“It doesn’t worry me if it is said that I’m not making any progress. I agree, whatever progress one makes is always very small indeed.”—François Truffaut, in an interview with Don Allen, 1979
When François Truffaut was young he disagreed with a teacher over Robert Bresson’s film, Women of the Bois du Bologne. The teacher couldn’t understand why a man would drive 80-miles-an-hour to solve romantic problems; Truffaut couldn’t understand why the teacher couldn’t understand. Bravura mockeries of common sense peppered the films the French New Wave kick-starter made in the 1960s, his first full decade of work as a director, lyrical speedboats like The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player. Whether it’s a woman trying to kill a man on an idle whim or a man giving his bank accounts to a woman he’s just met, one sees the spectacle over and over again of love reducing adults to kids.
This is clearest in 1977’s The Man Who Loved Women, one of a series of ‘70s films Truffaut made that turned inward, looking back on earlier work; other examples include 1970’s The Wild Child, a film about a young Mowgli domesticated and taught language by a kindly doctor (a relationship perhaps based on Truffaut’s with the great critic André Bazin), shot in black-and-white with silent film techniques like the iris shot, and 1971’s Two English Girls, which based its male-female-female love triangle on a book by the author of the source novel for perhaps Truffaut’s most celebrated film, 1961’s Jules and Jim, and starred Jean-Pierre Léaud, who’d played Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel as a schoolboy in 400 Blows. The Man Who Loved Women isn’t anywhere as good as either The Wild Child or Two English Girls (itself far superior to the overrated Jules and Jim), but Man’s smugness, its desperation, and the sheer seemingly unintentional discomfort that one feels watching it are all quite revealing of Truffaut’s work as a whole.
The film opens at a funeral, notable (so the voiceover tells us) for its all-female population. The beautiful corpse was Bertrand Moran (Charles Denner), prone to fall for nearly every woman he met, be they streetwalker or hat check girl, single or married. In flashbacks we see him pursuing these women. Bertrand’s not a lothario so much as he is stir-crazy—whatever smiles he cracks are forced. We realize that he chases women to fill a deep interior hole; as one paramour belatedly tells him, “When you don’t love yourself, you are incapable of loving others.” The man finally tries to find self-love by writing a book about his experiences, a book that happens to have the title of the film.
This last bit feels awfully self-congratulatory (especially if you know about Truffaut’s real-life reputation as both a bibliophile and a skirt-chaser), yet it’s also the movie’s way of retreating into fantasy—the book, in a way, is Moran’s ideal woman. Several scenes prior to it have shown us the depths he’ll dive to find her. In one scene Moran runs into an old flame at a hotel, a coat check desk between them, and lamely tries to make conversation as if the affair weren’t dead. But an even more painful scene (in an awkward, poorly executed, so-bad-it-becomes-good instance of X-ray filmmaking) occurs between him and a babysitter. Moran shows the girl around his apartment, finally following her into the “child’s” dark bedroom. She pulls back the covers and lifts up a plastic doll. “Where is the infant?” she asks, confused, to which Moran grimaces and says, “The infant…is me.”
Denner looks simply awful in this scene—his skin pockmarked, bags under his eyes. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of the ending of Two English Girls. A middle-aged Léaud sees a gang of schoolchildren passing, and watches them until he inadvertently catches a glimpse of himself in a car mirror. Leaning in, he touches his beard and wonders, “How did I get so old?” Truffaut seems drawn to moments of self-actualization, when a self confronts itself and either retreats or breaks. This moment that ends 1971’s Girls is similar to the scene in 1968’s Stolen Kisses when Antoine Doinel, brushing his teeth, says his name over and over into the bathroom mirror until he has to slap himself to break out of it. It’s also similar to the process that an actor undergoes when watching himself on film (incidentally, Truffaut acted in several of his own movies, and Léaud grew into a Truffaut double, replete with widow’s peak and hooked nose, as he reached his 20s), or that a writer undergoes when reading his or her memoir. The person has ostensibly recorded himself or herself, but can’t help but be stunned by the differences between his or her self-image and the real François. One could say that Moran, who never apologizes and keeps waiting for other people to tell him the meanings of his actions, avoids confronting himself, unlike some of Truffaut’s other characters. Perhaps. In fact the book seems an attempt to create a more pleasing image of himself, just as a filmgoer looks for fantasy in the dark of a theater.
Throughout his life several of Truffaut’s deepest relationships were with movies; he and his Cahiérs du Cinéma colleagues were called the “Rats of the Cinemathéque” for all the time they spent in the front row of Henri Langlois’s theater. A key influence on The Man Who Loved Women is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1954 Hollywood film, The Barefoot Contessa, a review of which appears in Truffaut’s book of collected film criticism, The Films in My Life. Mankiewicz’s film tells the story of how a Spanish chiquita (Ava Gardner) becomes a Hollywood star. Both his and Truffaut’s films open at the beloved’s funeral, with the myriad lovers in attendance. Both protagonists have died for love, as Gardner’s Maria was shot by a jealous lover and Moran was hit by a car while chasing a woman. Both then tell their story in flashback, using the person who made the deceased a celebrity as narrator—Mankiewicz employs Humphrey Bogart’s hard-bitten director, Truffaut Genevieve Fontanel’s worldly publisher (the lone advocate at her company for Moran’s book).
Both films make their protagonists artists, but in neither film do we see their art, as Mankiewicz denies us the Gardner character’s screen test and Truffaut doesn’t let us see the pages of Moran’s book (though admittedly, we hear several passages in voiceover). In both cases, the withholding seems deliberate. Whether the art is good or bad isn’t the primary issue (though by placing their narrators as the lone consistent advocates, both directors hint at the second), because it’s actually the protagonist who’s being presented as a work of art. Both Mankiewicz and Truffaut are telling three stories of unsatisfied desire: As The Barefoot Contessa unfolds, film audiences desire the movie star’s image, the male characters desire the live woman, and Contessa’s audience watching the wooing desires Gardner all at once; similarly, Truffaut’s Moran attracts readers with his written stories, the women he meets desire the real thing, and Truffaut shows us several of these encounters, giving us more of a chance to desire Denner. What seems like a key difference between the two films—gender identification—proves not to be. Mankiewicz places a male narrator among other men desiring the same woman, but even though Truffaut places a female narrator among a crowd of women who desired Moran (it may or may not be a coincidence that the name’s an ancient Syriac word for Jesus Christ), his film is about how and why men desire women, too.
In her book on the director, Annette Insdorf pinpoints how enormously volatile many of Truffaut’s female characters are, shifting not only their behaviors and attitudes (Jules and Jim, where Catherine woos Jim, then tries to shoot him) but even oftentimes their legal identities and names (The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me). Several of the director’s films also show male protagonists choosing between multiple women varying in age and temperament (Two English Girls, the Antoine Doinel films). The Man Who Loved Women has both aspects—Moran chases as many women as he can find, one of whom proves a crazy bitch. The sense tying all these toss-ups together is that of men looking to women to fill several different needs, with the women waiting impatiently to profess their own. The moment that touches me most in any Truffaut film comes well into Bed and Board, as Doinel hails a cab for his former beloved, because it’s fairest to both sides. “You’re my mother, you’re my sister, you’re my daughter,” he tells her, to which she responds, “I could have been your wife.”
Truffaut’s films spark whenever kids come onscreen—several of his best films (400 Blows, Wild Child, Small Change) are specifically about children. Even when they appear in cameos, like at the end of Two English Girls, they’re framed centrally and lit warmly to captivating effect. Yet when his adult protagonists act like children, like Doinel and Moran, the films grow more troubled and problematic, uncertain as to whether to keep them dreaming or wake them up. Moran, like Doinel, is an overgrown infant who loves women and books; the line the film treads between exposing his naïvete and indulging in it is incredibly thin.
That said, one of The Man Who Loved Women’s virtues is that, unlike most if not all of Truffaut’s other films, it shows the women clinging to fantasy as tightly as the man does (in this way it differs from The Barefoot Contessa, where Gardner’s Maria walks into affairs fairly open-eyed). A friend recently made the case that Fontanel’s character believes she likes Moran’s book, and that her believing so is more important than actually liking the book. It’s key that she falls in love with Moran after first falling for his literary character, the first creating the myth of the second. But almost every woman Moran meets falls for him, partly because he tries to convince them that they’re perfect. The film’s major exception is a woman Moran’s age, who tells him, “I do not accept the degradation of life, or rather I don’t accept that love accommodate it,” and so she’s only going for younger men.
His films’ uneasy dream lives make me want to rescue Truffaut, a filmmaker who’s had so many accusations of “overrated” hurled his way that he has become underrated again. Viewers who dislike his work (Manny Farber among them—the great American critic discusses Truffaut at length in his seminal 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”) tend to see the films as inflated and static, pinned to a classical style that brings nothing new or innovative to stories of love won and lost; as Farber writes, “his films are bound in and embarrassed by his having made up his mind what the film is to be about.” His characters are generally young, generally male people who lose their innocence as they explore the world, pulled toward marriage and respectable employment and shrieking inside all the way. Phillip Lopate has noted a tendency in essayists and memoirists that he calls “clinging stubbornly to false naïveté”; whether it’s Doinel calling his wife from a restaurant to complain about how poorly his adulterous affair is going in Bed and Board, or the crew’s gaping surprise at the on-set arrival of the leading man’s lover in Day for Night, one could easily accuse the characters, the films, and the filmmaker of this tendency all at once.
Yet at the same time, Truffaut’s struggle over whether to turn his mind off to the world is one reason his films fascinate in general, and The Man Who Loved Women fascinated in particular. It’s impossible to know how closely Truffaut identified with Moran, though it seems important both that Denner looks like a worn and haggard, baggy-eyed Truffaut (as opposed to Léaud’s sprite) and that Truffaut cast himself as the lead in his follow-up film, The Green Room, after deciding that only he and Denner were right for the part. Regardless, his hands are all over the movie—you can’t always tell when you’re watching a Truffaut movie, but you always know when you’re listening to one. Manny Farber writes of Truffaut’s characters, “all women are villains…all heroes are unbelievably innocent, unbelievably persecuted.” The Man Who Loved Women is an amazingly conflicted movie, precisely because of how its characters want fairy-tale judgments like these to come true.
Written in honor of this past winter’s Truffaut series at the Alliance Française.
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.
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
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
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.
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
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.1
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
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..5
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress
Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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.
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Todd Phillips, Joker
Sam Mendes, 1917
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy
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
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Sound Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Best Sound Mixing
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Animated Short
Best Live-Action Short
Nefta Footfall Club
The Neighbor’s Window
Best Film Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Best Original Score
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Best Documentary Feature
The Edge of Democracy
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
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Visual Effects
The Lion King
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Best Animated Feature
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Toy Story 4
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Two Popes
Best Original Screenplay
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
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
Review: VHYes Spoofs Late-Night TV Without Exacting Critiques
VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.1.5
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