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“Talk About the Movie”: A Bug’s Life and Up

It’s a funny thing about repetition.

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Up

“Talk about the movie,” the little white-haired 3-year-old boy shouted up at me.

It was a command. He was my nephew. We had just finished watching A Bug’s Life, his favorite movie. He had never had a favorite movie before. He could (and did) watch it every day. I babysat him quite a bit in those days, and so I got to know A Bug’s Life by heart as well (One moth to another moth: “Larry! Larry! Don’t look into the light!” Larry replies in a droning zombie voice, “Ican’thelpitit’ssobeeeeeautiful ….” ZAP!) Nothing pleases a child more than endless repetition of something he loves. But just watching it was not enough for my nephew. The second the movie finished, he needed to “talk” about it, which basically meant relive it, moment by moment, so he would shout at whoever was present, “TALK ABOUT THE MOVIE.”

It was then my job to bring up different moments throughout the film, “How about when the grasshoppers show up?” and my nephew could then nod wisely in remembrance and say, “Yeah.” That was basically what “talk about the movie” entailed. A rote listing of moments, with my nephew nodding.

“Talk about the movie” became a family catch-phrase. We still say it to each other. In a funny way, it is how I actually live my life. All I want to do is “talk about the movie”, good or bad, scorn or indifference, what is more fun than spending the majority of your time “talking about the movie”?

My nephew is a great movie-lover, and his “way in”, his first “a-ha” moment with movies and how transportive they can be, was A Bug’s Life. Toy Story came out before he was born, and of course, his parents then back-tracked and rented it for him, but nothing could hold a candle to A Bug’s Life. Because that was the first. I own that film. I bought it back then on VHS, because if my nephew ever came and stayed at my apartment, it was obviously REQUIRED that I have it on the premises.

It’s a funny thing about repetition. When there is a child involved, and you love that child, it doesn’t matter that you have read Goodnight Moon 5 times already in one day. You sit down, the child curls up against you, and you read it again, as though it is the first time. There’s such a beauty in that. In a way, it is reflective of the creative process itself, and how so much of it has to do with repetition.

Watching A Bug’s Life once or twice a week for an entire year gave me a level of appreciation for it that would not have existed if I had just seen it once. Not to mention the fact that, for the most part, when I saw it, a small child sat on my lap, drinking soy milk, and either laughing hysterically at the funny parts or going all silent and still at the more suspenseful parts. I lived it vicariously through him. I think it’s a good movie, and having seen it recently, I can say that it works as a narrative, borrowing from great movie plots throughout film history. That merry band of misfit bugs has many ancestors. Flik, the ambitious yet misunderstood ant, narrated by Dave Foley, is the perfect hero. His plans to make the ant colony’s harvesting more efficient are not seen as helpful, but as a nuisance.

Who is HE to change how things have been done for generations? He recruits a group of disgruntled circus-performer bugs to help save his colony from the evil grasshoppers. Flik is, however, not the brightest bulb; he is an innocent country ant, so he mistakes the circus bugs, with their costumes and stunts, as actual superhero bugs. He thinks they will know how to stage an inter-species war. He brings them back to his colony, hoping to cover himself in glory, to make up for ruining the colony’s harvest with one of his hare-brained schemes. The circus bugs, trapped in a role they do not understand, try to flee. They’re just carnies, they don’t know how to wage war! But eventually, they all come together and hatch an ingenious scheme (similar to a circus act, involving illusion and trickery) to fool the grasshoppers. If you’re a small three-year-old boy, trying to make your way through the adult world, trying to understand your role in it all, this is potent stuff.

It is not always the strongest who are called to do great things. Enduring narratives involve someone who may NOT be up to the task but who answers the call anyway (think of Hansel and Gretl, or Frodo).

The best part about A Bug’s Life, and why I could tolerate the repetition of it (whereas something like Blue’s Clues, another favorite of my nephew’s, became intolerable after five minutes) is that the narrative has woven through it very subtle bits of humor and characterization, that work on quite an adult level. But, most importantly, it doesn’t ever lose its innocent heart. This is one of Pixar’s greatest strengths.

For example, Denis Leary is the voice of the ladybug. That in and of itself is an amusing choice. To hear a pretty little ladybug, seen as a delicate and inherently romantic (i.e. female) member of the insect world, talk in the wise-cracking tough-guy cadences of Denis Leary, is automatically hilarious. If you cast well, half of your job is done.

Bonnie Hunt (I wish she got more substantial work; she is so good) plays Rosie, the black widow spider, the only female surrounded by males. She is a perfect DAME, of the old-school Howard Hawks variety. A woman who can keep up with the guys, giving as good as she gets, trading wisecracks but with an overlay of tired impatience, which makes it a very comedic performance. Listen to her asides throughout the film, the things she murmurs to herself as events start to spin out of control. She is doing some very funny things back there. You wish that Rosie could have a spider girlfriend, a confidante, someone she could relax with, have a cocktail, give themselves 8-footed pedicures and commiserate about the multiple men in their lives.

My favorite scene is when Flik reaches the “big city” in his quest to find help for his colony. He has never left his own cozy ant-hill, so he strolls down the “streets” of this raging boom-town, agog, staring up and around him in awe. It’s similar to the bar scene in Star Wars, where creatures of every species imaginable drink and talk and mingle and fight. The script here is so strong, you can feel how much fun they must have had brain-storming. Mosquitoes order bloody marys, of course. Dung flies shout out their order for a “poo poo platter”. A slug orders a margarita, sucks it down, and suddenly his body puffs up, and he screams in agony at the bartender, “I SAID NO SALT.” This is very sophisticated, funny stuff, geared at the adults who will recognize each bug, know its characteristics and get the joke. But it also works on the 3-year-old level, a portrait of an innocent country-boy trying to navigate the big cacophonous city.

My nephew is now in middle-school, a budding film-maker himself, who counts The Seven Samurai as one of his favorite movies. Once, on a family vacation, I walked into the living room, and he was sitting there watching a movie on his laptop, laughing so hard that I thought he might asphyxiate himself. I asked him what he was watching. It was Buster Keaton’s The General. Boy has good taste.

It all started with A Bug’s Life.

~

Almost 50 years ago, my parents met at a sock-hop. My father approached my mother and struck up a conversation. He made jokes. My mother told her sisters after the dance that she had met a really nice boy “who reminded me of Jerry Lewis!” That was the highest of compliments to my mother at that time, who loved all the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movies. At the end of the night, my father (who had actually ridden his bike to the sockhop) asked if my mother wanted a ride home. He had no idea how he would pull it off if she actually said Yes, but he had to make the offer. She was a pretty freckled Irish girl with bright blue eyes. He didn’t want her to get away. My mother had driven to the sockhop, so she said, “No thanks. I have a car.” There was a pause, and then my father said, “Then can I have a ride?”

Eight years later they were married. It was a love match, one of mutual regard, humor, and companionship. They had four children and two grandchildren. Last year was their 41st wedding anniversary.

My father passed away on January 2, 2009, after a long and terrible illness. His suffering was excruciating. His will to live, strong. Letting him go was not easy, and we are all still struggling in the aftermath of his death. There are times when I feel like I am underwater. The things that used to be easy are hard. It takes me five times longer to get simple tasks done. I miss him every second of every day. Much of what life is about now is hunkering down with family, circling the wagons, touching base with my siblings, my mother, as much as possible. It is our loss. We talk about him all the time. Nothing is normal.

One of the most disorienting byproducts of my grief has been the almost total cessation of interest in the things that used to comfort me. I haven’t finished a book in five months. I watch ten minutes of my favorite movies and then have to turn them off. These were my escapes, and those doors are now closed to me. I have been forcing myself to still read, even though it takes me a week to get through eight pages.

In late May of this year, I read Roger Ebert’s review of Up. For some reason, it called to me. I suppose to an outside observer, it would be obvious why I was drawn to the movie, but when you are staggering through your days, barely aware of which end is up, you are not always aware of your impulses. Survival instinct kicks in, and my survival instinct said to me, “Go see Up.”

I talked my friend Allison into going with me. I looked forward to it all day. I hadn’t been excited to see a movie in months.

With everything else going on this past spring, I had also had a disappointing experience with a man. It hit me hard. Much of my reaction was, of course, due to the fact that I was already weakened from the previous year and a half of dealing with illness and death and loss. I did not have many reserves available to me. It was a minor disappointment, in the grand scheme, but it blindsided me and took me completely unawares. I was in the first burning week of the aftermath when I went to see Up.

When I arrived at Allison’s apartment that night for our date to see Up, I was on the verge of hysterics. She tried to get me to sit down. I couldn’t. I paced around, clutching my blackberry (in case he emailed; I was in that crazy-making phase of it), ranting and crying. Finally, gently, she got me to calm down enough that I could actually be in the same room with her. We set out to see Up. I was fleeing from my problems, and that is so much of what I love about movies. Yes, I love the artistry, and I love the storytelling impulse and all the different forms it can take. But it’s really more selfish than that: I love movies because they provide me with an escape, an entryway into other experiences, or they allow me to go deeper into my own.

Allison and I settled into our seats at the theatre, loaded down with snacks. Every time we looked at each other in our 3-D glasses, we burst out laughing. The innocent and simple pleasure of going to the movies … there it was, still alive in me. A reminder. This will be here for you always, even if you’re not ready for it yet at the same level that you once were.

The first 25 minutes of Up have been rightly praised. A montage of an entire marriage. A movie that begins with a montage? How on earth do they pull it off without making it seem like an outline, a cursory exposition: “Here is what you need to know before we REALLY get started”? It takes its time. We start out with mischievous youngsters, Ellie and Carl, who bond about their dreams to go to far-off places, untouched parts of the earth. We see their quirks, their essentially unconventional natures. They marry. We see them setting up their little household, lying in the grass looking at pictures in the clouds.

The montage is a masterpiece of how LITTLE you have to do to hook your audience in for the long haul. When we see the couple standing in a doctor’s office, and we see their worried faces, listening to the doctor as he talks to them, we know what this means. There are various shots of her afterwards, the spunky redhead, bereft by grief, sitting in a chair, staring off into space. How does life go on when one of your dearest held dreams is denied you? The movie rightly does not have any dialogue on these sections. It is all suggested, shown, in one of the most moving sequences I have seen in a film in recent memory.

Tears poured down my face, fogging up my 3-D glasses. I thought of my hopeful-faced black-haired father at age 16, offering a ride to a girl he liked, even though he didn’t have a car. I thought of their wedding day on a snowy February day, and the arrival of yours truly 9 months TO THE DAY later. They were by-the-book Irish Catholics. I thought of the story of my father driving me and my mother home from the hospital after I was born, and how he insisted on driving in the breakdown lane the entire way with his hazards on. He was 23 years old.

He was a wonderful father. I thought of my mother, and what it must mean to lose such a partner. I can’t imagine. The opening of Up is one of the most wonderful evocations of a marriage I have ever seen. When Ellie passed away at the end of the montage, I felt Carl’s loss. I understood why he closed his heart to life after that. Of course he did. And what had happened to that adventurous little girl he had fallen in love with? They actually HADN’T traveled to any far-off places, because, you know, life happened instead. They kept a scrapbook, empty, in the hopes that it would some day be filled with postcards and mementoes from all of their trips. His guilt is excruciating. He had denied her her dreams. That is how he sees it. Well, then, fine. He’s done with life. Enough.

Until … a fat eager little boy shows up at his door, insisting that he “help” him, because then he can get a merit badge for “aiding the elderly”. It is the classic situation of someone being DRAGGED back to life by an unlikely source. He is not ready to succumb. He is too wrapped up in his loss. Life is a wilderness without his beloved. What good would travel do now, without her at his side? Why hadn’t he taken her on any trips? Why had he missed his whole entire life?

This is all played with zero pathos. It is a deeply emotional and true film, but it keeps its eye on the ball, letting the characters slowly reveal themselves to us, letting us have whatever experience we want to have along the way. The little boy is annoying sometimes, and not cute or cuddly. That’s okay. Little boys are often annoying, and not always cute. But he is a life-force, an insistent companion. He doesn’t even understand what he is getting into. He does not see a sad little old man and try to bring a smile to his face. No. He is more intent on getting his badge.He is DETERMINED. It is his main objective. This soft-pedals any “sentimental” tarpits that Up could have fallen into. These are not particularly likable people, perhaps, neither one of them. But by the end, I loved them both with such an intensity that it surprised even me. I love them still.

There is much to say about the film, but this is not meant to be a review. My experience of Up was one of complete delight, mixed with coursing tears, literally pouring down onto my sweater. I laughed out loud at the dogs and how they verbalized their dog-emotions (“I hid under the porch BECAUSE I LOVE YOU”) and ached for Carl, who could not accept love into his heart again. It was too painful for him. His face almost insisted on staying in a frown. The work done by the animators is world-class. The characters’ eyes LIVED.

And by the final sequence, when Carl comes across the scrapbook, and finds that Ellie, all along, had been filling it with mementoes of her own, of the greatest adventure she could ever imagine, loving him and being his wife, I was thinking, “Someone put a fork in me, because I am DONE.”

How do you accept love into your heart when you KNOW that it will end with the death of your partner (if you’re lucky, that is)? With having to say goodbye to your partner-in-life, with letting that person go on in death? Or, conversely, with knowing that you are going to die, and it is “your time”, and you’re not ready for it, you don’t want to go yet, there’s still so much to do, so much to see, there are your children to glory in, what will they do next? There are your grandchildren … how can you leave all of this? How can you ever leave all of this? At the very end, my siblings and I all stood over my dad’s bed, with our hands on him, stroking him, and saying, “It’s okay, Dad … it’s okay … it’s okay … it’s okay …” We did not want him to go. He did not want to go. But he had to go.

I still have moments where I think I can hear his voice, where I wish I could tell him what is happening in my life, when I want to send him articles on John Banville like I used to, where all I feel is how wrong it is that he is not here anymore.

But I have to say, from time to time, I think of Ellie’s scrapbook in Up, and how it revealed to grieving Carl how she saw her own life. She did not see it as an endless string of broken dreams, unfulfilled promise. She got the man she wanted. Living with him WAS her dream. It WAS her adventure. Life itself is the best adventure of all. How wonderful that she was the kind of person who could recognize that WHILE it was happening.

Up was an incredibly important film for me to see at that particular moment. It was the first film I saw after my dad’s passing. It reached out a hand to me in the darkness. It said to me, “I know. I know this sucks. I know.” It did not have pat answers, or too-easy Hallmark Card sentiments. Life is hard, no doubt about it. Loss burns. I know that the wound will lose its freshness. It will change and morph into other things, but in that moment in time, it burned. Up recognizes that. It honors that. It also shows that, whether you like it or not, life will pull you back. That’s how it goes. It’s awful. It’s beautiful.

How I long to fill a scrapbook with pictures from my regular little everyday life, of dinners and parties and vacations with a beloved partner. That time has not come for me yet. I hadn’t realized how disappointed I was about that until my father passed away and until the disappointment with the man I had this past spring. Because no matter what happens now, no matter which man I may find to walk through life with, he will not meet my father. I will not have the pleasure of taking him home to meet my Dad. I need to grieve that too. I will. I am.

In the meantime, I can only hope that, whatever happens, whatever other losses I withstand, whatever disappointments I may face, because life is long and you never know what is store for you, that I will never ever tire of “talking about the movie”.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House.

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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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