Coming Up In This Column: Trance, Evil Dead, Admission, On the Road, Alice’s Restaurant, Justified, but first…
A Changing of the Guard: You may have noticed that Slant Magazine has been redesigned over the past few weeks. Prior to that, Keith Uhlich, the longtime editor of The House Next Door, moved up to Editor Emeritus status. Keith hornswoggled me into writing this column in 2008, and it’s turned out to be one of the most enjoyable professional experiences of my life. I’m going to miss him. I’m not sure if I ever mentioned it in the column, but it was Keith who found the stills for these pieces, including ones for very obscure films I used to throw into my writing just to test him. When a new column was posted, I felt like a little boy on Christmas morning opening packages to see what wonderful trinkets and gizmos Keith had found. Some, such as the Polish film posters for ‘50s B movies, just made me laugh out loud.
In the reorganization I’ve ended up with Ed Gonzalez, Slant’s film editor and co-founder, as my editor. So far our collaboration seems to working very well, and I assume it will continue to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ed comes up with in terms of stills. Yes, I know I should find them myself, but I’m an absolute Luddite about computers—I’m still surprised when all the words I write show up in more or less the right order in the column—and getting the pictures is way beyond me. I suppose I could learn, but I’m not convinced that at my age I could. Besides, who wants to forgo Christmas morning? And I have already laughed out loud a couple of times at what Ed’s come up with.
The one comment on #109 was from Rich Vaughn. His entire comment was “Henry King??? LOL.” This was in reference to my comments on King as a smart director who spent time with the screenwriters finding out what they intended. With the “???” I assume Rich is saying he is “Laughing Out Loud” at the idea of King as a good director. On other hand, he may be joining with me and such notable film historians as Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard who think King is the “Love of Our Lives.” Abbreviations can be confusing.
Trance (2013; screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge; story by Joe Abearne; 101 minutes.)
Going downhill fast. I always like a movie that starts out quick, and Trance certainly does that. We’re behind the scenes of an auction house, get some sense of how difficult the security system is to break into, and then watch as a crew comes in and steals a painting worth millions. In the process, Franck, the leader of the gang, hits Simon, a worker at the auction. Simon knocks his head on the wall. Okay, except that Simon is the crew’s inside guy, he’s hidden the painting from the crew, and the knock on his head has given him amnesia. Well, you’ve got me interested.
So how does Franck get Simon to remember? Franck eventually has Simon go to Elizabeth, a sexy hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson, enough said). Franck puts a wire on Simon so he can hear what Simon tells Elizabeth. But Elizabeth twigs to the wire, telling whoever is listening that she knows about the painting and wants her share. Still okay, but then we spend a lot of time on the hypnosis process, which is just as dull as psychiatric sessions. So we start getting time jumps, dreams, and imaginary sequences. Since the characters are pretty much one note, we don’t really want to follow them through all that. Then late in the film we begin to get several plot twists which aren’t particularly useful or interesting. Joe Ahearne first wrote and directed this as a 2001 television movie in England under the same title, but this is his first theatrical film. John Hodge has a longer film resume, which includes Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996), and The Beach (2000), all of which were directed by Danny Boyle. I haven’t seen The Beach, but both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting have more substantial characters then Trance does. Unfortunately, it looks as though Boyle brought in Hodge not to beef up the characters, but to make this film more “cinematic,” i.e., a true “Danny Boyle” film. But, like Point Blank (1967, see US #108), this film gets over-directed, with all kinds of flashy cutting and camera angles that end up distracting us from the story. The night before I saw it, I watched the last two-hour segment of the British miniseries Spies in Warsaw, whose final sequence has the hero on a train getting the gold reserves of Poland out of the country as the Germans invade. The sequence was woefully under-directed. Maybe the producers of that should have hired Boyle to juice it up.
Evil Dead (2013; screenplay by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (with dialogue by Diablo Cody, uncredited); based on the screenplay by Sam Raimi; 91 minutes.)
My scary film for the year. I’m not particularly fond of scary movies. I didn’t see the The Evil Dead (1981), or Evil Dead 2 (1987), or Army of Darkness (1992). Scary movies generally seem rather repetitive and often unintentionally funny in their excesses. But I do like to catch one every once in a while, and this one is it for the year. Why this one? Two reasons. Mia, the main character, is played by Jane Levy. I loved her in the TV series Suburgatory, at least until I stopped watching it this year when the writing simply fell apart. She’s certainly up to the physical challenges of this kind of film. The second reason is that Diablo Cody, one of my favorite young screenwriters, has been mentioned as having written the screenplay. Until the release of the film, she was listed as a co-writer on the IMDb page, but that’s now been changed. The idea of Cody doing a full-out horror movie sounded interesting, especially after she stuck her toe in the water with Jennifer’s Body (2009, see US #34). It might have turned out to be as much fun as The Slumber Party Massacre, the 1982 film written by no less than Rita Mae Brown. But she was apparently not that involved. As both an article in the Los Angeles Times and an online interview with Cody make clear, she came on the project merely to help out with the dialogue and whatever other assistance the two writers needed.
Unfortunately, Cody doesn’t seem to be very much present in the film. There are exactly two lines that are distinctively Cody-esque. One is at the beginning when somebody tells Mia she looks well, and she replies, “I look like road kill.” The other is late in the film and it’s Mia giving one of the demons a hard time. You can figure out which one it is. So if we don’t have Cody at full power, what do we have? A movie with a lot of flaws that’s not as bad as some I’ve seen. The setup is that Mia is trying to get off drugs and instead of taking her to a rehab facility, her friends take her to an isolated cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong with that, especially since one of Mia’s friends, Olivia, is a nurse? Well, there are demons in the house. The writers do spend at least a little time setting up the characters before all hell breaks loose. There’s some invention in the way the characters use stuff you would find in a deserted cabin. Somebody’s going to get at least a master’s thesis out of the use of the nail gun in this film. On the other hand, the blood flows so extensively that if this film had any pretense to realism, the entire cast would be dead 40 minutes into the film from shock at the loss of blood.
Neither I nor the audience I saw the film with was particularly scared by any of this, since there’s at least a slightly comic tone that seems partly intentional. That tone makes the film more palatable than it might otherwise have been.
Admission (2013; screenplay by Fede Karen Croner; based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz; 107 minutes.)
Dressed to Kill meets From Here to Eternity. This is another film that opens well, then goes downhill. We meet Portia Nathan and watch her work as an admissions person for Princeton University. There’s some very funny stuff in these opening scenes as she deals with potential students and parents of those wannabes. The admissions process to a prestigious Ivy League school is a very fresh subject for a movie, and one that’s been ripe for satire ever since U.S. News and World Report started making lists of the top colleges. The magazine then proceeded to go out of business as a magazine, mostly likely because they could make more money with the college reports. Why would you buy a used college from those guys? Both parents and colleges themselves take the ratings a lot more seriously than they should. At one point, Clarence, the head of the admissions office, mentions that Princeton has fallen from number one to number two and the admissions staff has to work harder. And then it’s never mentioned again. When Portia goes to an alternate school, the students challenge the idea that they should go to Princeton, and Portia’s defense is, ironically, not of Princeton, but of college in general. Boy, could a lot more be done with that. Several sequences were filmed on the Princeton campus, so we may have a situation that faced the makers of From Here to Eternity in 1953. The U.S. army insisted the excesses of James Jones’s novel be softened or else they would not give the studio permission to film on army bases. That shouldn’t have been a problem here since any ivy-covered school could serve as a stand-in; Princeton doesn’t have any Army Air Corps bases these filmmakers needed.
So we have a film that starts out fresh and entertaining, and then turns into a combination of romantic drama and soap opera. John, a teacher at the alternative school, is pushing Portia to consider for admission an odd-ball student, Jeremiah, who has terrible grades but great test scores. And John lets it slip that Jeremiah is the baby Portia gave up for adoption as a baby. So Portia begins feeling maternal and ends up cheating to get Jeremiah accepted. She loses her job and also finds out that Jeremiah isn’t really the baby she had. It’s not clear if John knew that (who else would have fudged the birth certificate?) and, if not, who else tried to convince him. The ending gets messier and messier.
I had assumed while watching the film that Croner had taken a comic novel and tried to make it serious, since her best previous credit is the 1998 weepy One True Thing. Boy, was I wrong. In reading a fascinating double interview with Croner and Korelitz, I learned that the novel wasn’t comic at all, but a serious look at a woman of a certain age dealing with her past. The comic stuff about the admissions process came from Croner. She says, “When I found [the novel] Admission, I had just gone through the horrific process of getting my son into a private middle school—which in L.A. is a kind of blood sport. I thought, An admissions officer suffering? That wasn’t sad to me; that had major comic potential. I wanted to write that story! And I relished the opportunity to take a good hard look at what the stress of the college admissions process does to kids and parents.” Well, that should have been like Kubrick working on adapting Peter George’s serious novel Red Alert, finding it funny, and turning it into Dr. Strangelove (1964). Here, to switch movies in the middle of the discussion, Croner ended up with something closer to Dressed to Kill (1980). The latter film starts out as a fresh look at the sexual adventures of a middle-aged woman, then turns into a rehash of Psycho (1960) and gets less interesting as it goes along. Croner needed to access her inner Kubrick instead of her inner De Palma.
On the Road (2013; screenplay by Jose Rivera; based on the novel by Jack Kerouac; 124 minutes.)
Past its sell-by date. Ever since On the Road’s publication in 1957 there’s been talk of bringing Jack Kerouac’s novel to the screen, but nobody could manage it until now. And Rivera and his director Walter Salles haven’t managed it very well, at least partly because the book is almost unfilmable. In 2004, Rivera and Salles collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries, about the travels of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in South American. That story of men on the road at least had a structure: Che observes the volatile social conditions gripping many countries and it makes him a revolutionary. There’s no such structure to On the Road. Sal Paradise, the fictional version of Kerouac, rides around the country with Dean Moriarity, the fictional version of Neal Cassidy. They have adventures of the sexual, alcoholic, and medicinal variety, but nothing really comes of it. Which was part of the appeal of the book in its day: a rant against the conformity of the ‘50s that appealed to people, nearly all of them men, who wanted to break free from society. The book was a harbinger of the ‘60s, when everybody and his brother went on the road.
In addition to the structural problem of the material as the basis for a film, the film doesn’t have a sense of the conventional America of the ‘50s Kerouac was rebelling against. Salles is Brazilian and Rivera is Puerto Rican, and they were born a year or two before the book came out, so it isn’t surprising that they miss the texture of the times. In one sequence, Sal and Dean go with Ed Dunkle to pick up his wife Galatea, whom he has dumped with relatives in the south. The sequence would be a perfect opportunity to establish what was so constricting about life in the conventional ‘50s, but Rivera and Salles do not do it.
The novel always has appealed mostly to men, who love to get out on the road and be free. The women characters are hardly developed at all, and while that’s true in Rivera’s script, Salles has cast actors like Kristen Stewart, Kristin Dunst, Amy Adams, and Elizabeth Moss as the women. They completely overpower the men on screen. That in turn shows how dated the original material is, since we have had 40-some years of the women’s movement after the novel was published. I’m not suggesting the adaptation should be “politically correct,” but the filmmakers could have dealt with how Kerouac’s limited characterization of women was very much a product of distinctly male and dated point of view. We’ve also had a lot more films about men on the road (see below for one example) in the years since the novel, making this sort of the John Carter (2012) of road movies: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel was the inspiration for so many movies that by the time the original was made into a film, it seemed old hat. The novel was fresh and original in its time; the movie is not.
Alice’s Restaurant (1969; screenplay by Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn; based on the song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie; 111 minutes.)
Still fresh. Arlo Guthrie is the son of the great American songwriter and folksinger Woody Guthrie. Arlo is still singing, currently doing a tour called “Arlo Guthrie: Here Comes the Kid,” celebrating the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth. “The Kid,” as he’s still nicknamed, is now 65. In the ‘60s he was in his teens and wrote a hugely popular song this film is based on. Arthur Penn, coming off his giant success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, teamed with playwright Venable Herndon to write the screenplay based on the song and Arlo’s other adventures. The result, while not the cultural touchstone that Bonnie and Clyde was, is one of the best “hippie” movies of the period. It’s everything the movie On the Road would have liked to have been and isn’t.
Alice’s Restaurant seems to be a lot less structured than it is. We begin with Arlo getting a letter from the draft board saying he’s eligible for the draft. That provides an overall structure for the film, but the first hour or so seems very free form. Arlo tries to go college in Montana, but his long hair bothers a lot of people there. We get a sense of the conventional culture of the time in a few short bits, the kind of scenes that are missing in On the Road. Arlo leaves the college and goes on the road. He passes a tent revival meeting, hears the congregation sing “Amazing Grace” and says via narration, “Seems like Woody’s road might have run through here one time,” a beautiful line, which may have originally come from Arlo. Certainly there are lines later in the script, in Arlo’s voiceover, that are from the song, so maybe Arlo should have gotten an “additional dialogue” credit. Arlo sings in a club in New York City and is dragged off to a crash pad by a self-identified “teenybopper.” She lists the musicians she’s slept with and says she wants to sleep with Arlo because “You’ll probably be an album,” which defines the music scene a lot quicker and sharper than Almost Famous (2000). Arlo lands at a potential hippie commune run by Alice and Ray Brock. They’re an early-middle-aged couple who’ve bought a deconsecrated church. Alice is an earthy maternal figure, given much more characterization than any of the women in On the Road. Ray is something of a charismatic Peter Pan. So far, so rambling.
Then about 59 minutes into the film, a plot-like substance begins to seep in. Arlo and one of the guys go to dump trash from the big Thanksgiving dinner and are arrested for littering. They’re arrested by officer Obie and go before a judge who’s blind. All of that’s true, and not only is Arlo playing himself in the film, so are officer Obie and the judge. Shortly after they’re convicted and sentenced to get rid of the trash (they take it to New York City, of course), Arlo has to go for his army physical. That ends with the Army learning he was convicted of a crime, and they put him in group W, which consists of, as Arlo’s song on the soundtrack tells it, “father-rapers and mother-stabbers.” He’s out of the draft.
The last half hour of the film turns darker. We’ve always been suspicious of whether Alice and Ray can make the commune work, and they can’t. Shelly, one of their strays, dies form a drug overdose or suicide (it’s unclear), and Arlo is going on the road again, trying to figure out who he is. The collapse of the hippie dream the film shows always seemed to me to be more accurate than most of the similar films of the period. It comes organically out of what we see and know about the characters, rather than tacked on, as is the shooting at the end of Easy Rider (also 1969). Alice’s Restaurant is a better and more haunting film than Easy Rider, even if it’s not as well known.
Justified (2013; season four; various writers; approximately 45 minutes per episode.)
Mags Who? Most Justified fans probably think season two was the show’s best, simply because of the character of Mags Bennett, the ruthless matriarch of a backwoods crime family. She was a fascinating character, and Margo Martindale rightly won a pile of awards for her performance. Season three last year didn’t have anything quite that spectacular. Season four, which just finished, didn’t have a standout character like Mags, but it’s a better piece of storytelling.
The first episode, “Hole in the Wall,” written by Graham Yost, gets things going by starting when a man in a parachute falls to his death in Harlan in 1983. Thirty years later, Constable Bob, not exactly the complete doofus he sometimes seems, arrests two people trashing up Raylan’s father’s house. They’ve found a diplomatic pouch…with a lot of money in it. And a driver’s license that suggests the man was Waldo Truth. Meanwhile, Boyd’s Oxy sales are down, because of a local travelling preacher and his tent show. And Ellen May, one of the hookers Ava runs, has shot and killed one of her customers. So what’s going to be the main storyline for the season? Technically it’s tracking down Waldo Truth, who’s in fact Drew Thompson, who’s still alive. The other elements not only take up story time, but connect in all different kinds of ways. It takes real confidence of the part of Yost, Justified’s showrunner, to set all of this into motion.
We think that the travelling preacher is going to be a major character, especially when Ellen May gets religion with him. But in the third episode he’s bitten by a rattlesnake and dies. Boyd and Ava figure they have to get rid of Ellen May, so they send Boyd’s friend from the Army, Colt, to take her out and kill her. They tell Ellen May she’s going to get out of town on a bus, but she’s not as stupid as she seems, and escapes. We assume she’s out of the show after Colt can’t find her, but several episodes later, she shows up. She’s been protected by Shelby Parlow, a lawman supposedly on Boyd’s payroll. Meanwhile, the Detroit mob is looking for Drew Thompson, who knows a lot about their operation. Since the evidence suggests he’s still in Kentucky, they get Boyd to help. Boyd figures this is a chance to shake down rich guys who may make it possible for Ava and him to go legit. That leads to great scenes of Boyd and Ava dealing with the upper crust and imagining a legit life.
“Drew Thompson” turns out to be somebody closer to home, and for those of you who’ll watch the season on a busy weekend sometime in the future, it’s too good a twist to spoil. Now the writers are juggling their several balls very effectively, as Raylan and the marshals try to get “Drew” out of Harlan. Much easier said than done, and it takes them two full episodes, “Get Drew” (written by Dave Andron & VJ Boyd) and “Decoy” (written by Yost and Chris Provenzano), and all of the brain power of the different marshals and the writers to bring it off. The show spends the kind of time you could not spend in a feature, and it’s richer for it. And then “Drew” almost screws up his deal by…well, that’s a spoiler as well.
While no one is as dominant a personality as Mags, there’s the usual gallery of nicely drawn characters. Colt is a spooky guy, and gets a great death scene. Nicky Augustine is a slimeball representative of the Detroit mob who thinks he can outsmart his new boss, Sammy. We’ve met Sammy before and think he probably can. Their showdown, which Raylan sets up without leaving his fingerprints on it, shows us a new side of Sammy. And best of all, we ache along with Boyd and Ava for what they want and cannot have. The season ends with Winn Duffy, now Detroit’s man in the area who wants to Boyd to handle his drug sales. Just when Boyd thought he was out, they pull him back in.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
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