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Understanding Screenwriting #15: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #15: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Bedtime Stories, Last Chance Harvey, Valkyrie, Waltz with Bashir, Meet Me In St. Louis, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Them!, and Jumper, but first…

Fan Mail: Matt Zoller Seitz, I figured you were kidding about the suggestion of using the Lubitsch line on the DVD box, but I could not resist replying. You are right about the difficulty of getting the right tone across in writing. That’s why we all need great actors to read our lines properly.

For Matt Maul, the story of Wise not being told that Klaatu was a Christ figure is from the same Creative Screenwriting article I mentioned. Edmund North had it in his notes, but never bothered to tell Wise. Well, he really didn’t need to know, did he? And if he had known, he might have made it more obvious. Although giving him the human name Carpenter makes it fairly obvious. And Matt, your line that “Given that Klaatu’s warnings are still basically backed up by his ability to destroy the earth, his admonishments comes across as ’stop hurting the planet or we’ll blow it up’” captures the problem with the film more succinctly than I did.

Bedtime Stories (2008. Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy, story by Matt Lopez. 95 minutes): Also not Lubitsch, but also funny.

The first thing you have to know is that I have never been an Adam Sandler fan. For that matter, I have never been much of a fan of any of the man-child comedians. Harry Langdon always struck me as creepy, Jerry Lewis as bizarre, and Will Ferrell as infantile. The only time I liked Sandler was in Punch-Drunk Love, which was an Adam Sandler movie for those who didn’t like Adam Sandler movies. But the trailer for Bedtime Stories, which was probably the best trailer for all the Christmas releases, showed promise. Sandler seemed to be a little more reserved than normal, and the basic idea (a man tells his niece and nephew stories, which sort of come true) seemed to have possibilities. So I took my seven-year old grandson. Noam already loves Keaton and Airplane!, so I figured it was worth a shot.

What the trailer does not tell you is that there is a rather complex main plot, especially for a family film. Lopez and Herlihy set it up with surprising speed and without losing the kids in the audience. Sandler’s Skeeter has been cheated out of taking over his father’s motel, now a hotel. He wants to get the hotel back.

His sister insists he babysit her son and daughter while she goes off to Arizona to look for a job, since the school she is principal of is closing. Since Skeeter is the antithesis of a school principal, all he can do is tell them stories (and look how the writers have already set up that he and not his sister is the one who tells stories). The first one is a thinly disguised version, set in the Middle Ages, of his situation at the hotel. The additions the kids make to the story sort of come true, and Skeeter is now determined to make the storytelling help his quest for the hotel. So we have a purpose to telling the stories. As the film progresses, we go from recognizing the real elements in the stories to recognizing the story elements in real life. Not everything comes true in the way we expect. Birnam Wood does not literally come to Dunsinane, but sort of.

So, through the magic of CGI, we get the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome, and outer space, and for once the CGI is used to, a) tell the story, and b) tell the jokes. A character made up of snot in the outer space story not only gives us laughs in that story, but then connects with action in the main story. The script is surprisingly focused, with very little that is extraneous, not often true of comedies. Remember the sister’s school? It’s not just a setup.

The characterization is also focused, which keeps the actors from going all over the place. Sandler is restrained, but not too restrained. And who should show up in two extended cameos but Rob Schneider. If there is any actor I like less than Sandler it is Schneider, but he’s actually good here. (Don’t let that get around; it will spoil his reputation.) If you have a good script, you can reduce the temptation for the actors to improvise, always a good thing. Because of the variety of stories and time periods, the casting is crucial to the film, since they need actors who can play several different variations on their characters. At first you may think Guy Pearce of Memento is wasted in what seems to be a standard prissy villain role, but stick around until he unleashes, how shall I put this without giving too much away, his inner Hugh Jackman. The female teacher Skeeter gets involved with is played by Keri Russell and it is at least a little more than the standard girlfriend part. She gets a lot to do, and a lot to react to off from Skeeter’s character.

Bedtime Stories is an entertaining comedy, but not a great one. There are a lot of small laughs, but no belly laughs. When I ran my DVD of Keaton’s The Navigator for Noam, he was laughing so hard we had to pause for him to go to the bathroom so he would not pee in his pants. The same thing when we looked at Airplane! He liked Bedtime Stories, but he stayed in his seat the entire film.

Last Chance Harvey (2008. Screenplay by Joel Hopkins. 92 minutes): O.K. it’s not … surprise … Curtis, Linklater, Krizan, Delpy, and Hawke, but it’s charming.

Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman had a couple of scenes together in Stranger Than Fiction and seemed to hit it off professionally, so Thompson was on the lookout for a script they could do together. She mentioned this to Hopkins and he came up with this. That’s the way Thompson has been telling. On the December 28th Charlie Rose show, Hoffman said the script may have been written for them, or it may have been written before and then adjusted for them. He had at least one other version as well. I’d buy Thompson’s version, since Hoffman used to insist that his performance as Stanley Motss in Wag the Dog was not a Robert Evans imitation.

However it happened, the script is a star vehicle for the two of them. I mentioned in US#11 that my wife and I were taken with the trailer, at least partly because of the on-screen chemistry between Hoffman and Thompson. The script does write to their strengths, but it is a little too much in their comfort zone. It is fun to see Thompson play a woman who isn’t quite sure she is going to make a romantic attachment, as she did in Peter’s Friends and Sense and Sensibility. It is also fun to see Hoffman play a guy who can’t quite connect, as he did in The Graduate and Tootsie. But they both have been doing that for a long time. They do it well, which is the reason to see the film, but couldn’t Hopkins have gone around a couple of unexpected corners? I am sure both stars could corner well. And it suggests the scenes are not as strong as they might be when the wordless montages show more chemistry between them than the dialogue scenes.

Hoffman is Harvey, who has come to London for his estranged daughter’s wedding. She wants her stepfather to give her away instead. And he learns he’s lost his job. He and Kate meet, twice actually before they really meet, a nice touch, and walk around London getting to know each other. Ah, just like Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s Before Sunrise. Sort of, but more like Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s sequel, Before Sunset. In the latter film, Jesse and Celine are meeting ten years after they have had the fling in the first film, so the characters are older and wiser. So are Harvey and Kate, but Linklater et al dig deeper into the characters. Delpy and Hawke had been thinking about the characters for the intervening ten years and it shows.

If you know the geography of London, Harvey and Kate have to have been wearing hiking boots to get from here to there in a couple of scenes. Part of what Hopkins is trying to do is to make London seem as romantic as Paris generally is in movies. But Richard Curtis did that already, especially in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Both films feature extended scenes on the South Bank, but Curtis got there first.

Hopkins also shortchanges the secondary characters, always a potential error in star vehicles. See below for how to avoid the problem. For all the time they spend walking around London, the wedding reception is still going on when Kate convinces Harvey to go back to it. He takes her along. Now think about everything you could do when the shlub of a father suddenly shows up with a woman who looks like Emma Thompson. Sorry, none of that happens. Harvey has a quick line that his ex-wife is giving Kate the eye, but nothing more is done with it. Like the film, the scene is charming, but more could have been done with both.

Valkyrie(2008. Written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander. 120 minutes): No, it’s not Shakespeare, or even Nunnally Johnson, but it’s entertaining.

In 1950 Johnson wrote The Desert Fox, a film about German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Johnson’s script did not deal with Rommel’s fight against the British in North Africa, but his involvement in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler. Johnson said in the oral history interview I did with him that he thought the material was Shakespearean, “It is just so good, still so good. It was on a very high level, and I don’t pretend that I got anywhere near the level that it deserved.” He came close, and although the DVD is usually filed in stores in the Action section, it is more of a character study.

Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s Valkyrie is not so much a character study as it is a suspense and action picture. And they have a big star to deal with as well. The picture opens with a scene in the North African desert where we are introduced to our star character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Some version of the scene was in the script from the beginning, but according to Christopher McQuarrie, the scene kept changing as the film went through production. In view of all the discussion on various blogs and websites about Tom Cruise playing a German with an eyepatch, some of the details of the scene may well have been written in the later revisions to get the audience used to him. The scene starts with von Stauffenberg’s voiceover in German before mutating into English, and the action is set up specifically to show his injuries, especially to his eye. The scene, like the brief opening scene with Cruise at LAX in Collateral, reassures us that we are in the theater where the Tom Cruise movie is playing.

That is important because we then get one of the earlier attempts on Hitler’s life, with von Stauffenberg nowhere to be seen, but with at least one of the top British supporting cast, Kenneth Branagh as Major-General von Tresckow. McQuarrie and Alexander do a good job of balancing off the von Stauffenberg scenes with other scenes that tell the plot. Cruise is well cast because it is necessary that von Stauffenberg be completely charismatic and nobody can deliver that like Cruise. His is the star part, he knows it and McQuarrie and Alexander know it. And the supporting Brits know it too and can play variations that bounce off Cruise. Particularly from the mid-eighties on, Cruise has been very smart about surrounding himself with classy older actors, e.g. Newman in The Color of Money and Hoffman in Rain Man. We also get scenes with von Stauffenberg’s wife, but these are very generic. The wife is played by Carice von Houten, and the star of Black Book is wasted.

As you would expect from a script that Christopher McQuarrie, the author of The Usual Suspects, was involved with, there are some ingenious twists and turns. (No, Hitler does not turn out to be Keyser Söze.) Even if you know the plot is the July 20th plot, you will probably be so caught up in the story that when von Stauffenberg goes to a meeting with Hitler on the 15th you will have forgotten. That attempt does not work out, but it shows us the process, so that shortly thereafter we do not need to see all the lead-in on the 20th. And the attempt on the 20th comes about an hour and ten minutes into the film. You would expect it to come later, with a quick wrap-up afterwards. But here is the inventive part of the script: the attempt fails, which only makes things worse. We, and von Stauffenberg, do not know for a long time whether Hitler has been killed. The rest of the plan goes into effect, but with not all of those Brit supporting actors going along. This ratchets-up the suspense and the action as the plot unravels. The script and the picture, in effect, deliver more than promised, always a good thing.

Waltz with Bashir(2008. Written by Ari Folman. 90 minutes): Where’s Ward Kimball when you need him?

In an interview with Ella Taylor in the LA Weekly Ari Folman, the writer/director of Waltz With Bashir, tells the genesis of the film. A friend of his told him of nightmares he had been having about his experiences in the Israeli army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Folman, who had been there as well, realized he had no memories of the events. Folman began talking and taping others about their memories and working with a therapist to bring out his own memories. Then Folman decided to turn all this into a documentary. People often think the “writing” of a documentary is just the narration, but as I pointed out in writing about The Order of Myths (US#2), there is much more to it. The most crucial writing element in documentaries is finding the structure. Here it is Folman’s search not only for his own memories, but through the others, finding out what happened when the Israeli army stood by and let the Christian Phalangists massacre Palestinian refugees. So far, so good.

Then Folman decided to focus on the surreal aspects of his and the others’ dreams. Wait a minute, can you make a surrealist documentary? Does not surrealism seem to be at odds with the very idea of documentary as reality? Yes but. As anyone who has lived through any of the last seventy years or so knows, reality in the world we live in is almost surreal by definition. And even further back, Luis Buñuel (of course, who else would you expect?) proved you could make a surrealistic documentary with his 1933 Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread). It is all in how you put together the realistic details. So, so far, still so good.

Then Folman decided he wanted to make it an animated documentary. Wait a minute, can you make an animated documentary? Does not animation seem to be at odds with, well, you get the idea. But animation has been used in documentaries from the beginning. There are slightly animated maps in the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in 1922, and Walt Disney did some great propaganda animation for the Frank Capra World War II series Why We Fight. But a documentary that is totally animated? Well, yes, Disney again, with his 1943 Victory Through Air Power, where he uses animation to give us concepts and ideas that you cannot literally show, such as the size of 1943’s aircraft by showing the Wright Brothers plane recreating its original flight on the wing of an airborne B-19.

Yeah, fine, but still … a surrealist, animated documentary? Disney again, although most of the credit goes to one of his genius animators, Ward Kimball. Kimball got the call from Disney to do the Tomorrowland films for the fifties television series Disneyland. For the 1957 episode “Mars and Beyond,” Kimball’s team talked to scientists about what life on Mars might be like. Then the team went across the street from the studio, got drunk on stingers, came back to the studio, drew up the weirdest things they could conjure out of what the scientists said. Then they went home, slept it off, and came back a couple of days later and animated the sequence. Voila, a surrealist animated documentary. (The backstory is from a visit Kimball made to my documentary class at LACC in the seventies.)

So how does Folman and Waltz With Bashir stack up against Kimball and “Mars and Beyond”? Not well, unfortunately. The first problem is that Folman and his animator Yoni Goldman have animated the interviews. Folman is insistent that his process is not the same as Rotoscoping, since the animation team does trace over the live action interview material, but uses that material as a guide. Either way, we lose an enormous amount of the facial expression of emotions that we would get in live action. The idea may have been to give us a little distance from the speakers, but there is too much distance. Think of some of the documentaries you have seen where interviews and emotions are at the heart of the story, such as Roger & Me or Paris is Burning. Norma Desmond was partially right; they had faces, along with the dialogue.

Too much time is taken up with the interviews, and the recreations of the action the men talk about get visually repetitive as well. Since one of Folman’s ideas was that animation can deal with the surreal elements of the dreams and the events, it is especially disheartening that the dreams are not MORE surreal. Granted he does not have the Disney studio structure behind him, but he and Goldman could have been more visually inventive.

The final structural choice is an odd one. At the very end, Folman cuts to live action television footage of the actual victims of the massacre. Since he has brought us into the world in a completely animated way, it is a disconnect to go to live action. I think his idea was probably to remind us that this all was real, but it has the effect of making us suspect Folman did not trust his own film.

Meet Me in St. Louis(1944. Screenplay by Irving Brecher & Fred Finklehoffe, based on the stories by Sally Benson. 113 minutes): Why are all Christmas movies deranged?

Turner Classic Movies ran this one on Christmas Eve, I suppose because it’s the one where Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” While the film is not as bizarre as Capra’s film noir Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, it is strange enough.

The cute, adorable daughter, Tootie (played by Margaret O’Brien, of whom her occasional co-star Lionel Barrymore is reported to have said, “If that child had been born in the Middle Ages, she would have been burned as a witch”) is obsessed with death. She is constantly planning to kill off her dolls and give them elaborate funerals. I suppose that may come from the fact that her mother is played by Mary Astor, who only a few years before was Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon.

That’s weird enough, but the plot, which the writers take almost half of the film to get around to, is that the father has an offer of a job in New York. He wants to move, but the family is resistant. Resistant is hardly the word; they are closer to psychotic about the idea of leaving St. Louis. Now I am a Midwesterner by birth and have, as you may have read here, certain reservations about the East Coast, but the wife and children here seem to be determined to avoid anything that would in any way expose them to a wider world. I suspect that this film was the hit it was in 1944 and 45 because people felt that way at the end of World War II. They just wanted to go/stay home and be left alone.

Fort Apache (1948. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the story “Massacre” by James Warner Belllah. 127 minutes) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, based on the story “War Party” by James Warner Bellah. 103 minutes): As a jobbing film historian and western fan, I feel obligated to check in occasionally with the Ford cavalry trilogy.

These first two films of the trilogy popped up on cable recently and I was struck yet again by how sloppy Ford let scripts be when he did not have a strong producer like Samuel Goldwyn or Darryl Zanuck to guide the scriptwriting process. In the case of Fort Apache, Ford had Nugent, a first-time screenwriter who had been a film critic for The New York Times, put in so much comedy “relief” that critic James Agee noted “there is enough Irish comedy to make me wish Cromwell had done a more thorough job.” Ford thought that comedy was one of his strong suits, but it wasn’t. The drunken sergeants scenes stop the picture in all the wrong ways. At least on DVD or DVR you can fast forward through them.

The drunken sergeant is reduced to one in Yellow Ribbon and is not as obnoxious. The problem with this script is the last half hour, which is incoherent on a dramatic level. Captain Nathan Brittles is due to retire, and he goes out on one last scouting party. He returns and says goodbye to his troop. They give him a watch, a nice emotional scene. Fine, “the end” as the troop rides off without him? Not quite. After Brittles has the drunken sergeant put in the brig for being out of uniform (Brittles has given him his civilian retirement suit), Brittles says goodbye to the women at the fort. O.K., “the end” … not yet. The Indians are getting ready to drive the white men out and who shows up at the troop’s location? Brittles, still in uniform, claiming that his new watch says he is still on active duty until midnight. Brittles talks to the Indian chief to try to convince him to stop the attack. The chief says he can’t since the young braves want to go to war. Brittles runs off the Indians’ horses, stopping the attack. Now it is past midnight and he is a civilian. He is riding off into the west. “The end?” Not a chance. Sgt. Tyree comes after him to tell him his request to become a civilian scout for the Army, which has not mentioned before, has come through. So Brittles returns to the fort where, it being a John Ford movie, there is a dance going on. And then Brittles goes out to the grave of his wife to talk to her. Finally, “the end.” How could you do all that in a more coherent way?

Them! (1954. Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, adaptation by Russell S. Hughes of a story by George Worthington Yates. 94 minutes) and Jumper(2007. Screenplay by David S. Goyer and Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on a novel by Steven Gould. 88 minutes): A highly informative double feature.

After writing about The Day the Earth Stood Still in the last column (US#14), the differences between fifties’ sci-fi and current sci-fi was floating around in my head. Them! popped up on Turner Classic Movies, so I gave it a look. Like the earlier Earth Stood Still, it begins in an almost documentary fashion. Two New Mexico Highway Patrolmen discover a little girl in shock, the remains of her parents’ trailer, and a roadside store that has been ransacked. Lots of questions are set up, and we don’t see the GIANT ANTS until almost half an hour into the picture. There is not only one scientist, but his attractive daughter is also a scientist. They give us a more or less buy-the-premise-buy-the-bit explanation: the rules of the world of the film are established and then stuck to. The writers have beautifully taken advantage of the desert locations and, more famously, the storm drains of Los Angeles. They have also given us some interesting characters, particularly a civilian pilot being held in a psych ward and a drunk who may or may not have seen something.

The same day I saw Them! I later caught Jumper on HBO. No restraint here. David Rice discovers he is a “jumper,” meaning he can jump from place to place. As in from New York to England. He discovers this ability when he is a teenage boy and runs away from home. So what does he do with his gift? He jumps into banks and steals money. He jumps to London, seduces a girl, then jumps out of the room. In other words, he behaves like a stupid teenager. Even after he has gotten older. Is that the best the novelist and three screenwriters could come up with him to do?

He eventually goes back to his home town and reconnects with the girl he had a crush on. He remembers she wanted to travel, so he asks her to go to Rome with him (on a plane, not through his jumping). How does she react to this proposition? She goes with him without a second thought. Wouldn’t you have a second thought if a geek from high school suddenly showed up and offered to take you to Rome? The daughter-scientist in Them! does do a certain amount of screaming, but she does seem to have some intelligence and character. This girl has neither.

So off they go to Rome and into the Colosseum. The Colosseum is used moderately well, but the rest of the picture jumps all over the world, given us postcard views, but never using the locations as well as Them! uses the few it has. The director, Doug Liman, is one of those indie directors (Swingers and Go) who have moved into big studio films. He did a knockout job on The Bourne Identity, and he seems to assume here that if he jumped around a lot in that film, he can do it here. The difference is that Bourne Identity had a great story and a great character. David is just a typical teenager, even in his twenties, and the rules of the jumpers’ world are constantly changing. Unlike the “rules” about the ants in Them!, David is being chased by one “Paladin,” and sometimes, depending on what they need for the scene, several, who are determined to kill him. If David’s life is a teen fantasy, then the Paladins are the equivalent of the grownups. Since David is doing a lot that is illegal, I was rooting for the Paladins to kill him.

Did I mention this is simply conceived as fantasy/nightmare for teen boys? David’s mom has left the family years before, and he has to deal with a difficult father. If only his mom had not run off. Boo-hoo. But when David and the girl are arrested by the Italian police, who suddenly comes through the door but Mom, telling him to ditch the girl and jump out of the situation. We later learn that Mom is a Paladin and left so she wouldn’t have to kill her own son. Now THAT would have been an interesting movie.

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.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity

It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.

1.5

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The Turning
Photo: Universal Pictures

The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.

Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.

The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.

There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.

In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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