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To Live Is To Learn: Kenji Mizoguchi on Screen, on DVD

So I bought the Criterion disc of Sansho the Bailiff blind and told Keith Uhlich I would write it up.

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To Live Is To Learn: Kenji Mizoguchi on Screen, on DVD

E-mail I: Unveiling Myself

Hey Steve,

So I bought the Criterion disc of Sansho the Bailiff blind and told Keith Uhlich I would write it up. After watching the film two times now, about a week apart, I still have no idea what to write. To be honest: I know it’s a marvel of a film but it still doesn’t touch me the way I’ve read people describe it as having affected them. My mood is changed, and I am wholly devastated, but I do not know why there is a value in that any more. I’ve long thought that when a movie provokes such a depressed response it should be to show you the world is alive, and substantive, despite the sour times, but both Ugestu and Sansho, the two Kenji Mizoguchi films that I’ve seen, only appear a series of denials. Freedom is only ever achieved at a price, the price of a loved one’s death, in both films. Perhaps this is realism? It certainly is crushing.

Let me be clear: I am fascinated by these films, and this director. All the visual rhymes and storytelling patterns—the overall structure—are glorious, and perhaps genius. Sansho opens with the mother telling her son to be careful in the world, to remember his father and his father’s teachings, after which the film then travels back in time to show you those precise, compassionate moral teachings. Sansho closes in a minor beach community, ravaged by a tidal wave, attempting to secure itself anew. Here, the covenant between mother and son is reconstituted thanks to the son’s faithful devotion to his father’s moral teachings, proving their worth and resonance. Mizoguchi’s ability to synthesize his morals into the structure of the film and its varied, complex and shifting storylines inspires awe. Yet, I am not moved as much by this ending as I am by the final shot of, say, Ugetsu; or, really, the whole of, say, Rear Window, another film from 1954; or, say, the finale of Breathless, an often hilarious downer film made by one of Mizoguchi’s famed trumpeters, Godard; or, possibly most damning, another Japanese milestone from 1954, Seven Samurai, by Mizoguchi’s celebrated former assistant, Akira Kurosawa, who has clearly eclipsed him in terms of Western fame since then.

To further unveil myself: I bought Ugetsu blind, too, when it came out from Criterion Collection in late 2005, and while I was blown away by its images and structure, I found it hard to figure out what I liked about it beyond its visual flair and formal precision. Indeed, I am still having trouble understanding why I own the films. I really do not want to watch them again (that often? ever?) no matter how great they may be. And while their packaging is delovely, and the essays insightful (Lopate’s essay accompanying Ugestu is better than the one Le Fanu wrote for the Sansho disc), and the supplements worthy of the cost, I’m still nagged by how difficult it is to actually watch these films. Perhaps it’s a similar thing to your Antonioni problem: on a small screen, the majestic images and structural genius are not as imposing, or evident, or something. I imagine watching these films in a theatre is an entirely different experience. It’s funny, too, that I have this problem as I keep missing the retrospectives that have been popping up around the country in the last year. While I prepared to leave New York (for the West Coast) last summer, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley was running “Seven Classic Mizoguchi”. After I was back in Berkeley, the Film Forum in New York played a series of Mizoguchi classics. And then, after I left Seattle last winter, the series traveled to the Northwest Film Forum. It seems I’m fated to watch the films on DVD, like most of the rest of the Region-1 world, which is a shame.

I know you attended the New York Film Forum retrospective last year and I was curious what your take on both of these films, and any others, might be. Have you seen these Criterion discs? Are there other films of Mizoguchi’s you like more? you think work better? you find more joy within? Why do you think, perhaps, Kurosawa is more famous? Simply because his films are more immediately satisfying and less austere? I am wary of all of this. But I trust you.

later, ryland.

E-mail II: The Plasma Can’t Cut It

Ry,

Like the nerd I am, I still have the tickets for all the Film Forum Mizoguchi screenings I saw last summer: Story of Late Chrysanthemums, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Life of Oharu and Street of Shame. I love them all, but have no desire to own or view a DVD of any of them. These are pure theatrical experiences. I can’t imagine sitting through Chrysanthemum’s epic, super long, room-to-room master shots while eating grilled cheese in my apartment. In the theater, the last pan-and-crane shot of Ugetsu gathered up the audience and lifted us into the sky. It was pure religion. Mizoguchi is one of the all-time masters at designing shot sequences, not just for the big screen, but for public consumption. Like those dag-blasted superhero flicks y’all mysteriously champion, Mizoguchi’s working with national myths and parables; they don’t really resound so well unless you’re watching with a packed house of neighbors and strangers. (Imagine watching an immortal performance of a great stage play in an empty playhouse. The audience electricity is a crucial ingredient.) When the father in Sansho, a politician banished for doing the right thing, gives his son a lesson in compassion and mercy before being taken away, I was moved to leave these comments on a film geek forum:

“In just the first five minutes of Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi hands you a treasure you wouldn’t trade for a trillion yen: An official in feudal Japan has gotten into hot water by defying his superiors on behalf of aggrieved peasants. He’s about to be jailed or exiled for doing the right fucking thing, so he takes his last few moments at home to impart some wisdom to his son, who it’s clear he will never see again.

“The advice he gives his boy stands in sharp contrast to every father-son talking-to in Western cinema. Take, um, Conan the Barbarian. Conan’s dad tells him to trust no one or nothing but his sword. Trust nothing but an instrument of death. Thanks, dad. By the end of the flick, Conan has survived by trusting only his sword, killing hundreds, and has worked up the balls to defy even God (Crom): “Don’t like it? To hell with you.”

“The father in Sansho delivers to his son a clear, stirring set of virtues comparable to Jesus’ sermon on the mount. But shorter. Mizoguchi is drawing from tenets of Buddhism and elements of Japanese myth, but I don’t see any western filmmaker from that time engaging so directly and intimately with the meaning of, say, the Gospels. Over here it’s greeting cards.

“John Wayne and Mel Gibson and all the other soldiers of Christ trust their swords first. Alls I’m saying is, I would trade all the Westerns and DeMille epics and morality plays gaudying up Ho’wood’s history for just those three minutes of the father-son lesson in Sansho. If we had more stuff like that in our culture, who knows what we’d be?”

This trans-Pacific cultural communication I perceived wouldn’t be so forceful if just me and maybe a homeboy/girl or two were sitting at home staring at the flick on the 50” plasma.

Speaking of plays, I’m starting to question the whole notion of a good film as something you can revisit frequently and see something new in each time—the return-to-the-well theory. Those five Mizoguchi films live in my mind the way a performance of the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom still marks my soul. I know I can be a drama queen with the hyperbole, but I mean it here: I can recall those hauntings as vividly as the time I got stuck up on 241st Street. No need for a refresher.

Ry, if you had been there for the Mizoguchi fest, I think you would know why you own those discs. You’d have them for the same reason that those ticket stubs are in my wallet: to trigger powerful memories, to go over the crime scene occasionally, to figure out how the whole thing was brought off. At this point, DVD is my ongoing film school. I might put on a disc of Ugetsu if I’m planning to shoot something and want to see how the director handled a particular sequence. Even though the world doesn’t know it, films on DVD and all their supplemental material are really for filmmakers, scholars and critics. Film buffs and fanboys might get something out of hearing a director’s commentary, but the ideal presentation format for most films is theatrical. In the last few years, despite all the valuable schooling, I’ve fallen out of love with DVD as a way of experiencing flicks for the first time. I do my best to get my ass to the theater if something rare comes to town. (Easy for me to say, right? So many great venues in NYC.) The 50” plasma still can’t cut it.

Kurosawa? A few months ago, a complete stranger who liked my online writing heard I was too broke to catch a screening of Ran at MoMA, so she comp’d me a ticket. She said I haven’t seen it if I’d only seen it on tape or DVD. I’d attempted to sit through Ran many times on cable and home video over the years; glanced at and been impressed by the famous battle sequence. But watching the whole thing hovering above me, 20 feet tall, I finally saw the film as the epic poem that it was (and, ultimately, Kurosawa’s perfect valediction). Toru Takemitsu’s score riding across the cutaways to the sky during the battle scene moved me more than any Ozu pillow shot I’ve yet seen.

And, yes, I do suspect my problems with Godard, Antonioni, The Life Aquatic and that goddamned Superman flick have much to do with the fact that I’ve tried engaging them on DVD first. I have to make more time for priceless theatrical screenings in this town, despite tickets that now cost more than my shoes. Also, whoever that nice lady who treated me to Ran is, I’m gonna find out if she’s single.

Steve

E-mail III: To Live Is to Learn

My friend,

A day after my first missive, I am renewed. Your response helped me locate not just my own thoughts on the films, but myself in relation to the films; I even re-watched pieces of both. Those final shots of uplift are wondrous, in particular the finale of Ugetsu: it is the formal echo of the film’s opener, opening the film back up to the world, offering the viewer the world. The final shot of Sansho, while still magical, is more subtle a move. First, the camera is not as choreographed as in Ugetsu; it is simply a crane and pan, without any tracking, and without worrying about capturing movement through the frame (by a child actor). Second, in lieu of the protagonist’s child as the preserving, sustaining humanistic life force Mizoguchi invests us in, it is seaweed scattered on the beach: gathered from the ocean, associated with death and patience and separation throughout the film, it is, here in the end, what will provide sustenance for this wrecked hamlet—and this renewed family. That, I think, was where I found Sansho so devastating: its humanism is less overt than that of Ugetsu. At first glance, the beach is empty and the frame is dominated by that island smack in the middle of the frame. Yet, if you follow the contours of the image, from the mound in the middle down along the beach to the seaweed-gatherer and his odd flock of leaves, you find yourself at once drawn into the metaphor of renewal (invested in an item gathered from a previously devilish entity) and shown the world outside the film. As I said in my earlier email, Mizoguchi’s ability to tie theme to structure and form is dazzling, and complex. And yet, still, the films are rather dour to watch alone. In a way, after reading your response, I felt, for a minute, that I had hardly—that is, actually—seen the films.

Another peek behind the curtain: both initial viewings of both films saw me briefly nod off. “What?!” you may be thinking. To answer, I must first say this is outright not a bad thing. As Keith Uhlich has relayed to me, Abbas Kiarostami once said, “I love a film that affords me a nap.” That’s a delicious bit of endorsement. I have fallen asleep in many of my so-called favorite films, from time to time, including the first time. Perhaps I’m just a nut, but perhaps it’s something else—perhaps the naps force me to question why I slid a little lower and pay better attention. Perhaps a nap is worthwhile. And yet, perhaps a nap is an outright sin on a first viewing. I’m still not sure about that; it warrants more investigation. If it means I am drawn back into the film, or the film has somehow seeped into my pores as a result—an odd, spectral osmosis—then, okay, I’m sold. If it means I’m just lazy, I am sorry. I am apt to think the films I return to after a nap are the ones I usually enjoy more, and further, in time. Some films appear designed to facilitate a nap.

Last weekend I indulged in Jacques Rivette’s near-13 hour Out 1 at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive over Saturday and Sunday. I napped for a bit of, I think, one episode on each day. It is one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever. Last December I saw Sátántangó at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum and after an early nap about two hours into the seven-and-a-half hour picture I was wide awake the rest of the way. It was a defining experience. (However, given the opportunity, I would much rather revisit Rivette’s film than Tarr’s film any day, or pair of days, as the case may be.) There’s a magic to the theatrical experience, it is true. In fact, after reading Walter Chaw’s recent blog post “Ten Films That Changed The Way I Look At Film” I made a list, for myself alone, of “Ten Defining Movie-Going Experiences”. Both the marathon films are on the list, but neither can top seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm at The Castro in San Francisco in the summer of 2005. I remember walking out of that screening practically yelling that it was the best film ever made and I refused to watch it on DVD ever again. So I thank you for clarifying the Mizoguchi run(s) as those kinds of defining cinematic experiences. I know I’m missing something here at home on my laptop. (Yes, I do not have a television anymore; I watch films on a 13” laptop monitor with headphones when not attending the theatre. Yet, this does not diminish a great film, in general; instead, intimacy works better for some films rather than others, as watching Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry last week—my first encounter with his films—alone in my room was as close to a religious film experience as I’ve encountered with a computer-viewing. On the flip side, I have only watched The New World once on DVD.)

To bring it back to Mizoguchi, and the two of his films we are discussing, I should also like to say, in addition to reading over your response, I received two other emails about my conundrum I would like to share, in parts:

“I was to see a triple feature of Mizoguchi once. Started with The Life of Oharu and was so devastated that I couldn’t bear to watch the others. It’s funny: Naruse I couldn’t get enough of. But Mizoguchi, for me at least, needs to be taken in slowly, with space in between.”—Keith Uhlich

“Watching Mizoguchi films in those [undergraduate] days, I was struck by the combination of formal and thematic beauty. It caught my own sense of the world, or of the world as I wanted it to be, not sad and painful (I took that for granted), but powerful and profound in its sadness and pain. I continue to admire Mizoguchi’s films tremendously. I know a lot more about film as an art form now, and I admire his films’ formal properties more and more articulately than I did back then. I have to admit, however, that I’d rather watch Kung Fu Hustle.”—low proFile

I think this insistence on letting Mizoguchi’s films sit, to allow them to work on one’s mind over time, is crucial, for me. His films (or at least these two I’ve seen) rigorously foreground temporal space, and actions through time, as when he shoots scenes without edits, like the hillside ambush of Miyagi, the potter’s wife, in Ugetsu. As it happens, after reading D K Holm’s appreciation of the man last week, I checked out Robin Wood’s Personal Views from the UC Berkeley library (further distracting me from many projects) and immediately skipped to the final essay (in this early edition) titled, “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed-Gatherer: Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu”. It was a pleasant entry into Wood’s work. He has a keen, discerning eye and offers insightful reads. (Perhaps an additional element of my resistance to write anything is that Mizoguchi already has so much good written about him, and that it is, in general, written so well.) This passage from Wood’s essay, describing the sequence of Miyagi’s ambush in Ugetsu that I mentioned above, seems the most relevant to our discussion:

“Miyagi, trying to return home with her child, is attacked on a mountain path by three starving outcasts (perhaps deserters) who steal the rice-cakes she has been given. When she protests, one of them drives a spear into her. Her little boy still on her back, she staggers on, supporting herself on a stick. Here, there is no cutting: the scene is a classic example of what the French call the plan-séquence, the ’sequence’ organized within a single shot. But the preservation of spatial reality within the image, and the preservation of the spectator’s distance from the action, are again crucial to the total effect.

“…Mizoguchi’s long take hold the spectator at a distance throughout, preserves the unity and continuity of the action, and preserves the sense of environment—of the action situated in a real world governed by the realities of time and space. We are not asked to respond simply and directly to the physical horror of a spear entering a woman’s belly, but to an event existing in a context. The detachment with which the camera compels us to watch the action makes the emotion it evokes much less immediate and overwhelming, but also much finer and deeper: we are free to contemplate the scene’s wider implications, to reflect on the events that have preceded it and its likely consequences.

“The organization of the complex action over a large area within a singe take is remarkable: one would call it virtuoso did not the word carry connotations of display, the technique here being self-effacing in the extreme. The staging has many of the features one thinks of as characteristically Mizoguchian. The camera position is slightly above the action, in the interests of clarity: from it, we can see not only the path and the hut, but down into the valley below.”

Wood’s synthesis of how Mizoguchi’s long-takes work (in tandem with his deft compositional eye) can help us understand why it may take more time for one to deal with his films, especially in the home setting. It’s that phrase, “we are free to contemplate the scene’s wider implications, to reflect on the events that have preceded it and its likely consequences.” However, I would argue, we are not simply free to contemplate, we are forced to contemplate, and pay attention, to the action on screen with the aid of the long take. I know that’s why I’m so enamored with Tarkovsky’s films. What I don’t know is how those films feel closer to me than these. I want to refuse the notion that it is simply because of skin-tone and ethnicity but that may be the root, no matter how much I tell my (other) friends, “I just watch movies; foreign movies don’t feel foreign to me as much as intriguing. I feel more at home watching Mirror than I do watching Manhattan—but I love both films.” That said, I also like Pirates and Superman Returns and EPIII so who knows what my problem is with calculating and articulating my somewhat tempered response to Mizoguchi, an artist I prize and admire. Perhaps it’s that temporal element.

Which is not to say initial reactions are useless. Or that one must return to films to understand them. My point is more about being open to changing one’s mind; or to recognize that one’s mind has changed over time. I think to allow that is a part of being human, and part of valuable criticism: the ability to refine and focus one’s attention to an object as well as to life. So it’s not that I feel too optimistic to appreciate the Mizoguchi films, or his world view—I believe in Zushio’s father’s teachings, too—it’s more that I feel I need some time, like Zushio. An education is never finite. I am, regrettably, a latecomer to this criticism practice, as I was to the values of a college education. And, as I’ve said before, I am willing to risk making mistakes: I think to live is to learn. And I love learning. Especially at the movies, over time.

word up,
ry.

E-mail IV: Unguarded

Ry,

I will go out on that limb with you regarding dozing off at flicks you love. My initial reaction to your theory was hell naw, that you wouldn’t accept such a rationalization regarding a lapdance or a milkshake. After a little thought, however, I realize that you’re only acknowledging your specific personal response in flux. Maybe a film that you can love and drift away from/with and allow to seep into your dreams (it happened to me watching The Lady from Shanghai once—“Michael, do you think the wooorld is coming to an end?”) is like a lover you’re comfortable with, comfortable enough to curl up beside, unguarded. Maybe the charm/attraction of some films is their calm and patience.

Wait, no “maybe”: I just saw such a film tonight, Rolf de Heer’s aborigine epic Ten Canoes. Oh, Ry, you have to see this one when it hits your town. The film is all about stories that are so ancient and embedded in the fabric of daily life that pauses, jokes, asides and detours do nothing but add to their already tensile strength. The narrator calls his stories trees. He openly teases us for our presumed impatience and coaxes us to stay with him, advising us that there is something useful even in the apparently random ethnographic scenes of tribesmen on an egg hunt or constructing canoes. Ah, man, I can’t wait to hear your take on this, the most charismatic film I’ve seen in a while.

Getting back to Mizoguchi’s trees: You were right to correct Robin Wood’s statements about what that killing scene in Ugetsu was doing to us. Wood: “The detachment with which the camera compels us to watch the action makes the emotion it evokes much less immediate and overwhelming…” Hogwash. Ry: “However, I would argue, we are not simply free to contemplate, we are forced to contemplate, and pay attention, to the action on screen with the aid of the long take.” Right on. The key to all the Mizoguchi masterpieces I saw last summer is that his restrained camera gets us ever more desperately invested in the fate of his characters. Seen on the big screen, these films are as intimate as a sonogram.

your friend,

Steve

Ryland Walker Knight and Steven Boone first met under aliases on one such film geek board. Ry said, “You got style, and smarts,” and Steve said, “You got smarts, and style.” Since then they have collaborated off and on, here and there: both on Vinyl Is Heavy and Big Media Vandalism and, of course, here, at The House Next Door.

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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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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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