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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: The Fountain, For Your Consideration, & Happy Feet

The Fountain, perhaps the trippiest, most psychotropic, big-budget extravaganza since the Johnson administration, is both impossible to dismiss outright and, unfortunately, equally difficult to take seriously.

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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: The Fountain, For Your Consideration, & Happy Feet

Andrew Dignan: Hey Sean, how was your Thanksgiving? Even though I’m 3000 miles away from my family, I find the holiday still moves along with the same ebb and flow, encompassing the same old routines. The turkey’s always dried out. The Detroit Lions always get blown away. The Black Friday sales seem a whole lot better when you’re not fighting with a fat soccer mom for the last X-Box 360 (by the by—fat soccer mom: 1, Andrew: 0). And of course the studios release a slate of cuddly holiday films sure to be kicking around the mall movie theaters through the Christmas season. You know, like the one where a bald Hugh Jackman hurtles through the galaxy in a giant bubble doing yoga in-between snacking on tree bark.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which is perhaps the trippiest, most psychotropic, big-budget extravaganza since the Johnson administration is both impossible to dismiss outright and, unfortunately, equally difficult to take seriously. Coming six years after the filmmaker’s Requiem for a Dream, which—depending on who you’re talking to—either established Aronofsky as a pariah or a wunderkind, The Fountain has traveled a notoriously difficult path to make it onto screens in time for turkey day. As a result, I can’t help but wonder how much my admiration for the director’s past work and the sheer bravado of getting Time Warner to release something so doggedly personal and impenetrable is shading my feelings towards the film. Certainly the film has difficulty standing on its own merits. Set predominantly in the present where Jackman’s brain surgeon buries himself in his research to save/avoid dealing with his dying wife (Aronofsky squeeze Rachel Weisz), the film’s high-concept storylines set in 16th-century Central America and an indeterminate future feel woven in simply to expand upon the paper-thin characters. Employing something of a Junior High Goth’s concept of both love and death, the film can be distilled down to “embrace the inevitability of your own demise and appreciate the time you have,” which has been covered a time or two previously without the benefit of Mayan temples and exploding nebulas.

Aronofsky’s aesthetic dynamics are still on display, specifically his use of repetition to bridge the three stories and a score by Clint Mansell that builds to a near Wagner-ian furor, but the heart of the film is the relationship between a husband and wife—two characters with roughly one-and-a-half personality traits each whose every line of dialogue can be tied directly into the film’s overarching themes of death and rebirth. The director got away with using ciphers in Requiem because the subject was blunt and universal enough (drugs are really, really bad) that character dimension wasn’t a large prerequisite. But in approaching something as intimate as this, simply alternating between obsession and resignation doesn’t allow for the same sort of empathy by proxy. I doubt you’ll see a more straight-faced, ambitious or earnest film this year, but ultimately the film works itself into such a frenzy to say very little. So Sean, as someone who’s gone on record as loathing Aronofsky, what’s your take?

Sean Burns: Holiday Greetings returned, Mr. Dignan. You might be 3000 miles away, but rest assured, everything’s still exactly the same out here on the East Coast. I feel bloated and hung-over, most of my family seems to be angry with me for reasons I (perhaps fortunately) cannot quite recall, and working at a movie theater on Black Friday is a surefire way to sap even the most generous soul of any hope regarding the future of humanity itself. (I dearly look forward to seeing Children of Men this week, just so I may cheer on our inevitable extinction.) As for The Fountain, let me be polite for a change and say that I find it slightly less difficult to dismiss than you do. I’ll agree that it’s indeed a miracle Darren Aronofsky somehow got a major studio to fund such an audience unfriendly, unsatisfying, undisciplined, self-indulgent wank-off, but on the other hand, you can say the same thing about a lot of bad art, including our new favorite whipping boy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

You’ve called me out as an Aronofsky hater from way on back, so I guess that gives me license to recycle our usual Requiem argument, which I believe holds true once more for The Fountain. There’s a very off-putting, posturing arrogance to this still-young filmmaker’s work. He strikes me as having no real interest whatsoever in creating compelling characters or telling actual stories, instead working backwards from shallow, over-arching sophomoric “concepts”, all of which are locked long beforehand into rigid geometric camera techniques (watch those cuneiform tracking shots in this outing) and overly-diagrammatic, repetitious editing patterns that all add up to… well they all… umm, okay fuck it—your guess is as good as mine.

As you noted, “drugs are really, really bad” and if that’s enough reason to make any sentient being sit there for two hours enduring the endless, blunt-force trauma of Requiem for a Dream then I’ll see you one Kids and even raise you a Thirteen, as far as bullshit, empty alarmist cautionary tales go. The Fountain is indeed a very silly, spazzy film and I think we’re all cutting it a little too much slack just because it’s so weird and strange when going about its particular silly badness. This is an exquisitely awful movie: It is not so much a story as it is a premise, with Hugh Jackman fighting against Death and getting nowhere in multiple centuries, and the more Aronofsky pounds away on that same one note the less convinced I am that Jackman can actually act his way out of a paper bag—particularly when he’s bald and levitating.

Weisz just doesn’t register—it’s one of those roles where you can tell the filmmaker is in love with her and thus thinks you are too. (Call this the “Ed Burns Casts His Girlfriends Syndrome.”) But her “hey whaddaya know” American accent is disastrous, and she simply doesn’t have enough presence to fill in the many, many blanks. Jackman is even emptier—it’s tough even to tell that the longhaired swarthy conquistador is the same actor as the floating bald-headed Buddha guy, and that’s not a compliment. So what exactly are we supposed to take away from all this? The overarching message struck me as the same banal Hollywood formula pieties we already fought over in Stranger Than Fiction. Like all three Darren Aronofsky movies I have seen thus far, everything onscreen—most especially the characters and their unfortunate situations—remain a distant second to the formal (cough) innovations and achievements of one Darren Aronofsky. He earned his rep quick-cut conning a generation that never heard of Bob Fosse, and now he’s gone and made his own Solaris For Dummies. Nice to see nobody’s buying it anymore.

AD: There are dozens of reasons people might be cutting The Fountain some slack: It could be a response to the immature catcalls at Venice or that the mainstream press has by and large hammered the film as pretentious and dull. I also think there’s something of a “Led Zeppelin’s lyrics” type of response where it’s perceived that anything this mystical and ethereal must have something important to say deep down, so better to show restraint now than look out-of-touch down the road. But personally, I’m pleased simply by the idea of this film fighting for theater space with The Santa Clause 3 and I still want to encourage this sort of filmmaking-without-a-net even if The Fountain largely falls on its face.

We’ve butted heads over the relative merits of Aronofsky seemingly hundreds of times and this is the first time I find myself inching over to your side of the aisle vis-a-vis how little the man has to say and the energy he expels in saying it (although I’ll still doggedly defend Requiem as one of the most effective pieces of subjective filmmaking I’ve ever seen). The Bob Fosse accusation is more a slam directed at cineastes who’ve let him slip into semi-obscurity than a slight against Aronofsky though. Considering half the people who visit this site are De Palma fanatics (you and I included) and the guy never met a Hitchcock set-piece he didn’t pilfer wholesale, obviously what differentiates something as a rip-off versus an homage remains frustratingly elusive.

But back to The Fountain for a moment. If you look at every film Aronofsky has made, they all seem to address obsessive-compulsive (even when chemically enhanced) behavior and self-destruction, two conceits that don’t lend themselves well to sentimentality and swooning romanticism. Much as Jackman’s brain surgeon is trying to apply rigid, precision to solving his wife’s sickness, I think the film itself is too caught up in its own head-space to work either as a romance that spans time or as a tragedy. We enter Tommy and Izzy’s story after their tracks have diverged and we never get a sense of the great love that’s dying with her (the film’s attempt to bridge this gap comes in the form of Chris Nolan-style flashes of a vital Weisz running through their apartment); the film is so thematically focused that heartfelt conversations between the two invariably descend into lectures on Mayan folklore and astronomy. The film can’t conceive of these two characters as anything other than chess pieces moving around the board to make some cosmic point when what they need to be is human beings at their most vulnerable.

~

SB: Speaking of people with nothing to say, the new Christopher Guest movie, For Your Consideration, is truly awful. I’ve felt like the Guest troupe has been running on fumes for a while now, but this picture announces some sort of dark, nasty rock bottom. It’s a snide little piece of mockery, one completely devoid of the humanity and specificity we saw in This Is Spinal Tap or Waiting For Guffman.

Catherine O’Hara stars as a has-been actress starring alongside never-was, hot-dog spokesman Harry Shearer in a dreadful looking indie called Home for Purim. (If that title makes you smile then you’re in good hands here, as Guest seems to feel that Jewishness is, in and of itself, inherently hilarious.) When some random website predicts an Oscar-nomination for O’Hara, the hype machine takes over and this entire production spirals out of control.

Andrew, as you actually work in Hollywood, so I’ll leave it to you to recount the thousands of ways this picture misses some very broad, very easy targets. Instead I’d like to stay with how sour the movie is, and how sad it made me feel. I’ve had mixed feelings about a lot of the Guest company’s previous films, but I was still always rooting for his hapless, medium-talent characters until now. The folks in For Your Consideration are all empty, selfish assholes, and they deserve every bad break that comes their way. The very hint of awards recognition makes them completely insufferable and the film seems deliberately fixated on reveling in their every last ugly-close-up squirm when things don’t work out according to plan. All these years after Guffman, Guest has finally made the movie his detractors wrongly accused him of making at the time: poking fun at nobodies for the awful crime of having dreams. It’s telling that once The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm started to beat Christopher Guest at his own game, the best he could come up with in response is an 86-minute episode of The Comeback.

AD: Truly a mean-spirited, ugly little film. Not always a bad thing when it comes to comedy, but laziness certainly is. There is a sad little year-round cottage industry dedicated to tracking a film’s Oscar chances from the moment a film is conceived (to wit: Dave Poland over at Movie City News has been crowing about Dreamgirls being a lock to win best picture since Eddie Murphy was cast last January), with quality largely removed from the equation. But Guest really has nothing to say about that, nor the long precession of meaningless kudos-fests that precede the Academy Awards, nor the hundreds of other asinine peculiarities that legitimately exist in the putrid dog and pony show that is Oscar season. Instead this is another go-around with his ever-expanding troop of oblivious losers who improv themselves into a lather hitting the same off-key note over and over again.

I read in this week’s Entertainment Weekly that Guest doesn’t watch award shows and hasn’t read anything about the industry in fifteen-years, a premise that’s unbelievable until you actually see For Your Consideration. Not only am I convinced of it now, I’m pretty sure he’s never stepped foot on a film set either. Rife with backstage antics that were probably howlers when Desi Arnaz marched them out back in the 50s, the film is proudly anachronistic, going for cheap giggles about how none of these people know what the Internet is, know how to use cellphones or own televisions, and then watching them squirm as they’re forced to mince about on TRL or whore themselves out on the talk show circuit. The film depicts its actors as principled babes in the wood until they become shrill harpies surrounded by sycophantic dullards. As you pointed out Sean, these are sad, over-the-hill artists whose great sin is they long for recognition after a lifetime of obscurity. Guest has made a career out of mining the failures and self-important grandeur of those on the fringe of showbiz but he’s never invited outright scorn like this before.

The Jewish thing is just craven and indicative of the film’s nature to go after the easiest target available. The jabs are delivered just softly enough that no one will really complain (lest they be seen as not having a sense of humor about themselves), but depict the religion as alien and grotesque enough that the middle of the country can work itself into gales of laughter over hearing labored Yiddish or watching a bunch of people in silly hats crank noise makers to block out Hamen’s name (my God, has that ever happened outside of Hebrew school?) You want to impress me in the year 2006? Make it Home for Ramadan.

~

AD: Playing at the other end of the multiplex, to no doubt a markedly different audience, is George Miller’s Happy Feet, which has been cleaning up at the box office for the past two weekends, as cute, anthropomorphic-animal cartoons invariably do. I’m a 25-year old guy with no kids, so unless one of these animated films come with the Pixar or Aardman seal of approval I usually steer clear. But I’d been hearing a low rumble that the film was some sort of subversive masterstroke only pretending to be a kid’s flick in the same vein as Miller’s Babe 2: Beyond Thunderdome was, so I bit the bullet and endured a chorus of screaming small children to check the film out.

What I got was a shiny-new-penny of a CGI film that makes uneasy bedmates out of March of the Penguins and Moulin Rouge! while still operating under the same rusty conventions as when Dumbo flew. The film veers into terrifyingly morose territory in the final leg (I imagine it might be difficult to drag the little ones to the aquarium after this one) and contains a handful of kaleidoscopic, manic set pieces as our hoofin’ hero dives down the face of glaciers and through a series of underwater crevices, but Happy Feet feels strictly from the “plush toys and soundtrack available for purchase in the lobby” school of filmmaking.

There are no doubt cultural parallels to our outsider striving for acceptance against rigid community leaders, but Christ, you could say the same thing about Footloose and that doesn’t require you to sit through two Robin Williams ethnic voices or Brittany Murphy’s singing. Also, am I nuts or are they just making this thing up as they go along? Everyone may have complained about how creaky Cars was, but those Pixar guys know how to structure a film. Happy Feet plods along from one unmotivated adventure to the next with little dictated by character or action. Everything may work out for our feathered-friends, but I have no idea how or why.

I suppose there are worse things to subject your children to than a small cuddly bird tap dancing to Stevie Wonder (with choreography by no less than Savion Glover), but as an unaccompanied adult forced to endure accusatory glares from parents and having your seatback kicked for 90-minutes, why is this film worth seeing as opposed to one of the other dozen animated films Hugh Jackman is currently doing a voice for?

SB: Well, you seem not to have noticed that this is absolutely the weirdest goddamn thing I’ve seen in ages, and that includes The Fountain. Say what you will about George Miller as a storyteller, but as in Thunderdome and Pig in the City, the man has a knack for creating fully thought-out, exceedingly bizarre worlds, ones in which the characters don’t really stop to explain their odd customs or wacky alien syntax to the audience. Happy Feet made me wish I still smoked weed.

It’s also loaded with weird signifiers and subtexts, as the little penguin who is born different and thus can’t participate in his species mating rituals, but is a fabulous dancer (gay maybe) is ostracized by the stringent religious order and accused of causing the fish shortage by offending their God with his threatening, unnatural practices. After the little guy brings back actual empirical evidence regarding their environmental problems, the elder churchy folks still stubbornly refuse to believe him and just pray even louder and harder, thus setting up a nice critique of our current, depressing science vs. religion debate aimed at the pre-school through Kindergarten set. And yes, that aquarium sequence you mention is indeed chilling, complete with strange 2001 voices and creepy insertions of actual photography into the film’s otherwise breathtaking CGI vistas. That said, I’ll concede that the storytelling is on the shaky side. And no argument here: Robin Williams needs to go far, far away for a very, very long time.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

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

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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

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

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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