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Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take Two

One part ‘70s rogue male action movie, another part innovative Hollywood blockbuster pushed all the way to “11.”

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Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take Two
Photo: TriStar Pictures

One part ‘70s rogue male action movie, another part innovative Hollywood blockbuster pushed all the way to “11”, and totally responsible for changing action movie grammar—big silly war flicks were never the same after its May 1985 release—Rambo: First Blood Part II sits in between filmic worlds. Despite it being one of those movies everybody knows, it’s a tough one to parse. Nevertheless, Brandon Soderberg and comics artist and illustrator Benjamin Marra chopped it up about Rambo: First Blood Part II, and tried to get to the center of its wizened, gummy politics but also talk about why it’s just, well, awesome.

Brandon Soderberg: Let’s talk about the waterfall scene towards the end because it inspired this discussion. Basically, Benjamin was part of a panel at the Small Press Expo (SPX) called “The New Action” that was talking to “indie” creators engaged with more visceral narrative styles. At one point in the discussion, Benjamin just kinda lovingly describes the scene, late in Rambo: First Blood Part II, where Rambo fires this explosive arrow at this guy on a waterfall and there’s like one killer beat between the arrow launching and the explosion and then—blam! The guy just gets decimated.

Benjamin Marra: Yeah, that whole scene really resonates with me. I really love it. The music, the way it’s edited, it all just really sticks in my head. I think the scene is emblematic of the action movies around that time. Death Wish 3, Cobra, Commando, The Running Man, Invasion USA, Red Dawn, feel, through the prism of time, completely bizarre. I get the feeling they were constructed without any self-awareness. I can only speculate really that what occurred in those movies at the time they came out was totally acceptable and normal action. That’s at least how I felt about them, but I was pretty young. If any of those movies were released today, they’d probably be perceived as satire.

Brandon: This may send us into an ‘80s action vortex too soon, but Rambo: First Blood Part II’s directed by George P. Cosmatos, who also directed Cobra. Cobra is just really on some other shit. And Commando is also from “the summer of 1985” so there’s this, um, zeitgeist going on here. Some kind of New Wave of Hollywood Action. NWOHA? Kinda like NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) which was going on at the same time. Daringly sincere and over the top, but in this almost unassuming way…

Cobra

Benjamin: I’m a huge fan of Cobra. I actually think that it’s one of the best action movies to come out of the ‘80s and is totally unsung. It pleases me to hear that Cosmatos helmed that film. I wasn’t aware of that fact before. That’s a really, really interesting point to suggest that there was some sort of correlation between American action movies and NWOBHM (which I also am a huge fan of). They definitely both represent the attitude of what was successful pop culture being delivered to the holy grail of buying demographics: male, between the ages of 18 and 30 (or something like that).

Brandon: The DVD has a ’Making Of’ featurette and a commentary that really highlight Cosmatos’ worker-bee perspective on directing the movie. He comes off like an artisan, hired to make the most awesome, invigorating action flick he could make. I think the idea of someone “just doing their job” gets underrated. With Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cosmatos funnels every piece of the movie into that singular goal: “Making a thrilling, innovative action movie.”

Benjamin: I didn’t check out the “Making Of” feature on the DVD. Now I’m sad I missed it. I think it’s totally admirable that Cosmatos worked on the project with a workman-like, just-doing-a-job attitude. I think that attitude can yield tremendous results—Rambo: First Blood Part II being a great example. I can appreciate working like that, not over-thinking things, not approaching a subject with a lot of pretense. I wish that sort of approach to creative work was more appreciated and respected. In comics, the artists that I respect the most are the grinders, the ones who are really productive, who approach making a comic in a workman-like fashion. I also have that same respect for baseball players who play the game right, aren’t trying to go for the glamor or be too flashy. It’s an attitude that crosses disciplines.

Brandon: There’s this palpable transition between First Blood and the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, here. You got three years between movies but First Blood is pretty ‘70s—Rolling Thunder, Walking Tall or even the Billy Jack movies come to mind. Just solid, smart exploitation. Rambo: First Blood Part II is, like, stuck between two worlds. A small kinda nihilistic character piece and a big, crazy, patriotic Hollywood movie.

Benjamin: Both First Blood and First Blood Part II are stories with very specific, legitimate political agendas wrapped in extremely well-executed action movies. First Blood feels real, like it could happen. It’s a real downer of a movie in a lot of ways. Rambo is this total victim of circumstance. There’s a sense of authenticity. First Blood, Part II is total fantasy, hyperbole, almost on a cartoonish level. But the movie is a total feel-good, fist-pumping, kick-ass action roller coaster. Even at the end, when Rambo delivers his passionate speech about what he really wants, we feel like righteous justice has been served.

Brandon: Yes. And it totally earns that feeling at the end. First Blood is basically a perfect fucking movie. As in, I’ll argue with anybody about that one. There’s just nothing wrong with it. If it had subtitles, it’d be called “a minimalist character study” or something. Rambo: First Blood Part II does its job perfectly, but I can kinda imagine the snarky responses to it. At the same time, the movie sets everything up and by the end, knocks it down in a way that’s just thrilling and rewarding. Given the movie’s intended wide appeal and the direct, simple but controversial message, even the doses of obviousness are effective. It has this quiet/loud dynamic, bouncing from subtlety to bluntness, underlined twenty times scenes that drive home the message.

Benjamin: You have to approach the experience of watching a movie like Rambo: First Blood Part II with an open mind and willingness to go to the places the movie wants to take you. Otherwise you can really have a bad time, asking the wrong questions, pointing out perceived deficiencies. There’s the down times that set up the intense, cascading crescendos. The action beats of Rambo: First Blood Part II resonate, I feel, because of the quiet moments strewn throughout the narrative.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Brandon: And then the ending more than rewards viewers for moving through those quiet moments. Like, everything just starts blowing up. Also, the scene where Rambo has somehow covered his entire body with mud to just kill a single Russian solider goes there too.

Benjamin: Yes, the ending really reaches an awesome pitch. Rambo unloading his M60 into the computers and confronting the corrupt Charles Napier character is incredibly moving. I love when Rambo takes out the whole squad of Russian soldiers and Viet Cong single-handedly and when he emerges from the mud, that’s the highpoint. The whole movie is as subtle as a sledgehammer, or wrecking ball.

Brandon: But also, not a whole lot happens. It’s more a lot of tiny, slow-growing details and terse combat sequences.

Benjamin: The downtime is pretty awesome, especially the dynamic between Rambo and Co Bao. Their exchanges are electric. I’d disagree with a lot not happening. Tons of shit happens. The plot, sure, is pretty basic. Rambo goes in to check out the existence of POWs, finds them, tries to leave, gets betrayed, gets caught, fucks up a whole bunch of villains and escapes. But within that there’s a whole bunch of stuff that happens: backstabbing Vietnamese pirates, boat chases, helicopter chases, torture, vicious Communists, Stallone flexing, RPGs, explosive arrowheads, different kinds of people, close-ups, disobeying authority, revenge, death of a would-be lover, shooting machine guns from the hip in knee-deep water, etc. Maybe those are the details you were referring to. I don’t know. The movie has an epic feeling for me.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Brandon: I guess I’m thinking of it in terms of stuff before and also the action movies of right now, which have a tendency to overload the plot and characterization. Rambo: First Blood Part II is insane, but it’s a special kind of insane that didn’t exist before the movie and by now has pretty much faded away.

Benjamin: Agreed. One can look at First Blood as being the end of the ‘70s era action movie, like Bullit or Dirty Harry, where the “action” is more pared down, gut-level in its power. Whereas Rambo: First Blood Part II, ushers in the era of ‘80s action, over-the-top, cartoonish, hyperbolic in its appeal.

Brandon: There’s a J. Hoberman review of Iron Eagle (“Only Make Believe” in Vulgar Modernism) that refers to the Rambo movies and movies like it as “warno”—a conflation of the word “War” and “Porno.” Obviously, Hoberman finds this problematic and my guess is seeing the movies when they were released and imagining a certain sect of the audience gave him the creeps, but I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with “warno.” I don’t even think Rambo: First Blood Part II is this trashy product.

Benjamin: Yeah, I think that term definitely applies. I love Warno. I would watch tons of Warno and I wish there were more of it for me to consume. My entertainment tastes lean hard toward escapism and fantasy, so I’m down with Warno. I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Is there anything wrong with Romance novels? Hell no. I agree with you about the sheer product point. There’s underlying ideas and themes within the first two and fourth Rambo films (I admit I haven’t seen the third installment) that are its spine. And they’re legit ideas, so that’s what makes the Rambo films more than sheer product.

Brandon: This relates back to Cosmatos’ approach. Because Rambo: First Blood Part II is a big chunk of entertainment and totally embraces that, there’s a tendency not to take it seriously. The divide between “Art” and “Product” is, well, basically bullshit. Your comics really scream this out to me as well. Am I right, or projecting there?

Benjamin: I have a similar opinion as you with regard to the divide between “Art” and “Product.” I see my creative approach as similar to Cosmatos. I strive to create accessible, base-level appealing narratives. As far as mainstream cinema goes, I remember when the recent Spike Jonze Where the Wild Things Are movie came out and I was repulsed by its marketing and what I perceived it to be. (My friends who saw it confirmed my prejudices toward it.) I think Jonze’s approach to the subject-matter is a great example of a creator applying airs of pretense, unnecessary seriousness and desperate emotional injection to a subject rife with joy and celebration and completely abandoning the value of entertainment. In comics, there’s a lot of evidence of devaluing entertainment and fun, especially within the current indie and underground spheres, instead focusing on a tone of pseudo-artistic seriousness and pretension. My comics and illustrations are reactions to this attitude. I want my comics to strike the same chord that Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra and Death Wish 3 strike. I feel that the emotional base for narratives, like movies and comics, don’t have to wallow in the spectrum of depression and sadness in order to connect with their audience in a serious manner. Emotions of fun, joy and entertainment, things that we might consider “guilty pleasures” (but which I just consider awesome) are just as valid a connection to an audience or reader.

Brandon: I think I can sort of deconstruct Hoberman’s invocation of porno to suggest that, like porno, Rambo: First Blood Part II has an awkward, handmade sincerity to it. Like, amongst its base intentions or whatever, there’s a touchable hand or voice behind it. I think your comics, especially Night Business, have that too.

Night Business

Benjamin: My artwork for sure is really about earnest, passionate over-the-top-ness. Sincerity is important in my own work because I’ve learned that if I don’t approach and present my stories in a truthful manner to the reader, the reader won’t connect with the narrative. It’s essential to not only believe in your work as a creator (because if you don’t, neither will your audience), but to inject sincerity, honesty and earnestness into the work. I learned that you can demonstrate lots of technical skill through work, something that I think a lot of pretentious comic creators use to connect with their readers, or you can try to reach your audience through their core, their basic emotional experiences with the world, growing up, their relationship to popular culture. I think there’s a overriding sense of sentiment in that too. With regard to Night Business, I’m connecting with people who have had the same experience with certain pop culture examples like Rambo: First Blood Part II. But I hope that the merits of the story are strong enough to capture the attention and connect with readers who haven’t had the experience of watching Rambo: First Blood Part II and its ilk.

Brandon: To me, this all connects to structure, which is also underrated. One of the cool things about Rambo: First Blood Part II is how everything fits together. Things introduced early on pay off later. Simple, visceral stuff. The rocket launcher’s revealed early and it comes back later. When Co Bao dies, Rambo puts on her necklace and it becomes part of those “Rambo’s gonna go kick some ass” mini-montages.

Benjamin: It’s an exceptionally well-executed film. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail the folks who put it all together had. They hit great, timely beats. The whole thing has a great rhythm to it. The setup, the conflicts, the action scenes and the down time. It makes the whole experience very full and rich.

Night Business

Brandon: Something I notice about a lot of recent action movies is the attempts to sneak around so-called “cliches,” like its all gotta be new and hip. Tried and true formal elements get rejected. You have a really rigid approach to your comics that I thought of when watching Rambo: First Blood Part II. Your use of panels is perhaps the most noticeable way you do this.

Benjamin: With regards to page layout and the panel architecture of the comics I make you’re right on. I try to look to Jack Kirby for solutions to problems on communicating a certain narrative idea. Kirby relied on a three-tiered, 6-panel page which I’ve based all my comic book efforts on. The reasons why I chose this are because Kirby worked in comics for decades and honed everything down to this format and because it’s a tremendous format for supporting the story. I think Kirby’s system is the clearest way of executing a comic book narrative.

Brandon: And the movie’s message, drummed up as it may be, is sincere and inarguable: “Hey man, Vietnam veterans got a lot of shit and a lot of them died for bullshit-ass reasons and like, what the hell?!” This is where it isn’t simple product, where “warno” is just not apt. Rambo: First Blood Part II is skeptical of everybody and everything not named John Rambo.

Benjamin: I think that First Blood is more about the Vietnam veterans being treated unfairly by the American public when they got home from war. To the American people, the vets represented a failure and America wanted to forget them. They wanted to, unfairly, lay blame on the vets. And even though First Blood is a muscular action film, its underlying theme is exceptionally valid. The theme for Rambo: First Blood Part II is hidden a little deeper, but it’s even more egregious: The American government sacrificed POW lives to save on paying the Vietnamese government reparations. Our government refused to acknowledge the lives of soldiers it sent to fight on its behalf. It’s an amazing and colossal offense.

Brandon: And when he returns from the mission and just shoots all the computers that surround Murdock (played by Charles Napier), it’s obviously symbolic, but like art-movie symbolic. It’s moved way beyond reality or representation in a true-to-life way.

Benjamin: I love that part, where Rambo just unloads his M60 at hip level into all the computers and equipment. I had a friend of a friend who was in the army and during one exercise he decided to shoot his SAW at hip level like Rambo, but he quickly lost control of it. No one was injured but it destroyed the illusion of Rambo’s awesome, default shooting-a-machine-gun stance. Or maybe it just gives credence how strong and macho Rambo is. I prefer the latter.

Brandon: The movie could even be viewed as Rambo’s big fantasy. Not saying this is in the movie, but there is a sense that everything is pumped-up just a bit.

Benjamin: Man, I don’t think this movie is just Rambo’s fantasy. I think this is the fantasy of any red-blooded American male!

Brandon: We end up loving him more, though, because he’s so far out. He isn’t exactly relateable. He’s this sad-sack loner who just gets shit done. Have you seen Michael Mann’s Thief? I think Rambo: First Blood Part II moves into that territory. Just so in love with its character’s rogue male attributes that real life norms don’t matter anymore.

Benjamin: Michael Mann is my favorite director currently operating within the Hollywood studio system, but I haven’t ever seen Thief. The idea of an unbroken sense of integrity, duty, a personal code, is very American to me. It supports the individual, the one who’s willing to break the rules in order to do what’s “right.” It’s a trait that’s common—maybe essential—among American action movie stars and it’s the trait you identified in Caan’s character in Thief. It’s something I try to imbue in my male characters. I think that this trait is absent in most current incarnations of the American male in movies. In the Spider-Man movies, the traits of Peter Parker that were played up were his sniveling, whiny, sensitive side—a decision I disagreed with from a creative perspective.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Brandon: Also, the ostensible villain, Napier, as bad as he is, you see where he’s coming from. His whole point of like, “Look, at this point, if we revealed the existence of these P.O.Ws, we’d look real bad” is reasonable. It isn’t right, but it’s like hard, complex reality running into Rambo’s strict code. You see Napier’s logic.

Benjamin: Well, there’s a multitude of villains, but yeah, the bureaucratic villain, you can definitely understand his motive! It’s the reason why anyone would hate the government. Not only would we “look real bad,” we’d be forced back into conflict with Vietnam! I think it would be against the law or something like that for the government to not attack Vietnam again. So the most prudent course of action is simply to disavow any knowledge of POWs. Sucks.

Brandon: Yeah, tons of villains, but an interesting point about Rambo: First Blood Part II, is that it’s the Bureaucratic villain who is the most nefarious—if only because he’s not totally defeated in the end. Napier also plays an important part in underlining the complex dynamics of the movie. Namely, it’s tough for me to see this movie with the boatloads of snark most “film” types see it with. This isn’t simple Reagan ‘80s junk. The bureaucrats aren’t stuffy Liberals, they’re rich white guys who didn’t even serve! Sound familiar?

Benjamin: It’s funny because I think a lot of Tea Party members would align themselves with Rambo’s politics and perspective (I could be wrong), even though they probably are closer to the Napier character in their true nature. It’s something that occurs in those folks you accurately stated as not having served, this illusory self-perception of being like Rambo, but in actuality they are not warriors. When they were asked to serve, they worked the system so they wouldn’t have to. They are cowards who perceive themselves as warriors. Self-deception.

Brandon: Can we end with Stallone, the actor? I’m a big defender of Stallone and I think he is—and I totally mean this—a Brando disciple: All wounded, mumbly naturalism. Especially in Rambo: First Blood Part II, he goes to great lengths to be eerily charming. Those few moments when he does joke or he finally breaks down and rants about the war mean so much more because most of the time he’s so reserved. It’s like minimalist acting.

Benjamin: Stallone is an unbelievable actor. He’s also an awesome director and screenwriter. Have you seen Driven? It’s fucking out of control. It’s a testament to his talent that he still works as an actor. Hollywood is not forgiving and yet Stallone operates at a level where he is pretty much bulletproof. I think he’s incredibly respected as a professional in the industry. But, yes, back to his acting style. I have no problem with any of his choices. He nails it on every delivery. There are no holes in his performance.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Benjamin Marra is the author of the comic books Night Business and Gangsta Rap Posse available through Traditional Comics.

Brandon Soderberg runs the hip-hop blog No Trivia, the comics blog Comics for Serious, and contributes to The Baltimore City Paper, The Village Voice, The Independent Weekly and some other places.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
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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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