Coming Up In This Column: Four Christmases, Australia, Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Boston Legal, CSI, and the Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set, but first…
Fan Mail: “Tom” took exception to my comments in US#12 about Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo. He thinks it’s “not bad,” since the character is supposed to be cold and mysterious. He’s got a point, but I think Novak, whom I love it a lot of other films, is more blank than mysterious. A lot of the problem is that the script gives her very little to play and Hitchcock seems happy with that. I have often suggested to my writing students (and to many others) that instead of pulling a Brian De Palma and remaking Vertigo endlessly from the man’s point of view, how about doing a rip-off from the woman’s point of view? What does she think about all this? She’s having fun running around pretending to be the wife, knowing there’s a guy looking out for her, but what does she do when she finds out it’s part of a murder plot? Does she get revenge on the husband? Does she get revenge on the Jimmy Stewart character? So far nobody has taken me up on the challenge of doing that script, probably because, to use John Sayles’s wonderful phrase, you could make the movie, but you couldn’t get it made. What would happen is that, somewhere in the development process, some male executive, producer, or director would insist it be told from the man’s point of view.
Tom also says that we “all know” that it takes more than just a good script and a good actor to get a good performance. No, we don’t all know that. I was struck during the release of Scorsese’s Casino that it appeared that not a single American interviewer asked him about Sharon Stone’s performance, which the critics generally agreed was the best thing in the film. Did the interviewers not think to ask him, or did they ask him and not like what he had to say? When the film was released in English, there was a cover story in Sight & Sound with the cover proclaiming “Martin Scorsese on Sharon Stone and Casino.” I read the interview, and when the interviewer asked about Stone, Scorsese said, “De Niro really helped her through those scenes. He’s very generous with her and you can see how he’s always helping,” adding she worked out the costume details herself. (Sight & Sound, January 1996, page 10). He does not have anything else to say about her. In other words, Scorsese essentially admits he had nothing to do with the best performance in the picture. Other examples from other directors provided upon request.
Four Christmases(2008. Screenplay by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, Story by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson. 88 minutes): No, it’s not Lubitsch. But it’s funny.
The critics hated, hated, HATED this movie. And it was number one at the box office two weeks in a row. With good reason.
A couple ends up having to visit his dad, her mom, his mom, and her dad over one Christmas day. The idea struck me as having potential when I saw the trailer, but then the critics hated it, so I put off seeing it for a couple of weeks, during which it made a pile of money. So I went in with the question: why do the critics hate this movie? The first obvious answer is that the couple, Brad and Kate, are yuppies, i.e., not unlike many film critics. And while the couple is relatively sympathetic, they are also made fun of, particularly their self-absorption. If they had been nothing but charming and the families were as bizarre as they are, the critics would probably have loved it.
The first family they visit is Brad’s dad, a macho geezer with Brad’s two brothers who are worse then dad is. The brothers are constantly beating up on Brad, and when Kate gets him to stand up to them, they beat him up some more.
The second family is Kate’s mom and aunts and sisters, who embarrass Kate by bringing out the pictures of her when she was young and fat. She’s never told Brad about that, and he is not only interested, which makes things worse, but is rather flattered to be surrounded by all these women, a real change from his upbringing. Then the womenfolk drag the couple off to the fundamentalist church for Christmas services. Certainly this should be the kind of satirical jibe that yuppie film critics would love. Ah, no. Yes, the emotional excess of the church is funny, but a lot of the humor comes from Brad and Kate being drafted to play Joseph and Mary at the last minute in the church pageant. Brad’s a lawyer, i.e., a performer, and he is determined to save the show, which only makes him look more ridiculous.
Now if you were being strict about structure, the next house would be Kate’s dad. It’s not. It’s Brad’s mom, who is now shacking up with … one of Brad’s childhood friends, who assures Brad that he “never had sexual feelings about your mom until I was thirty.” Brad is not reassured. The way the film is set up, you think there is going to be no overlapping of characters from sequence to sequence. Not so. One of Brad’s brothers shows up here, and he and his pregnant wife, both of whom seemed like white trash at the dad’s house, beat Kate and Brad at a … wait for it … word association game.
Finally we get to Kate’s dad’s house, where his wife has welcomed his first wife and the fundamentalist minister and Kate’s sister. We are getting more into character now and Brad and Kate are evaluating their relationship. Their semi-final clinch is an earned heart-warming moment, but the topper at the end of the movie brings us back to the humor we started with.
Not a single review I have read noticed that each of the households (by the way, guys, nice writing for the production designers and set decorators) has an Oscar-winning actor in it. None of the Oscar-winners are heavily challenged, but all the actors bring a precision to their work, since they know they are not going to be on screen that long. The movie moves briskly and if you are really turned off by one of the families, you know there will be another one along shortly.
A directing note. The director, Seth Gordon, has shot the brother-and-his-wife-word-association game in essentially one long take, and it is the sharpest thing in the picture. We see the actors develop the comic rhythm of the scene, with no interruptions. Tamra Davis, a former student of mine, told me that when she directed the Adam Sandler film Billy Madison she learned that a large part of directing comedy is putting your talents at the service of the actors. If the audience cannot see or hear what the actors are doing, they are not going to laugh.
Lubitsch knew that.
Australia(2008. Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann & Stuart Beattie & Ronald Harwood & Richard Flanagan, story by Baz Luhrmann. 165 minutes): So-so script, execrable direction.
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was called in as the last of three writers to work with Luhrmann on the script. Flanagan is quoted in an article in the November/December issue of Creative Screenwriting about the process: “Baz is great in that once you have an idea he loves chasing it to the endpoint. Once we got a good idea he was happy to plow up the rest of the movie to make it work, so the more good ideas we had, the more work we created for ourselves.” Let’s just say this field has been plowed over a few too many times.
The script starts with Nullah, an Aborigine boy, telling us in voiceover the first time he sees “Mrs. Boss,” Lady Sarah Ashley, who has come from England to get her husband back. Fine, except that we then go back to England to see her deciding to come. And we get a meet-cute with the Drover when he is in the middle of a bar fight. The Drover drives her to her husband’s ranch, Faraway Downs, and we get, twenty minutes into the picture, a repeat of the opening scene. We do not need it twice.
Sarah’s husband has been killed and she decides to take his cattle herd to Darwin to sell to the army. She knows nothing about running cattle, so the Drover heads up the cattle drive, along with Sarah, her husband’s drunken accountant, Nullah, and some others. Several reviewers have complained that the movie goes on too long after the cattle drive, as if you could not have a large trek early in the picture. That’s not the problem. After all, in Lawrence of Arabia the trek to Aqaba starts at 53 minutes into the picture, ends 53 minutes later, and the picture goes on another 110 minutes. But the attack on Aqaba makes it necessary for Lawrence to then go to Cairo to tell the British, which in turns sets up Lawrence’s future raids on the Turks. The problem in Australia is that the end of the cattle drive halts the film’s momentum. Almost every plot question brought up so far (can they get the cattle there? Will Faraway Downs be saved? Will Sarah and the Drover realize they are made for each other?) is answered at the end of the drive. The script then has to start all over again, and the remaining hour or so of the film is taken up with several plots lines, none of which have the momentum of the cattle drive. At many different points in the last hour, the music could swell up and we would accept the film is over. Then as we get closer to the end of the film, the scenes are dragged out at an interminable length. There are quicker ways to get the characters together and give them a happy ending.
Stuart Beattie, the earliest writer with Luhrmann on the film, said in the same Creative Screenwriting article that he and Luhrmann studied, among other epic romances, Casablanca, Giant, and Gone with the Wind. They learned badly from Gone with the Wind, which also has the flaw of going on way too long in its last 45 minutes, and they learned nothing from the speed and character development of Casablanca. But they truly missed learning from Giant, especially in the older film’s handling of the Mexican American characters. The Aboriginal material in Australia feels very tacked on, and was handled much better in Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The film could scrape by if Luhrmann’s direction were not so awful. He is not cutting quite as frantically as he was in Moulin Rouge!, but his twitchy style almost ruins the meet-cute at the beginning. It does ruin the arrival of the Faraway Downs herd into Darwin, since he kills his best joke of one high-society lady seeing a calf wandering down the street by cutting away to several other people before cutting back to the rest of the herd going by. Luhrmann has to be the most humorless director since Peter Jackson.
Luhrmann’s direction of the actors wanders all over the map. Hugh Jackman as the Drover and Brandon Walters are wonderful (and Jackman has a good, if not great hat). On the other hand, Nicole Kidman, one of the great actresses of our time, is a mess here. Luhrmann has let her get away with being overly fidgety in her first scenes, so much so you just want to not look her. It takes a lot for me not to want to look at Nicole Kidman. She settles down a bit later, but never really finds the character. Jack Thompson, one of Australia’s first team, overacts badly as the drunken accountant. He is suffering from a problem many actors have: he read the script. He discovered his character gets killed off early in the film and became determined to do as much as he could in the screen time he has. You have seen other actors do this, I am sure. Directors have to keep an eye out to avoid that.
Like Seth Gordon did with his Oscar-winners in Four Christmases.
Ugly Betty(2008. Episode “Bad Amanda” written by Chris Black. 30 minutes): Developing relationships.
Betty is getting tired of Amanda, the be-yotch at the office, being her unwanted roommate. So sweet little Betty is unhappy when Daniel likes her idea for an article for their online edition about living in New York City without a lot of money, but insists that Betty and Amanda do it together. Normally we are more sympathetic to Betty than anyone else, but Daniel is right this time. Amanda knows how to cage free stuff, such as taking dresses out for a spin and then returning them. Amanda picks up a couple of guys at a gallery opening who take them to dinner at a fancy restaurant. And leave them with the bill. But Betty has learned a thing or two from Amanda and persuades the restaurant owner that Mode will be doing a spread on the restaurant, and the owner comps them. What Black is doing is developing the relationship between Betty and Amanda, going beyond their usual scenes (Amanda snips at Betty, Betty looks hurt). By the end of the episode, Betty is not too upset when Daniel suggests that she and Amanda do a regular column on the subject. However, Betty does not bother to tell Amanda this and lets her suffer through the second job she got.
He does the same thing with Wilhelmina and Christina, who is carrying a baby for Willie. Usually their scenes have been Willie barking at Christina, but Black has given them a nice heart-to-heart about the baby.
There have also been some other episodes earlier in the season that have done similar things with the other characters, including Marc. So far the writers have done well at deepening the relationships.
30 Rock(2008. Episode “Reunion” written by Matt Hubbard. 30 minutes): A high school reunion episode? What a cliché. Not.
For writers of television sitcoms, there are certain standard episodes you go to when you cannot think of anything else. The surprise birthday party. The talent show. The trip to Hawaii (usually at the beginning of the third or fourth season). And of course the high school reunion.
Usually a reunion show has the main character discovering his or her old love has gotten fat or bald or both. Or that the people who bullied him or her have turned into falling down drunks. Or, if the writers are really adventurous, the main character comes away happy he or she is not in high school any more, although with the focus by advertisers on the younger demographic, you won’t see a lot of those any more.
In this episode, Liz is afraid to go to her reunion because everybody bullied her in high school. Guess again, Liz. THEY think SHE bullied them, and they really don’t want her and her snippy sarcasm around, even if it has made her rich writing for television. Not your usual reunion show. And to make it even better, not a big-name guest star in sight. Now that Oprah, Jennifer and Steve have kickstarted the ratings for 30 Rock, it can get back to doing what it does best.
Boston Legal (2008. Episodes “Made in China/Last Call,” teleplay by David E. Kelley, story by Susan Dickes & David E. Kelley & Lauren Mackenzie. 120 minutes): Farewell to Alan and Denny and Shirley and Jerry and Katey.
In the “Thanksgiving” episode I mentioned briefly in US#12, it was also brought up that Crane, Poole, and Schmidt was financially failing. This comes home to roost in the first of these two series finale episodes when the firm is bought by a Chinese company, which would just as soon have Alan and Denny leave. Alan, making one of his wonderful summations, tells the Chinese he will beat them in court because his case is more winnable and the jury will like him. The Chinese agree to keep them. At their weekly balcony meeting, Denny suggests that he and Alan get married, so Alan can inherit Denny’s money and start a legal aid firm Alan is thinking about. Alan agrees, complete with references to “jumping the shark” and finding a new network, “one that cares.” Kelley again munching on the hand that feeds him, as he and the writers did a few episodes previously when Carl in a case about ageism mentioned that there was only one show on television that featured actors over fifty. He started to say Boston Legal, then said, “But that would break the wall,” as though there were any wall left by how.
In the second episode, Shirley and Carl’s wedding plans get disrupted by a priest and a rabbi who get into an argument. Alan and Denny are hit with an injunction against their marriage by the gay and lesbian group who thinks they are making a mockery of gay marriage, since they are relentlessly heterosexual. Alan goes before the Supreme Court to argue for Denny’s right to an experimental drug, but he and Kelley cannot help but whack the current court over the head a few times before they actually argue the case. Denny and Alan have planned to go off fishing and get married at the lodge. When Justice Scalia mentions from the bench that he is about to go on vacation, you know exactly where this is going. Denny and Alan have invited Carl and Shirley, along with the judge who dismissed the complaint, to join them and make it a double wedding. Yes, Scalia shows up and he marries the two couples. I have heard no indication of what, if anything, the real Scalia thought about all this. Maybe he was happy being portrayed in a positive light.
Denny and Alan are back on the balcony—-no, wait a minute. It’s two of the Chinese lawyers, talking about how crazy Denny and Alan are.
Which explains why Jerry and Katey did not decide to make it a triple wedding. We need the scene of Jerry walking her home and kissing. Kelley is at least showing some restraint, and setting up the final scene:
By the time we cut back to the balcony, Alan and Denny are there. And they have their wedding dance. Sweet and funny, and a great sendoff to a show that has given at least some of us as much pleasure as any other David E. Kelley series.
Even if, in the real world, the firm would have insisted Denny retire years ago. But this is television, which gave us Jed Bartlett as President of the United States for most of the time where, in reality, we had to make do with George W. Bush.
CSI (2008. Episode “19 Down,” written by Naren Shankar & Carol Mendelsohn. 60 minutes): Transition game.
We know that Grissom has been building up to leaving. The writers handle his statement to the team in an understated way. He is passing out the daily assignments, then adds that he is leaving. And that’s the teaser for this episode.
The writers then follow up with scenes with Grissom and members of the team individually, most of whom are surprised. Catherine is not. She’s seen it coming. I’ve always thought she was the smartest one of the bunch. These scenes are spread out during the case they are working on, the way they might be in real life.
The case involves a serial killer they had put away years ago, and the only way Grissom can talk to him is sign up for a course given by a college professor. Dr. Raymond Langston has set up teleconferencing calls between his class and the killer in prison. Grissom hasn’t told Langston he is a CSI, so Langston’s a little put out when he finds out. We do find out that Langston is also a medical doctor but got away from it when he was at a hospital where an “Angel of Death” nurse killed several patients. Langston had seen the evidence, but couldn’t crack the case. Grissom and Langston work together, and eventually they find the killer’s outside assistant. Unfortunately, he’s been murdered, which lead Captain Brass to say to Grissom, “I guess you won’t be leaving any time soon.” There is no indication in this episode that Langston will take over, especially since it is established earlier that Catherine will run the unit.
The writers, on this episode and the entire show, are certainly taking their time easing Grissom out, but it at least feels like a more realistic progression than we often get on series television. Sometimes television is Denny Crane and Jed Bartlett, sometimes it’s real.
The Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set(2008. Films: The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station): Required viewing.
I was delighted to see Matt Zoller Seitz’s smart essay on this box set. He is dead on right when he writes “They are marvels of economy and elegance-—a tutorial in classical narrative cinema.” That’s true not only of Boetticher’s direction, but also of the screenplays. Just as the direction does not have a single wasted shot, the screenplays do not have a single wasted scene or line of dialogue. And Charles Lang Jr. (he is not, by the way, the cinematographer of the same name) and especially Burt Kennedy create a wonderful galley of characters for a wonderful gallery of character actors to play. Kennedy wrote some other interesting westerns in the later sixties, but none were as good as these.
I would write more about this, but I have not seen several of these films in years. I am trusting that Santa Claus herself will do as I asked and give me the set for Christmas. Happy Holidays!
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: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
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
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