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Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy on Criterion

Alex Cox’s heartfelt take on the true-life relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen could easily have been just another rock biopic.

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Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy on Criterion

Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, a heartfelt take on the true-life relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen—a love that ended when Sid stabbed Nancy to death in the Chelsea Hotel, then died of a drug overdose while awaiting trial—could easily have been just another rock biopic. Instead, through the use of fantasy-tinged reenactments (favoring the surreal in lieu of the straightforward), Cox transforms this gritty tabloid story into something deeper. It’s a perfect example of finding truth through fictionalization.

The film begins with the police interrogating a blood-covered Sid (eerily embodied by Gary Oldman) in his hotel room. “Who called 911? Did you call 911?” an officer asks to no response. He wants to know who the girl was, where he met her. “I met her at Linda’s,” Sid finally acknowledges after shakily taking a toke from a cigarette. Thus begins a flashback to better days, when lead singer Johnny Rotten and Sid were just a couple of boys causing chaos in 70s Britain, knocking in the front window of a Rolls, slurping baked beans at dominatrix Linda’s flat, throwing darts at drummer Paul in the local pub. Cox shoots in bright daylight (this is England?), emphasizing the purity of the blokes, the sweet innocence beneath the bravado nihilism. These aren’t ruthless delinquents out to hurt or even to impress. They’re just fuckin’ bored (a running theme in the dialogue, with punks constantly lamenting ennui, the core of teenage rebellion).

Things don’t go well at that first meeting when groupie Nancy (played by Chloe Webb, equal to Oldman in chameleon ability) announces she has “all” of the Sex Pistols albums back in New York before calling Sid by Johnny’s name. It’s only later when they end up two bodies on the sardine-packed floor of a flat that the dysfunctional relationship begins. Nancy literally wedges herself between Sid and Johnny, marking a turning point in the boys’ friendship. A girl has come between them. It’s time to grow up.

Unfortunately, growing up entails shooting up with junkie Nancy, who guides the naïve Sid. When he asks her to score him some smack and she leaves with his money, he actually thinks she’s going to come back. Cox frames Sid waiting in the doorway of the pub, huddled in the nighttime rain, stubbornly refusing to come inside. Instantly there’s a quick flash to sunny daytime, the bright orange of pal Wally’s hair and jacket contrasting with Sid’s jet black spikes and leather, followed by the many colors of the fruits and vegetables of the outdoor market they navigate, which borders on the surreal. Everyday events are no longer normal. A group of school kids run amuck, bashing parked cars with bats. Over-the-top perhaps, but then so were the 70s.

And this is another reason Sid & Nancy succeeds: Cox gives his story a larger context than two lovebirds in a punk-scene cocoon. Whether it’s the stunning long shots of London’s seedy streets or the highly stylized boat sequence in which the Sex Pistols’ concert on the Thames is ended by police billy clubs, the film never loses hold of the idea that the 70s were a time of larger economic and social turmoil. The Sex Pistols were a reaction to a hostile environment, not the cause of it, and they did not operate in a bubble. (Cox hints at the scene’s larger context by showing X-ray Spex opening for the Pistols with “Oh, Bondage, Up Yours!” before Sid and Johnny take the stage.) Only love enables Sid and Nancy to drift untouched through the police riot, their escape accompanied by acoustic music instead of screams.

Sid & Nancy is really a coming-of-age (first) love story at heart. The major characters all play at being something they’re not. Nancy name-drops, brags she’s “friends with Debbie Harry,” while Sid “plays” at being a junkie. Wally even plays with toy cars while Sid and Nancy have drugged-out sex nearby. They’re all children masquerading as grown-ups. Sid and Nancy fire toy guns at Johnny while dashing through the street, and fight while Sid vacuums his mum’s flat and Nancy jumps up and down on the bed (this ridiculous scene culminates in Sid chasing Nancy down the street in his leather jacket and jock strap until Nancy stops to strip off the hippie costume she’s tried on. Facing a store window, she exclaims, “I look like fucking Stevie Nicks!” Of course, this all occurs after Sid finds his lost G.I. Joe doll and Nancy laments, “I’ll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn’t have bruises.”) Within the humor shines pathos born of knowing you’ll never live up to society’s expectations.

Cox is masterful at staging hilarious scenes that end with unexpected poignancy. Nancy calls her parents in the middle of the night to tell them she and Sid got married, and if they rush down to American Express “like, right now” they could send them a couple hundred bucks as a wedding gift. Then, when she doesn’t get what she wants, she smashes the window of the phone booth like an impulsive kid. It’s a scene at once silly and primal, the desperation of a junkie felt as much as seen. No matter how outlandish the set-ups—from the sleazy drug dealing Rock Head on his exercise bike as Sid and Nancy make out in the background to Johnny’s deadpan “You know you’ve got a man hanging from your ceiling?” at Linda’s dungeon/pad—the film is firmly grounded in a reality familiar to those living in hyperreality. When Sid performs “My Way” on an elaborate soundstage before an opera audience, then pulls a gun on them, it’s no more stylized than his actual life. (Life itself is a stage!) Cox jam-packs his film with off-kilter visuals that feel organic, not quirky or forced. In terms of sensibility he’s a lot like Terry Gilliam, who likewise chooses to push reality up a notch as a means of exposing what lies just beneath the surface. (When Sid pukes on a schmoozer who approaches him at a table in Paris, the guy’s girlfriend is wearing headgear attached to braces, a contraption recalling the hero’s face-lift-obsessed mother in Gilliam’s Brazil.)

Because Cox creates his own living, breathing world we’re not so concerned with historical accuracy, with “the facts.” So what if the guy playing Johnny Rotten doesn’t look much like the real John Lydon? His constant correcting of Sid’s singing, “We don’t fucking care!” with “No ’fucking’—just ’we don’t care’!” tells us more about the character than the right shade of Rotten red. The shot of Sid and Nancy sleeping, their heads of jet black and bottle blonde cuddled together like furry animals, and the scene in which Nancy, dressed in fetish gear, answers Linda’s phone and falls to her knees when she hears Sid’s voice calling from America, visualize their love better than any “true events” ever could. “You’re just gonna have to have sex with somebody else!” an irritated Nancy finally exclaims, hanging up as Linda calls for her—this is followed by a quick cut to a long shot of Sid at a phone booth, shit-kicker cowboys in the foreground. Their relationship goes from being so near to so desperately far away.

Cox’s ability to capture the subtleties of the relationship through lush cinematography (courtesy of Roger Deakins) and sharp editing is what humanizes Sid & Nancy, what makes the film a universal tale. Cox wastes no time—even when Sid accidentally walks through a plate-glass door and goes down in slo-mo, we don’t hear glass and people shrieking but disembodied voices arguing. The next scene reveals it’s the beginning of the end, the loud break-up of the band around a comatose Sid’s hospital bed. By the time we see Sid sitting up, raptly watching a monster movie as a Christmas-decorated shopping cart rolls into the room, we know Nancy is going to be standing in that doorway. Sappy and sentimental? Sure. Isn’t that what love is?

But the most touching scene is one that occurs halfway through, a wordless vision that signals the inevitable downfall. In slow motion under gorgeous, bluish lighting with music both powerful and lulling, the two junkie lovebirds make out against a dumpster as trash rains down from the unforgiving sky. This is the essence of Cox’s punk masterpiece, a subliminal foreshadowing of their deaths. From here Sid & Nancy turns unbearably heartbreaking. “All my friends are dead,” Nancy states as if she’s awakened to a revelation. “I hate this fucking life.” Sid tries to calm her, tells her things will get better when they get to America. “We’re in America!” she yells and the horror is visceral. Her words cut to the bone. There is simply no way out. Sid goes to the balcony, the Hotel Chelsea sign looming in the background. The sounds of NYC rise from below, overwhelm like life itself.

And yet the innocent humor persists. Nancy takes Sid to meet her family. Over dinner her grandpa asks about Sid’s “intentions” with his granddaughter. “Well, first we’ll go down to the methadone clinic,” Sid answers sincerely before the family retires to the rec room where the clueless couple entertain with Pistols tunes on an acoustic guitar. When they’re finally told they can’t stay, are better off at a hotel, Nancy’s face registers a crushing knowingness. “Why’d they throw us out?” Sid wonders later. “Because they know me,” Nancy quietly replies. Even when Sid goes back on their deal to not do any drugs until after his upcoming gigs, Nancy, through her howls of disappointment and seething anger, screams, “And you didn’t even save me any!” It’s this constant interweaving of hilarity and bleakness that keeps us off balance, makes us see this junkie tale through fresh and sober eyes.

This is also a hallmark of the film’s director. Both the guy dispensing the drugs at the methadone clinic who suddenly starts ranting about how the government uses heroin as a form of control or the creepy bellhop who begs for money after Sid and Nancy are moved to a new room could easily have slipped in from Cox’s Repo Man. Cox likes to disarm us with weirdness in the same way David Lynch does, using it as a tool to alter our expectations of what is or what should be. The hotel room at the Chelsea where the pair hole up is like a tomb, shot in that same deathly bluish light. When Sid takes the stage in a near-empty bar to sing Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” the scene is inter-cut with dollar bills floating in the air. When he runs into a group of kids bullying another he tells them to stop. “Who do you think you are?” one little guy challenges. “Sid Vicious,” he answers coolly. The children speed off in fast motion. Cox is forever altering our perception of the familiar.

To a longing soundtrack laced with haunting melodies by Joe Strummer and The Pogues, Cox forces us to witness something incredible—souls deteriorating, rotting away before bodies succumb. The music, melancholy guitars and drumbeats, is funereal. When a drugged-out Nancy accidentally sets fire to their room she watches mesmerized as the flames consume, sees the beauty in the disintegration. Even when the firefighters rush in to drag her out in slow motion the pained expression on Nancy’s face says it all. “At least you used to be something. I’ve never been anything,” she tells Sid when he tries to comfort her. What, in fact, were those firefighters saving her from?

And there’s the junkie rub. By the time the infamous murder scene occurs, Sid and Nancy are no longer living human beings. They’re zombies merely existing until the next fix. When Sid finally lunges at Nancy with the knife she herself bought, neither one is mentally present. What is reality anyway? I can’t think of another movie where a murder occurs without either party fully comprehending the finality of the event, Nancy splayed out on the bathroom’s white tiles, blood everywhere, light streaming out and into the darkened bedroom where Sid remains. Nancy has found the light in death, Sid only blackness in life. After his arrest we see Sid through the bars in the jail, lying on the floor convulsing. The Sex Pistols may have sung about “No Future,” but Sid was the only member who lived it. “Sidney is more than just a bass player—he’s a fabulous disaster!” Malcolm McLaren declares. That he was.

The Criterion Collection edition of Sid & Nancy is chock full of goodies, including commentary not just by co-screenwriter Abbe Wool and stars Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, but also by those who were there during punk’s heyday. Cultural historian Greil Marcus, who wrote two books about the Pistols, weighs in, as do musician Eliot Kidd and filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski (whose doc D.O.A. is excerpted in the extras as well). This is a perfect melding of those who fictionalized Sid and Nancy with those who knew them, the stories oftentimes contradicting one another (Julien Temple wasn’t too happy about John Lydon being portrayed as a clown rather than the wit he is), but always bringing us to a deeper contextual understanding of the punk scene.

“England’s Glory” is a “making of” doc by Martin Turner, shot at a cost of $500. Perhaps the most surprising element of this behind-the-scenes peek is how happy and relaxed Alex Cox’s set is, more like a jam session than a costly movie. It’s a delight to behold the quiet and sweet Gary Oldman looking like a young Johnny Depp when out of his Sid Vicious character, or Alex Cox with his own spiked hair goofing off with the punk extras. Even the calliope music that substitutes for Pistols songs in four scenes (due to problems with music rights clearances) adds to the carnival atmosphere.

“D.O.A.: A Right of Passage” features interviews with the real Sid and Nancy, taken from D.O.A., Kowalski’s documentary on the Sex Pistols’ American tour. “They were incredibly pathetic and I felt like I was taking advantage of them just by being there,” Kowalski is quoted as saying. Listening to Nancy berate a nodding-off Sid in her New York whine you realize just how inseparably dysfunctional the two really were. She yells at him to try to stay awake for the interview, to stop dropping lit cigarettes on her, and she also notes that he’s constantly spilling coffee and orange juice on her—Sid is always the helpless, careless kid who wouldn’t be able to function without Nancy (she actually claims Sid would have died around fifteen deaths already if not for her!) .

“The Filth and the Fury!” is the actual December 1976 episode of Thames Television’s “Today” show with Bill Grundy, which featured the Sex Pistols (after Queen canceled). Though Sid and Nancy aren’t on it (original bassist Glen Matlock hadn’t yet had his feud with Johnny Rotten) Siouxsie Sioux is, hilariously flirting with old geezer Grundy. “Anarchy in the U.K.” is overdubbed (clearance issues again!), but it’s well worth viewing this historical moment when the Pistols went from local rebellious lads to a national embarrassment.

The “Phone interview with Sid Vicious” on July 20, 1978 occurred after Sid took a flight to London via NYC (three days after an overdose following the Pistols’ final San Francisco concert), fell into a drug-induced coma during the trip, and was promptly taken to Jamaica Hospital in Queens. Photographer Roberta Bayley, who shot the covers for the Ramones’ first album and Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ debut, conducted the “interview,” which is really a painful conversation between a caring friend and a lonely incoherent junkie who can’t get anyone to visit him in his darkest hour due to a blizzard. Listening to Sid gush about his big pile of Marvel comics is particularly heartbreaking.

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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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