headlines were dominated by the academy’s cold shoulder toward female directors, it sure felt like the balance of this race was tipped in Greta Gerwig’s favor. After all, Oscar has a long-standing history of using the screenplay awards for token gestures, especially toward writer-directors; they’re where filmmakers like Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Pedro Almodóvar, Jordan Peele, Spike Jonze, and, to date, Quentin Tarantino have won their only Oscars.

Gerwig’s status as the most conspicuous best director castaway in this category might not in itself have been enough to push her through, but virtually all the press on her exceptionally good Little Women has focused specifically on how successfully she remixed the novel vis-a-vis jaunting back and forth between different periods in the chronology. Her framing device allows the novel and its modern fans to have their cake and eat it too, to be told a story overly familiar to them in a way that makes the emotional arcs feel fresh and new, to be enraptured by the period details that have always fascinated them but then also come away from it feeling fully reconciled with Jo’s “marriage” to Professor Bhaer. Within the world of pop filmmaking, if that doesn’t constitute excellence in screenwriting adaption, what indeed does?

Alas, as was confirmed at this weekend’s BAFTA and WGA awards, the token gesture this year looks to be spent not on Gerwig, but the category’s other writer-director who missed out in the latter category. We’re no fans of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and we aren’t alone, as it boasts the lowest score of any best picture nominee this year on Metacritic. Still, we admit that it must touch a nerve somewhere in the average academy voter who not only finds the Holocaust so irresistible a subject that they’re willing to back a film that this year’s crop of “honest Oscar posters” memorably dubbed Lolocaust, but who also, while continuing to feel increasingly persecuted about the online catcalls over their questionable taste, would right about now love to drop kick Film Twitter out a window like Jojo does Waititi’s positively puckish Hitler.

Will Win: Jojo Rabbit

Could Win: Little Women

Should Win: Little Women

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