Connect with us

Film

Understanding Screenwriting #2: WALL-E, The Order of Myths, The Da Vinci Code, 300, & More

Published

on

Understanding Screenwriting #2: WALL-E, The Order of Myths, The Da Vinci Code, 300, & More

Coming Up In This Column: WALL-E; The Order of Myths; Sailor of the King; The Da Vinci Code; 300, but first…

MAILBAG: When Keith, Matt, and Sarah Bunting were hustling me into writing this column, they assured me that HND has a really smart bunch of readers who would start interesting discussions. Since the only thing I like better than having an interesting discussion is starting one, I was delighted to see from the first comments posted that they did not lie. For a variety of reasons, I will probably not be responding to each comment as they come in, but will hold them for the next column, especially since some of them can be dealt with at once. For example, several people brought up Titanic. I won’t deal with it here because I have dealt with it at much greater length, discussing most of the issues the readers brought up, in the book that preceded this column, Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays. It is, as you might imagine, one of the scripts discussed in the Bad section. I go through the first draft, why it’s bad, why it’s better than the film (unusual for a film directed by its writer), what went wrong, and why I think it was such a big hit in spite of a bad script. For the book I deliberately picked bad scripts that had been reasonably successful commercially just so I could discuss that angle.

Matt and others brought up the whole question of audiences and their responses, which has always fascinated me. When I was about five or six I went to a Saturday westerns matinee and could not understand why all the other boys were running around the theater shooting off their cap pistols instead of sitting there watching the movies. As with Titanic, I have already had my say about audiences. The black sheep of my books (the only one not about screenwriting) is American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, which deals with audiences from 1948 up through the late nineties. It came out in 2001 and the University Press of Kentucky would love for you to take a few copies off their hands.

Several readers talked about writers and the visual element of films, and you will see that discussed in some of this episode’s films. “Withnail” would like me to look at failed screenplays, and since I loved doing the Bad section of my book, I am happy to comply, as you will see below. The only problem with doing bad movies is having to see them. I am experienced enough to be generally able to know if a film is not going to work for me and to avoid it. Matt would like to see scripts that break the rules and still work. To some extent Tell No One was like that, although I see some readers disagreed. There will be more rule-breakers. “JJ” would like to see unmade screenplays discussed, but I will probably avoid that, since I would be the only who had read the script, which sort of closes down the discussion. On the other hand, I would love to see one of the scripts he mentions, Robert Bolt’s two-film version of Mutiny on the Bounty, so if anybody has a copy of it… And to “MovieMan 0283,” yes, there is a Fox Movie Channel, and the only good thing about Time-Warner taking over from Comcast in my neighborhood was that I finally got it. In the middle of the night, they tend to run really great old stuff, as in most of the films that were in the “Ford at Fox” DVD box set. Thank goodness for DVRs. And now on to the main events:

~

WALL·E (2008. Story by Andrew Stanton and Peter Docter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon. 98 minutes): Well, I was wrong. As my wife and I came out of a screening of Pixar’s Cars in 2006, I said to her, “This is the beginning of the end of Pixar as we know it.” Previous Pixar films (the Toy Story films, Monsters, Inc., even The Incredibles) focused on characters and story. Cars, especially in the neverending opening race, seemed much more interested in how dazzling the animation could be. Pixar, it appeared, was declining into its decadent years. Last year’s Ratatouille left the question open.

In Wall·E Pixar has returned its focus onto character and story. Look at the ways (plural) Wall·E is introduced. We learn about him from what he does. We learn about him from how he does it. We learn about him from how he reacts to what is around him, including his little bug friend. What details do the writers pick to tell you about Wall·E? Why the songs from Hello, Dolly!? And why the film clips from Hello, Dolly!? Look at how the actions in the film clips (the hats and the handholding) are later used. And that’s just in the first fifteen minutes, which is all about character.

What do we learn about Eve when she first shows up? How is she different from WALL-E? What does she do that he cannot? What does he do that she cannot? Even before they zip off to the Axiom, we have one of the most detailed relationships between two characters in any recent American film. Screenwriting is writing for performance, and the writers here have written two great characters for the animators to “perform.”

Screenwriters also write for the performance of the other members of the creative team. Wall·E’s world on Earth is conceived by the writers so the design team can use the wide screen to isolate Wall·E in the desolation. (The Simpsons Movie is one of the few other recent animated films to use the wide screen. How and why does The Simpsons Movie use the wide screen differently than Wall·E?) The Axion is also written for the designers to show off, but unlike the opening race in Cars, it is at the service of the story and especially the characters. Yes, the chases may go on a little too long, but if we are with the characters, and we are, then we want to know what is happening to them in those chases.

Oh, yeah, screenwriters write dialogue. But there is very little dialogue in here, which should tell you something that silent filmmakers learned years ago: you can tell a story without a lot of dialogue. Although you should know in this case the writers did in fact write out in English dialogue what Wall·E was saying. Then they gave it to the sound genius Ben Burtt and he “translated” it into “Wall·E”-speak. See what I mean about writing for performance?

~

The Order of Myths (2008. Written by Margaret Brown. 77 minutes by my count, 80 minutes by the Los Angeles Times’s count, and 97 minutes by the imdB’s count): But this is a documentary, and documentaries are not written, they’re just photographed life.

Guess again. There are at least three kinds of screenwriting going on in many documentaries, although only two here. The missing one is narration, although there are some details given in words in titles throughout the film. The second form of screenwriting in a documentary is a selection of a subject, which may automatically suggest a structure to the film, and as William Goldman so eloquently put it, screenwriting is structure, structure, structure, and structure. Here Brown is making a documentary about the preparations of organized groups, both black and white, for Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, which rightly suggests the structure is going to be one that follows the processes the groups go through.

The third and often most crucial form of screenwriting in a documentary is in the editing of the material into the final structure. Here Brown gives us the complex look at Mobile that makes the film one of the best documentaries so far this year. One way she does this is by giving us material that we don’t immediately understand as connected to the basic structure. For example, there is a brief essay on how people in Mobile feel about their trees, with reference to the importance of roots, both with trees and culture. That is followed up later in the film by a reference to Mobile being the site of one of the last lynchings in America. In a tree. Then both of those scenes add a double context to a simple shot later in the film of someone removing a string of beads from a tree during one of the parades. Likewise, the single shots spread out early in the film in which young black girls read their essays about moon pies seem to have no relation to anything else in the film. But they do.

Brown “lets” us “discover,” or perhaps rather “uncover” the meanings as we go. A question that almost always comes up with documentaries is: what are we not seeing? What got left on the cutting room floor? The Order of Myths peels away a lot of information about Mobile and its history, but Brown is aware it does not tell all (as compared to some filmmakers who insist they have told the whole story). So the final shot is essentially an outtake from the rest of the film, with a character about whom we have at that point only recently learned several interesting details, suggesting there is a lot more that is not, and will not, at least this time around, be told. It is, one critic said, one of the most haunting movie endings in years.

~

Sailor of the King (1953. Screenplay by Valentine Davies. Based on the novel “Brown on Resolution” by C.S. Forester. 83 minutes): I promised you that I would from time to time deal with screenplays from older films that showed up on cable and/or DVD. Sailor of the King is a virtually unknown jewel that never appears on television, not even on the Fox Movie Channel, was never released on videotape, and is only now finally being released on DVD. One reason its studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, probably ignored it was that it was one of the last small-screen black-and-white films Fox released before the company went whole hog for CinemaScope and color.

The script is based on a 1929 novel by the author of the Horatio Hornblower stories and novels, so you will rightly suspect it will be about naval adventures, with lots of duty, honor, and courage thrown in. Even though the story and production team is British, Davies was an American screenwriter, best known for his Oscar-winning work on the original Miracle on 34th Street. So while the script and film have British restraint, it also has American narrative drive.

It begins in 1914 with a young Royal Navy Lieutenant Richard Saville meeting and falling in love with a young British woman, Lucina. Look at how quickly Davies gets them together, without seeming to rush it. When Lucinda has to turn down Saville’s marriage proposal, she does so using the same logical reasons a navy officer should not get married that Saville has already said. And Davies is smart enough to put the Production-Code appeasing “What we did was wrong” (have sex without being married) up front in the scene so he won’t have to dwell on it, which would make it even stupider than it already it is.

Twenty minutes into the picture we are in the early forties and Saville, now a squadron commander, is chasing a German ship raiding convoys in the Pacific. On one of the ships is a signalman named Brown. Look at how long it takes for Davies to give us hints, and what those hints are, that Brown’s mother is Lucinda. Brown’s ship is sunk and he is taken aboard the German Raider. The Raider has to put into a large cove (talk about writing in a great visual location) to do repairs, and Brown, encouraged by the one other English prisoner, Petty Officer Wheatley, steals a gun and a life raft and sneaks ashore. (It will come as no surprise to modern viewers of the film that Wheatley can convince Brown to take action; he is played by Bernard Lee, who went on to play M in the first 6,734 James Bond films.) Brown, up in the hills of the cove, picks off the crew and slows down the repairs. The other British ships arrive in the nick of time and sink the German ship.

In the final scene, Saville, now an admiral, is with Brown as Brown is about to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Brown credits his mother with teaching him all about the Navy, as well as the marksmanship that proved useful. The two gallant men, not knowing they are father and son, await the King. The ending is touching and restrained and it has stuck with me since I first saw the film in 1953.

It was not the only ending. The new DVD has an alternate ending in which Brown dies, and it is his mother who is with Saville to accept the Victoria Cross. The first ending tested better (and it lets Jeffrey Hunter live; gay guys will love this film, by the way, since Hunter spends most of the second half with his shirt off), and it is better because we know what the characters don’t. The problem with the second ending as Davies wrote it is that Saville never twigs to the fact that Brown must have been his son. Lucinda does not tell him, and he seems stupider than he has been in the rest of the film not to guess. Part of the limitations of the scene may have been the Production Code again, since them talking about her having an illegitimate child would probably have not been allowed in 1953.

But let us think for a minute, as reader “Withnail” had wondered, about other ways Davies could have run the scene. We the audience knows who’s who, so a simple exchange of glances will tell they know. Or what if she recognizes Saville but he doesn’t recognize her? Or he recognizes her, but she doesn’t recognize him? Make the scene a little more complicated and have Brown there as well, and then what happens? Do they tell him or not? Does he guess? You could all do this in such a restrained way that you could have sneaked it past the Production Code.

I am not suggesting the film be remade now, since the film is perfect at 83 minutes, and making it into a two-and-a-half hour blockbuster would probably kill it. Besides, how many contemporary box office hits do you know that are serious about duty, honor, and courage?

~

The Da Vinci Code (2006. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Dan Brown. 149 minutes): I recently caught up with a couple of bad movies I deliberately avoided paying to see when they were in the theatres. This was one of them, and its primary value is to show you how not to adapt a novel. Brown’s novel is full of ideas, and Goldsman assumes (not entirely in error, given the box office success of the film) that audiences will care about the ideas. Mostly we don’t, and you can see why in the film. It means that Goldsman gives us enormous hunks of exposition, such as in the long, long scene with Sir Leigh Teabing. The scene has the kind of talk we will follow in a novel, where all we have are the words, but gives the actors virtually nothing to do while they talk. Sir Ian McKellen tries his best, and as an acting exercise it is almost but not quite fun to watch. The ideas of the novel are what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin: what everybody in the movie is concerned about, but about which the audience generally does not care. Quick: what were they chasing in North by Northwest? Yeah, but what was inside the statue? And what was on the microfilm inside the statue? We never find out. Did it make you hate the film?

~

300 (2006. Screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. 117 minutes): And this one was a lesson in the generic problems of adapting a graphic novel into a film. First, there is seldom much characterization in most graphic novels, and here it consists of everybody yelling at each other. The characterization is so shallow that when, in the middle of the picture, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Theron (Dominic West) behave for a minute like real human beings, it is jarring because it goes against everything else in the picture.

Second, graphic novels are graphic, not so much in bloodshed, although that is true here, but in stunning visual images. Reading a graphic novel in half an hour or so can be fun. But making that visual dazzle so relentless for nearly two hours simply becomes exhausting, like all those first features MTV directors make. Yes, screenwriters should write for the performance of the designers and the CGI folks, but give the latter a variety of images to conjure up. As the writers of Wall·E did.

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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Advertisement
Comments

Film

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

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

Published

on

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. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). 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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

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

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

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.

Published

on

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

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

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.

Published

on

For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

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.

Published

on

Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

Published

on

Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Awards

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.

Published

on

Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Film

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

Published

on

Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a SLANT patron:
Continue Reading

Trending