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Summer of ’88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ

I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric.

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I. Spreading the Word

I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think he’s too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, “We know what he’s saying, but we can’t figure out how he’s saying it”). He’ll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think you’ve got him, whereby he’ll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharek’s description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (“Oh, yeah, just one more question…”). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.

Language, more than I realized at first, plays a crucial role in The Last Temptation of Christ, which premiered 25 years ago on August 12, 1988 (incidentally, right around the same time my father helped me load up a U-Haul for my freshman year at college). Actually, it may be more accurate to say words play the same role in Last Temptation as they do in Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, right down to the controversial contemporary elocution, which, to me, even on first viewing, emphasized the point that the characters, as far as words are concerned, are forever fumbling for them. Unlike the Christ of the Bible and prior Christs of cinema, the Jesus in Last Temptation begins his mission tongue-tied. His Sermon on the Mount is painfully awkward: “I’m sorry,” is his unpromising start. Still he trudges forth, convinced that God will do the talking for him. He tells a story (“The Parable of the Farmer”) that concludes with the moral that love is the answer to society’s ills. Many in his initial audience remain skeptical, even hostile, yet gradually he gains a few followers. They find him persuasive. I found him moving.

Seeing Last Temptation at the age of 18 appealed to both the still-evolving movie buff and would-be rebel in me: What occurred onscreen was heady stuff, and what was fomenting offscreen made crossing a mild-mannered picket line feel like taking a bold stand (for more harrowing examples of the controversy surrounding the film’s release, see David Ehrenstein’s excellent Criterion essay. Back in the 1980s, reading Roger Ebert’s unwavering enthusiasm for Scorsese’s work—an exception, ironically, being his previous film, The Color of Money, whose success helped get Last Temptation green-lit after prior false starts—convinced me at that I knew more about his movies than I did. Certain portions of the general public, however, knew nothing. As often happens when thoughtful reflection squares off with dead-certain hostility, the collective rhetoric by opponents of Last Temptation was so extreme that it obscured what the movie itself was trying to say.

II. The Valley of the Sun

My father, an agnostic (I suppose, although he’s never used the word), and my mother, a privately devout refugee from an evangelical church, raised me in the urban desert of Arizona. “God is not alone out there,” Jesus is warned in Last Temptation, before venturing forth to confront his demons in the badlands. And the same was true about Phoenix: If Satan wasn’t around, there was certainly no shortage of his incompetent minions. One summer day our next-door neighbor, a strutting mailman named Paul, sauntered over to challenge us on an irrigation dispute. My father sidestepped a punch and gently squeezed his bigger, heavier assailant into a headlock below his knees (the mailman’s wife’s indelible reply was, “Paul doesn’t want to hurt you….”).

My upbringing was largely secular, with occasional forays into Sunday school. Once we attended a church-sponsored musical where eternally-damned sinners snapped their fingers and sang, “It’s hot in the furnace, man…” a catchy ditty that had the effect of making Hell look like a groovy place. Yet it wasn’t until the sixth grade when my parents—for educational reasons more than spiritual ones—transferred me from a local public school to Ss. Simon and Jude, an academically respectable Catholic elementary, that I began to encounter religious belief on a more regular and, frankly, more interesting and thought-provoking basis. Having that experience prepped me for viewing films like Last Temptation—not with an open mind so much as an active one.

I won’t guess what the nuns who taught me at Ss. S&J went on to think of Scorsese’s movie, if they ever saw it, or Kazantzakis’s original novel, if they ever read it. But they practiced the kind of belief that I admired about both film and book, engaging intellectually in spiritual endeavors and spiritually in intellectual endeavors (Kael was stirred by Scorsese’s “passionate thrashing around” as well). I saw Last Temptation years before I read it, and having seen the movie a few more times since, I now recall the dialogue being more in synch with the images: Jesus stalked by an invisible entity who pins him to the ground (“Who are you? What do you want?”), his encounter with André Gregory’s fire-and-brimstone John the Baptist (”He sounds like the Messiah,” Judas notes), Pilate’s reasoning behind Jesus’s death sentence (“It’s one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want to change how they think, what they feel”), Lazarus’s pithy description of the afterlife (“I was a little surprised. There wasn’t that much difference”), and the print-the-legend justifications of the Apostle Paul—not to be confused with the Mailman—for preferring the Divine Christ to the mortal version (“You know, I’m glad I met you, because now I can forget all about you”).

Although most Christians are baptized very young, Jesus, according to Scripture and the Apocrypha on which Kazantzakis based his book, wasn’t officially blessed until he was 30. I, on the other hand, was between infancy and adulthood—12 years old in the spring of 1982—when the Sisters at my new school gently pushed to save my soul. My parents, wanting me to fit in, agreed. I wish I could say I thought long and hard about such a weighty matter. In Last Temptation, Jesus’s request to be baptized feels meaningful. I suspect my reaction was more along the lines of, “Sure, what the hell…why not?”

In Scorsese’s depiction, Jesus arrives at the Jordan River among other seekers of The Baptist, some of them naked and caterwauling. The soundtrack goes memorably silent during this sequence (My Baptism with Andre), leaving audible only the dialogue between Jesus and John (after Gregory pours a handful of water down Willem Dafoe’s face, the surrounding din returns). My own christening, somewhat more subdued, took place at Ss. Simon and Jude Church. An older student in my mother’s art class, whom I knew as “Mr. Boylan,” agreed to be my godfather. Mr. Boylan, whose first name was John, was a retiree-turned-aspiring-actor who had once given me a shard of breakaway-glass from an episode of The Fall Guy, on which he had been an extra (John Boylan would go on to play Mayor Milford on Twin Peaks, and the elevator man who takes Meg Ryan to the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle). It was a lovely ceremony. My peers wrote heartfelt well-wishes that were collected in a scrapbook. I tried to be heartfelt as well in my commitment. I wasn’t cynical about religious belief. Deep down, I think I just wasn’t feeling the devotion. At best, I gave faith a whirl.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t a very good Catholic. Over the years I have acquired plenty of more dedicated friends, including a gregarious ex-seminarian who, whenever a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties knocked on his door to talk about God and Jesus and salvation, would invite them inside for a friendly debate over spiritual matters. I hadn’t the patience for even the fundamentals of faith. My church attendance was erratic; my confessions unforthcoming. Nevertheless, I stayed in Catholic schools all the way through college. And it was at Marquette University, in the early fall semester of 1988, where I was able to see Last Temptation.

III. The Good Land

That Marquette is a Jesuit institution may suggest to some an unflinching rigidity, and admittedly, at times, that quality was there. Eight years and two degrees later, I still felt, in essence, like an outsider. Yet the atmosphere could be open in surprising ways. I hadn’t a prayer of seeing the movie in Nashville, where I had just graduated from high school. And even if by some miracle a print of Last Temptation had been smuggled into the state (as The Simpsons taught us, “Tennesseein’ is Tennebelievin’”), I likely would have had to go it alone. Earlier that summer I’d been accused of enjoying “innerlectual movies,” after I coerced a couple of pals into seeing Daniel Petrie Jr.’s playful romantic thriller The Big Easy instead of their choice, Disorderlies, starring the Fat Boys (if my friends were indifferent to the celebrated Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin sex scene, I can only imagine their bewilderment toward Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hershey’s hallucinatory fornication). Marquette was in Milwaukee, the northernmost city I have yet to inhabit, in a state that had been home to the likes of Hank Aaron, Fighting Bob La Follette, and Peter Bonerz (not to mention Joe McCarthy, Kato Keilin, and, living only six blocks from campus when I was there, Jeffrey Dahmer). Nationwide, however, the release of Last Temptation was in such doubt I wasn’t optimistic about my chances anywhere, even in the region whose Algonquin heritage Alice Cooper spoke of so fondly.

As it happened, though, a few weeks into the fall semester, Last Temptation was scheduled to play at Milwaukee’s Downer Theater ,beginning on Friday, Sept. 23, 1988, and for that weekend a bus had been arranged to take anyone from campus who wanted to see it. I don’t know the reason behind the field trip other than that, possibly, the organizers (who were MU faculty) were as curious as I was. I hopped on the bus with maybe 20 other students, and it dropped us off in front of the theater. We wended our way through an outnumbered dozen or so protesters, who wielded signs but didn’t hassle us. Inside, we joined an at-capacity audience and watched the movie.

Apparently, that sell-out crowd wasn’t a fluke. Thomas R. Lindlof’s Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars reports that Last Temptation “was extraordinarily popular in its two-month run” at the Downer, “the cumulative total of more than 20,000 moviegoers breaking the house record” (Lindlof adds that the film appeared in the deep South after all, most prominently in Atlanta, “sneaking into town like a thief in the night”). Still, the success of the movie in limited release shouldn’t obscure the fact that that release remains limited to this day. The movie endures. But, to a degree, so does the impact of the rhetoric.

IV. Grace Notes and Rough Edges

I admired the movie despite a few awkward passages—or, rather, I found the awkwardness oddly admirable, with lyrical images caught seemingly on the fly (consider the haunting expression on Harvey Keitel’s face when Judas witnesses Jesus restoring the slave’s ear during his arrest at Gethsemane). My only serious debate about Last Temptation occurred the following summer with a sneering friend back in Nashville. He hadn’t seen the film and didn’t seem to hold any moral objection against it, but he claimed that Siskel and Ebert hated it and therefore it must be lousy. He was thinking of Lyons and Medved. Both Siskel & Ebert & the Movies and Sneak Previews aired the same clip, wherein Jesus confronts the moneychangers in the Temple (culminating with a striking image of coins tossed in the air), as evidence that the movie was, depending on your viewpoint, a masterpiece or an atrocity.

Last Temptation remained divisive enough that I was unable to rent it from Blockbuster, and I didn’t see any part of the film again until Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert’s 1997 extended conversation of the director’s career at The Ohio State University in Columbus (transcribed in Scorsese by Ebert). I had invited my father to attend. Based on the comments from a group seated behind us, the audience was comprised of a significant portion of mucky-mucks who were there to honor Scorsese (that year’s recipient of the Wexner Prize) without having more than the dimmest idea who he was. After the event, the audience shuffled out quieter than when they entered.

Ebert presented a barrage of the bloodiest scenes from Scorsese’s movies to much squirming and discomfort among the crowd, and a woman sitting a few rows to our right fainted during Last Temptation’s crucifixion sequence, when the camera arcs around Willem Dafoe as he shouts, “Why have you forsaken me?” (She recovered.) My father, who had yet to see the film in its entirety, had no discernible reaction. For me, it remained a powerful moment. And I can’t help but suspect that, if Scorsese had worked with the originally approved, larger budget, and if Last Temptation had been more polished, like much of his later work (which is too polished, at times, if you ask me), the end result would have been less powerful than it is.

V. Every Day a Different Plan

This story (“The Parable of the Knock at the Door”) will sound apocryphal. But I swear it is true. My father, as you may have gathered, doesn’t suffer fools. Using words for weapons, I have seen him eviscerate plenty of adversaries over the years. He and I have had our share of skirmishes as well. Sometimes, in conflict, he can be hilariously wry; at other times, frighteningly explosive (“It’s hot in the furnace, man….”). This is why I wonder sometimes if I respond to Keitel’s Judas in Last Temptation not only on account of the actor’s performance, or the character’s conception (immeasurably more interesting as the only disciple strong enough to betray Jesus, rather than a stock villain motivated by petty avarice), but because this Judas, unlike any other on screen before or since, feels intimately familiar—quick to both ire and sentiment, set in a particular system of belief, frustrated whenever plans change unexpectedly, yet always striving to understand.

A few years after seeing Scorsese at OSU, I watched Last Temptation with both of my parents, when I managed to snag a DVD from a privately-owned video store in Columbus. An intense theological discussion followed. By “intense” I mean riotous, and by “theological” I mean my father twisting brilliantly insightful knots into the notion of Christ (“Oh, yeah, just one more question, about that time he pulled his heart out….”). It wasn’t quite along the lines of Rowan Atkinson’s “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigot” from Four Weddings and a Funeral, but suffice to say he had us in stitches. I’m not sure if he liked the movie or not, but it seemed to have intrigued him. My mother started cobbling together a shopping list during the climactic 40-minute dream sequence but liked everything up to that; the ex-evangelical in her appreciated the film for trying to tell a familiar story in a fresh way. The three of us talked in the living room for a while before arriving at our respective summations.

“I don’t believe in God,” my father announced.

“I don’t believe in God either,” I declared.

“I don’t know if I believe in God or not,” my mother opined. Even though, of course, she did. On cue, at that moment, there was a knock at the door. My father rose from the couch and opened it to a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties. They were very polite. They had come to save us.

Sometimes I wish I had that much faith. But the truth is I need to see things in order to believe in them. In terms of eternity, I’m neither enticed by metaphorical carrots nor threatened by figurative sticks. “The Word” alone has never convinced me, regardless of who delivers it. So whenever I have sought transcendence, I’ve gone to the movies. And every now and then—like in the final scene of Last Temptation, when the ineffable “is accomplished” and Christ’s resurrection implied by the film’s refusal to depict it—they deliver. Yet, in the real world, when I have been in pain, when I have felt alone or let down, when “The Plan” (if there ever is one) has changed so often that none of the divergent paths seem to matter, I’ve been left with the nagging sensation that movies aren’t enough. When the final image in Last Temptation turns overexposed, when we are reminded that we are watching only a movie, perhaps even Scorsese is suggesting he senses this too.

Consequently I have come to find myself longing for grace without ever expecting it. So after those nice young men finished their sales-pitch about God and Jesus and salvation, I braced myself for the inevitable. My father hates unwanted visitors. He would put them in their place. First, he would yell at them. And then he would slam the door. And then he would rage about the encounter for a long time afterwards. And then—

“Thank you, but we’re not interested. Have a nice day.”

He said it with love.

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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

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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Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it.

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.

Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.

The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.

Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.

Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.

By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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Review: Intrigo: Death of an Author Is Damned by Its Lack of Self-Awareness

The film evinces neither the visceral pleasures of noir nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

1.5

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Intrigo: Death of an Author
Photo: Lionsgate

“Surprise me!” demands reclusive author Alex Henderson (Ben Kingsley) near the start of Intrigo: Death of an Author of budding novelist Henry (Benno Fürmann), who’s come to him in search of advice. As an audience member, it’s difficult not to end up making exactly the same exhortation to director Daniel Alfredson’s film. With each plot point being not only easy to predict, but also articulated and elaborated on multiple times by an awkwardly on-the-nose narration, the only shock here is that a film apparently concerned with the act of storytelling could be so lacking in self-awareness.

Henry is a translator for the recently deceased Austrian author Germund Rein and is working on a book about a man whose wife disappeared while they were holidaying in the Alps, shortly after her revelation that she would be leaving him for her therapist. Most of the tedious opening half hour of the film is taken up with Henry telling this tale to Kingsley’s enigmatic Henderson, after he meets him at his remote island villa. The pace picks up a little when David switches to giving the older writer an account of the mystery surrounding Rein’s death and how this could be connected to his story, which (surprise!) may not be entirely fictional.

Death of An Author is the most high-profile release of the Intrigo films, all directed by Alfredson and based on Håkan Nesser’s novellas. Alfredson was also at the helm of two film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but he still doesn’t appear to have developed the stylistic tools necessary to elevate his pulpy source material. Here, his aesthetic seems to be aiming for the icy polish of a modern noir, but it leans toward a safe kind of blandness, evincing neither the visceral pleasures of the genre nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

While Fürmann’s stilted central performance at times threatens to sink Death of An Author, Kingsley always appears just in time to keep the unwieldy thing afloat. Nonetheless, his character’s cynical meta commentary, alternately engaged and aloof, is ruinous: As Henderson criticizes Henry’s story, he effectively draws too much attention to the film’s own flaws.

Death of an Author’s mise en abyme framing device has a similarly self-sabotaging effect. It initially promises an interesting push and pull between a writer’s literary perspective on reality and their own lived experience, but as so much of Henry’s psychology is explained through clunky expository dialogue instead of being expressed visually, no such conflict is possible. The structure ends up just distancing us further from the characters, as well as undermining the tension generated by the more procedural elements of the plot. Ultimately, aside from some picturesque scenery and a satisfyingly dark ending, all we’re left to enjoy here is the vicarious thrill of Kingsley’s smug, scene-stealing interlocutor occasionally denouncing Henry as a hack, and implicitly dismissing the whole scenario of the film as trite and clichéd.

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Benno Fürmann, Tuva Novotny, Michael Byrne, Veronica Ferres, Daniela Lavender, Sandra Dickinson Director: Daniel Alfredson Screenwriter: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Weathering with You Lyrically and Mushily Affirms the Sky’s Majesty

Contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed the film’s increasingly mawkish tendencies.

2.5

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Weathering with You
Photo: GKIDS

The lyricism of director Makoto Shinkai’s new animated film, Weathering with You, should shame the impersonality of the CGI-addled blockbusters that are usually pitched at children. An early scene finds a teenage girl, Hina (Nano Mori), floating through the sky, at times almost seeming to swim in it. This moment introduces a suggestive motif: In the film, scientists speculate that the sky possesses a habitat that, for all we know, is full of similar properties to the one in the world’s oceans. The Tokyo of Shinkai’s conception is plagued by rain that sometimes falls so hard as to suggest a tidal wave dropping out of the sky, which is a memorably scary and beautiful effect. Sometimes such rains even leave behind see-through jellyfish-like creatures that evaporate upon touch.

At their best, Shinkai’s images affirm the majesty and power of the sky and rain, intrinsic elements of life that we too often take for granted. Raindrops suggest bright white diamonds, and storms resemble cocoons of water. But Hina’s new friend, Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo), doesn’t take the weather for granted, as he’s introduced on a large passenger boat, surveying a storm that almost kills him. Running away to Tokyo from his parents, Hodaka first glances the city as the boat approaches a port, and at which point Shinkai springs another marvel: a city of vast neon light that’s been rendered with a soft, watercolor-esque delicacy.

The first 45 minutes or so of Weathering with You promisingly merge such visuals with the story of Hina and Hodaka’s blossoming romance, while introducing an amusing rogue, Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri), who offers Hodaka minimal employment as a junior reporter for a tabloid magazine. Suga gives the film a lurid quality that’s surprising for a children’s fantasy—as he milks the young Hodaka for a free meal and carouses around Tokyo at night—until Shinkai sentimentally reduces him to a routine father figure. And it’s around here that the plot grows more and more cumbersome and gradually takes over the film as Hina and Hodaka become typically misunderstood youngsters on the lam, evading the law and the Tokyo crime world. The free-floating visuals are eventually tethered to a metaphor for the specialness of Hina, who’s a mythical “sunshine girl” capable of bringing light to Tokyo’s endless storms, and for the fieriness of Hina and Hodaka’s love. Shinkai over-explains his lyrical imagery with YA tropes, compromising the dreamlike mystery of the film’s first act.

The narrative is also an implicit story of global warming, as Tokyo’s storms threaten to destroy the city, with Hina representing a potential balancing of the scales at the expense of her own earthly life. That’s a resonant concept that Shinkai never quite steers into overtly political territory—and contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed Weathering with You’s increasingly mawkish tendencies. A free-floating atmosphere, in which sky and ocean are merged, suggesting collaborative gods, is more than enough for an evocative fable. It’s a pity that Shinkai overthinks his project, frontloading it with borrowed plot machinery that goes in circles, separating lovers mostly for the sake of separating them.

Cast: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori, Shun Oguri, Kana Ichinose, Ryô Narita, Tsubasa Honda, Mone Kamishiraishi, Kana Ichinose Director: Makoto Shinkai Screenwriter: Makoto Shinkai Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Awards

2020 Oscar Nominations: Joker, 1917, The Irishman, and OUATIH Lead Field

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho. Todd Phillips’s Joker led the nomination count with 11, followed by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Sam Mendes’s 1917, and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with 10 each, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with six each.

While Joker mostly received attention throughout the awards season for Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance, many pegged Hildur Guðnadóttir’s victory at the Golden Globes for her score as a sign that the film would do well at the Oscars. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) had to make way for Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell) in best supporting actress and Lupita N’yongo (Us) for Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) in best actress. And both Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) and Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes) landed nominations for best actor, pushing Golden Globe-winner Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Robert De Niro (The Irishman), and Christian Bale (Ford v. Ferrari out of the way.

See below for a full list of the nominations.

Best Picture
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Director
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Todd Phillips, Joker
Sam Mendes, 1917
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Costume Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Sound Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Sound Mixing
Ad Astra
Ford v Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Animated Short
Dcera (Daughter)
Hair Love
Kitbull
Memorable
Sister

Best Live-Action Short
Brotherhood
Nefta Footfall Club
The Neighbor’s Window
Saria
A Sister

Best Film Editing
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Parasite

Best Original Score
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Documentary Feature
American Factory
The Cave
The Edge of Democracy
For Sama
Honeyland

Best Documentary Short Subject
In the Absence
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Life Overtakes Me
St. Louis Superman
Walk, Run, Chacha

Best International Feature Film
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Honeyland (North Macedonia)
Les Misérables (France)
Pain and Glory (Spain)
Parasite (South Korea)

Best Production Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Endgame
The Irishman
The Lion King
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Cinematography
The Irishman
Joker
The Lighthouse
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Bombshell
Joker
Judy
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
1917

Best Animated Feature
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Klaus
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
The Two Popes

Best Original Screenplay
Knives Out
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Original Song
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
“I’m Standing with You,” Breakthrough
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen 2
“Stand Up,” Harriet

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Review: VHYes Spoofs Late-Night TV Without Exacting Critiques

VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.

1.5

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VHYes
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

There’s more inspired satire about how television manipulates an audience’s emotions in the original RoboCop’s opening newscast scene than in the entirety of Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes. Set around Christmas in 1987—coincidentally, the year of the Paul Verhoeven classic’s release—the film opens as adolescent Ralphie (Mason McNulty) has received his first camcorder. Robbins filters everything through Ralphie’s camera, giving the film an entirely home-video aesthetic, and after Ralphie’s father (Jake Head) discovers the device can be used to record live TV, VHYes morphs into a procession of mostly stale sketch-comedy bits that have been taped during Ralphie’s late-night channel surfing.

Throughout, VHYes shuttles from one gag to the next in search of purpose. In one bit, Robbins serves up a parody of The Joy of Painting starring a woman, Joan (Kerri Kenney), whose dry wit and thinly veiled arousal for her work culminates in a painting of her dunking on Dennis Rodman, of which she assures viewers, “There’s moisture. Some of it isn’t sweat.” We also get a spoof of Antiques Roadshow featuring an appraiser (Mark Proksch) who increasingly reveals his lacking aptitude for the position. And on a mock QVC channel, the formerly married hosts bicker as they predominately sell drug paraphernalia disguised as household products.

VHYes is clearly indebted to the gonzo sketch comedy of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but unlike Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Robbins homes in on the oddities of people and things as a means to an end, rather than using them as a jumping-off point for unhinged social commentary. The only segment that approaches a distinct comedic take on its material is Conversations with Todd Plotz, in which the host (Raymond Lee) discusses “tape narcissism” with a cultural philosopher (Mona Lee Wylde) who makes obviously prescient remarks such as, “One day the real world will exist to be filmed.” Though this exchange might outwardly suggest an attempt to critique global technological influence, a la Videodrome, the sketch lacks a punchline, let alone insight, beyond the host donning a goofy expression, further revealing how the film is a parade of empty nostalgia for its own sake.

The film offers a reprieve from its grab bag of sketch comedy with a series of musical interludes hosted by Lou (Charlyne Yi), who uses the occasion to introduce bands to her interested but clueless parents. The best of these features Weyes Blood performing a haunting rendition of her 2016 track “Generation Why.” But lest the music linger for a moment in earnest, Robbins concludes the segment with the ironized, faux-Lynchian imagery of a door, isolated in darkness, opening onto Lou and Weyes Blood doing a slow dance.

The film’s climax returns to reality to find Ralphie and his friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw), obsessed with the documentary Blood Files: Witch of West Covina. The show claims there’s a haunted sorority house on the outskirts of the town where the two live and, predictably, Robbins uses this material to spring the boys out of the house and toward danger, Ralphie’s camcorder footage all the while guiding us through their ghostly discoveries. As in its comedy, the film proves wholly derivative in its horror, borrowing liberally from The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and V/H/S and, in this stretch, without even the good sense to heavily ironize it. For all the outrageousness that could be concocted from its overarching premise, VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.

Cast: Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, Charlyne Yi, Mason McNulty, Rahm Braslaw, Jake Head, Christian Drerup, Mona Lee Wylde, Raymond Lee, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins Director: Jack Henry Robbins Screenwriter: Jack Henry Robbins, Nunzio Randazzo Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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