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Summer of ’84—Odd Man Out: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

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Summer of ’84—Odd Man Out: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

It’s conventional wisdom in fan circles that of the six “original cast” Star Trek films the even numbered outings (2, 4, and 6) are the best. I can understand why Treks 1 and 5 are generally held in low esteem. But I am perhaps the ONLY person who actually found 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock to be the most faithful (and therefore the most enjoyable) of the first half dozen excursions.

I’ve never felt that the transition of Star Trek from television to film was particularly well handled. An excellent House piece by Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard, “The Conversations: Star Trek,” takes an in-depth look at all of the six OC movies. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to all the opinions expressed within, it’s a worthwhile read.

My take on the films is that they suffered from Paramount’s post-Star Wars desire to turn Star Trek into a big budget, pyrotechnics laden sci-fi property. While the Enterprise herself didn’t have a traditional galley (except for the one that mysteriously appears in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), the franchise possessed an overabundance of cooks. The result was something called “Star Trek” that had a lot more flash but, for me, lacked the essence of what made the more austerely produced television version work.

Not that this makes me cool or cutting edge (quite the contrary perhaps), but I’m one of those baby boomer “Trekkies” (not “Trekkers”) who jumped onto the Star Trek bandwagon during its wilderness years of syndication when the prospect of any new adventures either on television or film seemed pretty grim. To give some perspective, the premiere of the Saturday morning animated series in 1973 was a major event in my life (sad, isn’t it?). By the way, if you want to have fun at a Star Trek convention, go up to a crowd of people (especially if they’re in costume) and innocently ask if the Star Trek cartoons are “canonical” (I’m animiconoclastic).

When it was announced in the late ‘70s that Star Trek would finally return in movie form, I was beside myself with anticipation. Alas, the batteries of my Trek fandom started to drain about halfway into 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. My first impression was that they had changed too much of the Trek universe. In interviews leading up to the film’s release, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenbery, identified two camps of fans: those who didn’t want ANYTHING about the original series altered and those who were excited that ST: TMP’s 35-million-dollar budget would allow for a fully realized Trek experience that had never been possible on the small screen.

I fell into the former camp. I liked the original color-coded uniforms: gold, blue and, red (yikes). The first movie totally revamped this with ‘70s era pastels that no longer made organizational or aesthetic sense. I’ll grant that they probably needed to adjust the look of the original costumes to conceal the effects of time and gravity on the more mature cast members. But did the uniforms have to resemble 23rd-century leisure suits?

On the outside, the Enterprise, thankfully, wasn’t given SO drastic a refit. However, they did do a lot of redecorating inside. An extra turbo lift door was added to the bridge because fans had complained that it was illogical to only have one point of egress. Fine. Automatic restraints were added to all of the chairs to keep the crew from tumbling around when encountering rough space turbulence (which really shouldn’t happen inside a ship equipped with an artificial gravity environment, but okay). They also revamped the classic original Enterprise bridge set by pivoting some of the workstations ninety degrees, thus disrupting the feng shui of the familiar circular pattern Trekkies had grown up with. Worst of all, however, was the bland grey color scheme that dominated everything. Maybe, as in Operation Petticoat, it was just primer and the arrival of V’Ger interrupted the final paint job. Nonetheless, I could totally sympathize when Admiral Kirk got lost in one of the corridors.

While I sound like a nitpicker (and I am, but that’s beside the point), there’s a vast collection of Star Trek fans (trust me on this) for whom the production design was an important part of the original series.

To prove this isn’t an overstatement, I submit the fact that subsequent Star Trek television incarnations, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, each aired heavily hyped episodes which worked a justification for revisiting the original 1960’s Enterprise ship, uniform design, or both into their storylines (“Relics,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” and “In a Mirror Darkly” respectively). Then there’s the surprisingly successful fan-created Star Trek: Phase II. This web series set in the original Star Trek universe contains all of the 1960’s accouterments. I’m not a fan myself, but I understand that it has a huge following.

Production design wasn’t ST:TMP’s only problem. Instead of picking up where the television show had left off and getting right into the plot, ST: TMP played up the reunion aspect of the story too much for my taste. As a result, there’s a lot of wasted time watching Kirk “getting the band back together.” That along with the lingering love affair it had for its own expensive special effects slowed the movie to a wormhole’s pace. By the time the Enterprise finished a ridiculously long journey through V’Ger, I had already started to fade like Charlie Evans being reclaimed by Thasians at the end of “Charlie X.”

The general consensus seems to be that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the bunch. But the drama struck me as a tad forced. This is epitomized by the scene where, in spite of a tactical error, Kirk withstands Khan’s first attack. Afterward the captain comforts a dying crew member. The mortally wounded midshipman leaves a bloody hand print of guilt on Kirk’s redesigned ST2 uniform (they’re wearing jackets now). It would have been a more emotional moment but for the fact that Kirk encounters the doomed lad only because Scotty, for reasons unknown, decides to carry him up to the bridge instead of straight to sickbay.

As with ST:TMP, the producers of ST:TWOK had to work hard to convince Leonard “I Am Not Spock” Nimoy to reprise the role of Mr. Spock. Without the lynch pin of the Trek franchise in place, it was felt that many Trekkies would stay home. Nimoy was lured to participate in TWOK by the promise of a juicy death scene. Fairly or not, because news of Spock’s impending death was so well publicized, the drama of the scene was lost on me. Unlike the final teary-eyed shot of Lt. Saavik, a Vulcan officer played by Kirstie Alley, my eyes were as dry as her home planet at the end.

Legend has it that while attending the wrap party for TWOK, jaws dropped like red-shirts on a landing party when Nimoy declared how excited he was to get started on the next Trek adventure.

Whether that’s a true story or not, Nimoy’s involvement in The Search for Spock probably has a lot to do with my enjoyment of it. He directed and helped to develop the storyline for this third installment. TSFS is not without its flaws and I can understand why many fail to embrace it. But, for me, it has none of the stiffness of the first film nor the banal sentimentality of the second. TWOK’s success had ensured that subsequent Trek films would be oriented to adventure and pyrotechnics as opposed to the more contained morality lessons played out on the small screen. I credit Nimoy for infusing the established Star Trek “action film” template with a number of little moments that, taken as a whole, capture the essence of the series more than any of the other cinematic efforts.

On paper, TSFS’s only purpose is to resolve the seemingly insurmountable plot element of Spock’s death in TWOK. Sure, Star Trek has brought deceased characters back to life before. But generally only seconds after McCoy has declared, “He’s dead Jim.” And never weeks after the funeral. To its credit, given the heavy lifting that TSFS faced story-wise, it doesn’t allow itself to get too too bogged down in technobabble or overplay the mystic elements of the plot. The “Genesis effect” solution the writers came up with to resurrect Spock is very much grounded in the Trek tradition of pseudo-science. I mean, they could have had a translucent Spock floating around the Enterprise like Obi Wan Kenobi scaring people. Come to think of it, they did kind of do that with Kirk in “The Tholian Web.” But I digress.

TSFS opens with a damaged Enterprise returning to space dock after the battle with Khan from ST2. Not counted among the casualties, but equally damaged, is a very unstable Dr. McCoy. We find out later that just before entering the enclosed dilithium chamber in TWOK, Spock, anticipating his death and knowing that he’d be segregated from other people, mind-melded with Bones to so that his “katra” (living spirit) would have somewhere to go (as opposed to just flying loose into space). In Vulcan dogma, the body and soul have to be laid to rest together. For some reason, at the end of TWOK, instead of returning Spock’s body to Vulcan for burial, they fired it onto the surface of the Genesis planet in a photon torpedo. As it turns out, a byproduct of the terraforming work being done down there somehow reconstitutes Spock’s corpse.

In a bar scene that’s a little too close to the Star Wars cantina, McCoy, under the influence of Spock’s katra, finds himself arrested for trying to illegally book passage to the Genesis Planet. Later, Kirk is visited by Sarak (Mark Lenard), Spock’s father, who informs him that the only way to cure Bones and save Spock’s immortal soul is to free McCoy from his incarceration, steal the Enterprise, make an illicit trek to the Genesis Planet for Spock’s body, and return with the whole kit and kaboodle to Vulcan. I’m not sure why it HAD to be the Enterprise, but that’s the plan. Of course, Kirk enlists his old crewmates, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. As this isn’t an official “mission,” they’re all wearing ridiculous futuristic civilian clothes. (By the looks of it, for TSFS, Barry Manilow’s tailor from ST: TMP was replaced with Prince’s for Purple Rain.)

Meanwhile, a Klingon named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) is hot on the trail of the Genesis device introduced in TWOK. While Federation scientists see it as a way to create life on barren planets, Kruge only sees its WMD potential.

I’ve read complaints that characterize Lloyd’s performance as Taxi’s Reverend Jim Ignatowski in Klingon garb. I couldn’t disagree more. Both humorous and dangerous, Kruge is one of my favorite Star Trek movie villains. Lloyd picks up where Michael Ansara’s prototype Klingon, Kang, left off in “Day of the Dove” and fleshes out the now familiar warrior persona. Until then, the smooth foreheaded, goateed Klingons from the original series were either sinister Bond-like villains (Kor in “Errand of Mercy”) or sniveling pirates (Kras in “Friday’s Child”).

Roddenbery had filmed a TV pilot in the mid-seventies called Planet Earth that was set in a post-nuclear future. One of the races left on Earth were warlike mutant humans called the “Kreeg” who sported prominent bony ridges running across their bald heads. Roddenbery must have liked the look because he took advantage of ST: TMP’s budget and incorporated it into the Klingon makeup. However, Klingons only make a cameo in TMP and don’t show up at all in TWOK. TSFS is the film that establishes them as more than just stock adversaries for the Enterprise to do battle with.

There’s a great moment with Kruge in his bird of prey talking via viewscreen to a sexy Klingon female spy named Valkris (ST can’t seem to decide if Klingon women are alluring or butt-ugly). Valkris has purchased crucial data on the Genesis device from some mercenaries and, while transferring it from their ship to Kruge’s, inadvertently admits to having read it. They both instantly recognize that this is a fatal error on Valkris’ part and without hesitation Kruge destroys the mercenary ship with her still aboard. It’s clear from the context of their interaction that Kruge and Valkris are romantically involved; yet each dutifully resign themselves to do what’s best for the sake of the Klingon empire.

TSFS may not withstand close scrutiny (none of Trek films really do), but, as I said, Nimoy adds touches to the action yarn that evoke TOS. Lieutenant Uhura, who often functioned only to “open hailing frequencies,” is given a wonderful moment where, as part of the plan, she gets the best of a bored crewman who had just minutes before complained about the lack of “adventure” his post offered.

Likewise, Sulu overpowers one of the obnoxious security personnel guarding McCoy by flipping him onto the floor while explaining that he doesn’t like to be referred to as “tiny” (I’m not sure why Star Fleet’s Security division always seems like an island of fascists in an otherwise benevolent organization).

On the Genesis planet, Lt. Saavik (played this time with appropriate stoicism by Robin Curtis) and Kirk’s son, Dr. David Marcus, locate Spock’s empty coffin. They follow a trail to find a live Vulcan teenager who resembles Spock. As with everything else on the planet, he is undergoing a conveniently expedited maturation process.

The scene in TWOK where Kirk screams “KHAN!” into the communicator is often cited res ipsa loquitur of William Shatner’s poor acting skills. However, in Shatner’s defense, he wasn’t really playing a rage-filled Kirk there. He was playing Kirk PRETENDING to be filled with rage. In TSFS, Kirk’s son is brutally murdered by a Klingon on the Genesis planet. When Lt. Saavik matter-of-factly informs the captain, Shatner effectively shows Kirk’s breakdown as a mixture of restrained anger appropriately tempered by grief.

Kirk and Kruge engage in a battle of wits that leads up to the Klingon being tricked into beaming most of his crew onto the Enterprise, not realizing that it’s empty and the infamous “self-destruct” process is winding down. Blowing up the Enterprise is an interesting solution for this situation. Intentionally or not, the Star Trek franchise was always ahead of its time in the “viral marketing” department. Just as news of Spock’s impending death leaked well before the release of TWOK, so had chatter among Trekkies about the loss of the Enterprise. This created a pre-release grassroots buzz for the film. DeForrest Kelly once humorously commented that part of the reason he agreed to make a cameo as an old Dr. McCoy in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was to set a canonical precedent that would make it impossible to kill him off in any of the subsequent films. Clever.

To make a long story short, Kirk and crew, having escaped the exploding Enterprise, end up in a face-off with Kruge on the Genesis planet, which itself is about to disintegrate. Kruge allows McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and Saavik to beam up to his ship as prisoners. Kirk stays behind ostensibly to give Kruge the scoop on Genesis. Just to be annoying, Kruge snidely does not allow the new Spock to leave either.

This leads to good old fashioned Star Trek fisticuffs as Kirk and Kruge go mano-a-klingon. Watching the ground crumble and burst into flames under their feet as they battle, I always play the famous fight music riff from the series in my head: “Da da daa daa daa daa daaaaa da da daaa daaa.”

Of course, Kirk is victorious, beams up and gets the drop on what’s left of the Klingon bird of prey’s crew. They head to Vulcan where T’Lar, a Vulcan High Priestess, administers a mystic protocol known as the Fal-tor-pan to remove the katra lodged in McCoy and transplant it into Spock’s body. The process is given too much screen time and comes across as only slightly less silly than the brain surgery scene from a third season Star Trek episode appropriately titled “Spock’s Brain.” It also leaves open the question of why Vulcans don’t see the logic in ensuring their own immortality by cloning a stable of waiting bodies to Fal-tor-pan into whenever needed. But, once again, I digress.

While the ritual is successfully completed, it’s not clear if Spock will totally regain his memory. Being led away from his crewmates, Spock stops, turns to look at Kirk and says: “Jim. Your name is Jim” as the original Star Trek theme plays in the background and the old comrades circle together for a group hug. Call me a sentimental softie, but this has always been a bombshell of a moment for me. Just as the cinematic Spock seemed to finally make peace with his own conflicted nature after his encounter with V’Ger in ST: TMP, I’ve always viewed Nimoy’s final raised eyebrow after recognizing Kirk and company at the end of The Search for Spock as a personal acknowledgment of his coming to terms with a character that he’d been at war with since the series ended.

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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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Awards

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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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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