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Understanding Screenwriting #23: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #23: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, & More

Coming Up In This Column: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, Pictures at a Revolution, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, but first…

Fan Mail: For reasons that are too complicated to go into, I ended up not having comments in US#22 on comments on US#21, so here are a couple.

I may have given some people the wrong idea that I thought Sunshine Cleaning was better than Little Miss Sunshine. I don’t think it is, primarily because of the problems with the ending I mentioned. Joel thought that Little Miss Sunshine was just as dark as Sunshine Cleaning. I think it has its dark moments, but I think the overall tone of Sunshine Cleaning is darker. Tone seems to be a theme in this edition of this column, as you will see. I would agree with Adam’s witty equation: Sunshine Cleaning = In Her Shoes + CSI.

On US#22, Anonymous raised the question about the supernatural element of Saving Grace. I agree with him that those scenes seem unnecessary, but I read somewhere they are part of series creator Nancy Miller’s plan. I will deal with this a little more in the next column after the half-season ending episode.

ER (2009. Episode “And In The End…” written by John Wells. 120 minutes): Not great, but hugely satisfying.

This series finale episode will probably not go down in TV history as one of the great series finales. It is not as spectacular as the ending of Newhart, which is one of the few “It was all a dream” endings ever that actually works. In that one, Bob Hartley, from Newhart’s earlier The Bob Newhart Show, wakes up in bed with his wife Emily saying he had a weird dream about running a Vermont inn, i.e., Newhart. Nor is it as surreal as the ending of St. Elsewhere, where the entire series was shown to have been completely in the mind of Dr. Westphall’s autistic son. What Wells does is do a lot of different things very, very well.

Since this is an episode about endings, it is not surprising that there are two major deaths among the patients. A pregnant woman is brought in and, after a troubled delivery of twins, she bleeds out and ultimately cannot be saved. In a more extended death scene, we get the death of Mrs. Manning, whom we first met when she was brought in in the “Old Times” episode. She has come back in with her husband Paul, who hopes against hope to save her. As I mentioned in US#21 when writing about that episode, we do indeed see Ernest Borgnine as Paul again, and again Borgnine delivers the goods as he watches his wife die. ER has always been realistically ruthless about killing off patients, more so than any other hospital show. The show has also been good about putting together episodes that have internal thematic connections, although they have never taken it as far as St. Elsewhere did. Here the deaths connect with the fact that we are seeing these characters and this location and this institution for the last time—excluding syndication, DVD’s, YouTube and any other delivery systems to be invented in the future, of course.

Wells also makes connections for us with other episodes in the series. Early in the teaser, Lydia, a nurse, wakes up Archie, just as she did Dr. Greene in the pilot film, and the scene is shot the same way, not surprising since this episode’s director, Rod Holcomb, directed the pilot. The death of the mother recalls one of the series’s most devastating episodes, “Love’s Labor Lost” from the first season. The crew waiting at the end for the ambulances to arrive recalls the end of the first act of another season-one episode “Blizzard.” There are others, I am sure, some of them probably unrecognizable to anyone other than Wells himself. Combined, they give us a sense of the texture of the show.

Connections with characters are also crucial to this episode. Many of the characters, and not just the stars, are people we have known and lived with for 15 years. ER, while groundbreaking in several ways, followed the pattern established in the 1970s landmark series Police Story. When that series began, Joseph Wambaugh, ex-cop and novelist and the co-creator as the series, told the writers to “Play the emotional jeopardy, not the physical jeopardy.” Ed Waters, a writer and later story consultant on Police Story, said that this was later expressed as “The cop works on the case, the case works on the cop.” In police and medical shows before Police Story, the professionals went about their business untouched emotionally by what they did. That was not true in Police Story or the shows that followed in its wake: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue and many others. ER followed in that pattern and we have been through the wringer with the characters. Sam is still an active duty nurse, and she handles the death of Paul’s wife. Paul has been talking about how devoted he has been to his wife. His daughter shows up and tells Sam, out of earshot of her father, that her mother was hell on wheels and she does not completely understand how her father could have been so devoted to her. Sam calls her mother, with whom we have seen she has a similarly unhappy relationship. We do not need to see the mother, since the writing and Amy Madigan’s performance several episodes ago was enough to stick in our mind.

Wells brings on other characters from the past. Carter’s separated wife arrives, and it may or may not be a happy reunion. Wells writes a nice little scene between Benton and Corday, who once had a brief fling. They are a bit awkward and tentative and there is no way this is going to be a happy reunion. Two of Wells’s less interesting returns are Susan Lewis and Kerry Weaver, to whom he does not give a lot to do in this episode. Weaver was a great character: prickly, difficult, but not completely unsympathetic. Laura Innes, who played her, did a masterful job of straddling the line between likeable and unlikeable with the character, and it is too bad she was not given more to do in this episode.

Wells uses two other interesting characters, one we have seen since the beginning of the series and one we are only just introduced to in this episode. The first one is Rachel Greene, Mark Greene’s daughter. We saw her in the pilot and off and on throughout the series. She has been played by two actresses, Yvonee Zima from 1994 to 2000 and by Hallee Hirsh from 2001 to 2009. Here she shows up as a group of possible medical students touring the ER. Holcomb’s direction, presumably from suggestions in the script, just lets us catch a couple of glimpses of her, so we say to ourselves, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that Rachel?” Eventually it is revealed that she is and she talks to the staff, people she has known since she was a child. At the end of the episode, she is talking with the nurses and word comes in that eight patients from an explosion at a power station are on their way in. A young doctor says to Rachel, “You want to be an ER doc? This is the fun part.” Rachel joins them in the loading area to wait for the ambulances. The patients arrive and the crew goes into action. Carter is giving a set of scrubs and joins in. As he passes Rachel, he says, “Dr. Greene. Coming?” and Rachel, even though she is not even a med student yet, joins them going into the ER. A circle is at least partially closed.

Just as Wells and Holcomb are subtle about reintroducing Rachel, they give us another young doctor floating around in the early scenes. We eventually realize it is Alexis Bledel, the former Rory Gilmore of The Gilmore Girls. Rory did not go to medical school and the character we have here is Dr. Julia Wise, whom we have never seen before. She is involved in the treatment of the pregnant woman and watches the situation turn to shit with Bledel’s gorgeously expressive eyes. We can see the case working on her the way we saw the case work on Dr. Greene in “Love’s Labor Lost.” Dr. Wise will eventually grow into being a great…wait a minute, the series is over.

One of the great strengths of ER has been, more than almost any other television series, its openness to the real world. So many television shows exist in hermetically sealed universes. ER did not. Perhaps it was the central location of the series, but the show always made you aware that there was a real world out there, somewhere. Patients would come in and go out. Patients, like Paul’s wife, would return. And die. “Love’s Labor Lost” would make women aware of a potential medical problem in pregnancy. Doctors and nurses would leave and come back. Doctors and nurses and patients would leave and not come back. The world would go on. Dr. Wise will become a good doctor.

~

Duplicity (2009. Written by Tony Gilroy. 125 minutes): Duplicitous fun, for a while.

As I suspected when I saw the trailer for this one (see US#19), it’s a lot more fun than The International. Clive Owen smiles, laughs, seduces and has great chemistry with Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts smiles, laughs, seduces, and has great chemistry with Clive Owen. And Gilroy has written a script that really takes advantage of the starpower he has. Ray and Claire are spies, working for MI-6 and the C.I.A., respectively. They meet, go to bed, and she steals secrets from him all before the wildly funny opening credit sequence. We know Gilroy is writing in the major key of fun and games with spies and con men. They then end up working for two major cosmetic firms and run a con on them both. We get a lot of the mechanics of the con, which Gilroy keeps very clear, not always an easy task. If you are an adult and paying attention, you can follow it, even though Gilroy does several nice bits of jumping back in time. And Gilroy writes some wonderful supporting characters for such actors as Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, and Kathleen Chalfont. Yes, the same Kathleen Chalfont who starred in Wit on stage in New York. You write good parts, you get good actors.

Gilroy, as you may remember from Michael Clayton, is nothing is not ambitious. So he writes a relationship piece here as well, dealing with whether Ray and Claire can trust each other. Can spies trust anybody, especially those they love? The tone here is minor key, especially in comparison to the rest of the film. The problem with the script is that with the particular twist ending Gilroy uses, the film closes very much in the minor key of the relationship story. It doesn’t seem quite enough for what has gone on before. He could have used it to set up a sequel, but that does not appear to have been on his mind.

~

Coraline (2009. Screenplay by Henry Selick, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. 100 minutes): Writing for animation, or, where’s Walt Disney when you need him?

There is a reason that Walt Disney was the only animator of his time to make a successful, continuing shift from short cartoons to feature-length animated films. He knew the importance of story and characters. If you compare any of the Disney cartoons of the thirties to those turned out by other studios, his all have solid story lines. The others are collections of gags. The reason that DreamWorks Animation and Pixar have had continuing success in feature-length animation is because they have Jeffrey (EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD IN THE FUTURE IS GOING TO BE IN 3-D) Katzenberg and John Lassiter, respectively, in charge. Both of them have a strong sense of story and push the people they work with in that direction.

Henry Selick is a whiz at stop-motion animation, as seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). Story, alas, is not his strong suit. Coraline takes FOREVER to get going. The girl and her mom and dad move into an old house out in the country, divided up into apartments. It is a long time before Coraline goes through the secret door and finds a “nicer” version of her mom and dad. Then, after she realizes they are not “nicer,” she has to collect several items to manage her safe return. The rules of that game are not clear. I thought she had to collect the eyeballs of the three ghost children, but it appears that each round ball contains both eyes, which does not make a lot of sense. Then when Coraline has escaped from the word behind the door, the film goes on for another ten minutes, including introducing a character we have only vaguely heard about before, and then not showing us what Coraline is going to tell her. Why bother?

As you may gather from my parenthetical jab at Katzenberg, I am not quite as devoted to 3-D as he is. The 3-D in Coraline is well-used and Selick has obviously thought about it a lot, but I am not convinced it is essential to the story. I do have to admire Selick the director for not throwing a lot of stuff in our faces. Stay through the credits, because there is a lovely use of objects floating out over the audience at the end.

~

Sin Nombre (2009. Written by Cary Fukunaga. 96 minutes): We’ve traveled this road before, and in better company.

Sin Nombre is not exactly the first film to show Latin Americans coming across Mexico to the United States. El Norte (1983), written by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, is still the classic in the field, and I think the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, written by Joshua Marston, is the best of them all. After doing several years worth of research on people who work as “mules” bringing drugs to the U.S., Marston focused his script on one woman, Maria. He provided her with a lot of different motivations to get into that line of work, and then a lot of reactions to what happens to her.

Fukunaga, who also spent time researching people riding the freight trains up Mexico to the border, has not created any character as interesting as Maria. The girl in the film is Sayra and in spite of how the IMDb describes the plot, she really has no particular desire to go north. Her father, who has been living in the U.S., was deported to Honduras. He now wants to take her with him and his brother back to the states. She goes reluctantly, and we get very little of her reactions to what is going on. Then, an hour into the picture, she does something really stupid. She gets off the train and leaves her father. And almost every action she takes after that is more stupid than the last.

She gets off the train because of Casper. He is a member of a gang in Mexico who ends up killing the leader of his own gang for killing his girlfriend. Needless to say, the gang puts out a hit on him, and gang members, as well as gangs related to his gang, track him down. Casper is first established as the cliché of the sensitive tough guy, but we get very little of him beyond that. And the gang members all seem the same. That may be sociologically true, but dramatically it is not very interesting to watch. Casper and Sayra sort of develop a friendship, but you would be hard put to call it a romance, which is why her behavior makes no sense.

In Maria Full of Grace, Marston, who also directed, had the advantage of a great performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria, but Fukunaga either does not have the acting talent available to him, or simply does not know how to direct them. If he’d written better parts…

~

Tokyo Sonata (2008. Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, and Sachiko Tanaka. 119 minutes): Another one goes off the rails.

Sasaki is a Japanese salaryman who loses his job. Because it would undermine his authority in his house if it were known he was jobless, he doesn’t tell his wife and two sons. He tries to get work, but he spends most of his days at a field where a lot of other men in his position spend their days. At 45 minutes into the film, his wife happens to spot him at the field, but she doesn’t confront him. Meanwhile the eldest son, Takashi, decides to join a (fictional) unit of the American army to go fight in Iraq. Kenji, the youngest son, takes piano lessons without telling his parents because he knows his dad would refuse to give him permission. So far we are in a Japanese equivalent of The Bicycle Thief: a low-key, neorealist, look at contemporary Japan.

Eighty minutes into the film the family’s house is robbed and the robber takes the wife hostage. She sort of decides to go along with robber. She sees Sasaki in his job as a janitor at a mall when she stops to buy food for her and the robber, and Sasaki runs away from her. He runs into the street and appears to be hit by a van, which leaves him lying in the gutter. Kenji meanwhile tries to protect a friend from getting beaten by the friend’s father. It is like the writers have suddenly gone off the deep end in the way the characters have. Screenwriting instructors are generally so busy talking about structure they never get around to tone. The tone in Tokyo Sonata shifts so drastically at the robbery that we seem to be in a totally different film. Yes, you maybe could defend it on intellectual terms: it represents the rage going on underneath the placid exteriors of the characters. This is something Japanese horror movies and anime use very effectively, but the actions here really come from others in this sequence, not from the family members. In terms of THIS film, it is merely disruptive. The fact that when they all return home, they behave as though nothing had happened does not help, either.

~

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008. Book by Mark Harris. 477 pages): Imagine: mentioning screenwriters.

Harris’s book, which is now out in paperback, uses the five films nominated for Best Picture of 1967 as a way to examine the changes that were taking place in Hollywood at the time. It is a great, simple idea, and Harris does it more than justice. He seems to have talked to almost everybody who worked on the five films. He follows the development of each of them from the first idea through to the night of the Academy Awards (and his collection of comments from people who were at the Oscars will give you a great inside look at what it is like to be there as a nominee).

Harris is also one of the younger generation of writers about film who actually mention screenwriters and the writing process. Some of that may come from his being married to playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), but there are a growing number of film historians who deal with the screenwriting aspects of films they write about. Sam Staggs, in his books about All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Imitation of Life, always goes into detail on the development of the story and script. Jennifer Smyth, in her monumental Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane, a look at thirties historical films, writes as much about writers as directors.

So in Harris’s book we get not only the development of Bonnie and Clyde, which has been written about before, but the writing of The Graduate, which included not only the two credited writers, but two others you may not have known about. William Rose, who wrote Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, turns out not to be quite as liberal in matters of race as you might think from the film. Most fascinating of all is Harris’s looking at Stirling Silliphant’s papers dealing with his ideas of In the Heat of the Night. None of the pictures (the fifth was Doctor Doolittle, and nothing could help it) would have been as good as they were without the development processes he shows you.

Harris’s book is remarkably error-free for a book of its size and scope, but there is one howler I must call him on. Talking about another 1967 film, The Dirty Dozen, he mentions that the first drafts were written by the “seventy-year-old” Nunnally Johnson, and that director Robert Aldrich thought Johnson’s script “would have made a very good, acceptable 1945 war picture. But I don’t think that a good 1945 war picture is a good 1967 war picture.” Aldrich brought in Lukas Heller to make it a 1967 war picture. Harris obviously saw this as part of the generational change he was writing about: the old making way for the new.

Having read the novel, Nunnally’s script, and seen the final results, I have to tell you that Nunnally’s script would have made more of a 1967 picture than the film was. This in spite of the fact that he was sixty-six, not seventy, when he wrote it (he turned seventy later in 1967, after the release of the film). In E.M. Nathanson’s novel, the author gets into the heads of the assorted criminals that make up the “dozen.” By the end of the novel that have all convinced themselves they have become heroes, although it is clear they have not. Movies cannot get into the heads of the characters the way novels do. What Nunnally did was show that in the attack on the chateau, which is only a minor afterthought in the novel, the “dozen” are just as criminally inclined as they were before. For example, early in the film, Franko (John Cassavettes) attempts to kill Major Reisman. In Johnson’s script he tries again at the chateau. That was dropped in Heller’s script and the film. It is only the army report in Johnson’s script that makes them out to be heroes. In the film they become conventional war movie heroes. Johnson’s script is much more anti-authoritarian than the film. The film suggests the army was right to try to turn them into heroes. Most of the ironies of Johnson’s script have been eliminated in the film.

You would think Mark Harris would know better than to take a director’s word in an issue involving a writer.

~

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2008. Episode “Pilot,” screenplay by Richard Curtis & Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Alexander McCall Smith. 110 minutes): A new P.I. joins the team.

We’re not in New York. We’re not in L.A. We’re in Botswana. Look it up.

This is the two hour pilot for the new HBO series, and I was shocked, I tell you, to see the TV rating come up at the beginning and NOT have it warn us of sex, violence, language. This on the network of Tony !&[email protected]#^! Soprano and Samantha #%^* Jones and Al %$^@!!*^ Swearengen. Who’da thunk it?

The lack of foul language and explicit sex and explicit violence is a wonderful relief. Here the detective setting up her own agency is Precious Ramotswe. She’s not an ex-cop, just somebody who is very observant. While even the women cops in the American shows are tough as nails, Mma Ramotswe is just a genuinely nice person who wants to help. So her clients discuss their problems over a very civilized cup of tea. Precious does get a secretary, since this is a pilot for the series. The secretary, who never tires of telling us she got 97% on her typing final, is a bit of a prig and a nice counterpoint to Precious (although I worry for the physical well being of the always wonderful Anika Noni Rose; she has developed a funny, awkward walk for the character that may require physical therapy when the series ends). The pilot also establishes a male garage owner who can help Previous out, and a gay hairdresser who works next door. The latter may be a cliché, but at least the writers avoided the obvious: Precious is a large black woman, but they did not give her a skinny white sassy friend.

The tone is very different from American shows. Not only is Precious’s manner quieter than most American P.I.s, but the stories (the pilot involves three cases) are obviously told, very much in the tradition of both African griots (storytellers) and African cinema. We are looking at them from the outside, as opposed to being sucked into the story. Precious does perform the western function of bringing us into the stories, but the stories of the cases have that exaggeration typical of African storytelling. This may not work over the long run for American audiences, since it may make the stories seem unrealistic. In the pilot, the story of the straying husband became slapstick comedy while the missing child story was done in a more melodramatic way. That all may have been part of the planning for the pilot, to let the audiences know there will be several different kinds of stories and storytelling in the series.

~

The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008. Screenplay by Marco Schnabel, based on characters created by David Titcher. 90 minutes): He’s back!

Readers may remember from US#14 that in December I watched the first two Librarian films on DVD. This one had just been broadcast but I had missed it. I thought after the first two I would give this a watch some afternoon I had free, so I did.

The first two films were very much outdoor adventure movies in the King Solomon’s Mines/Indiana Jones tradition, but this spends most of its time indoors. Flynn, our hero, has gone off to New Orleans on vacation after having a meltdown. He gets involved with a bunch of baddies who are looking for the Judas Chalice, since it will bring vampires back to life and they can rule the world, etc. His female partner this time is Simone Renoir, a French singer. She is, at least for a while, a more conventional romantic foil for Flynn, which makes her a little less interesting than the women in the first two. In one way I am glad I did not get to see this one until now, since Simone is played by Stana Katic from Castle, and it is nice to see her doing something different. She does no eye-rolling here, but a little lower-lip biting, which becomes weird when we find out she is…a vampire.

Noah Wyle is more at home in the romantic adventure genre that he was in the first two, but Flynn is still something of a klutz, although the filmmakers cannot seem to settle on how much of a klutz. In the opening sequence he is neatly dressed in a tuxedo, then sneezes when he drinks some not-quite-real champagne. Fine, but then he immediately turns out to be an excellent swordsman in a duel with one of the baddies. In a museum. With a lot of people there for an auction. With guards. Who don’t try to stop the duel. Even when it threatens to destroy what we think is a valuable painting. The film barely recovers from the idiocies of that scene. It is not up to the first two.

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: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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

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Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it.

.5

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.

Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.

The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.

Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.

Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.

By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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Review: Intrigo: Death of an Author Is Damned by Its Lack of Self-Awareness

The film evinces neither the visceral pleasures of noir nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

1.5

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Intrigo: Death of an Author
Photo: Lionsgate

“Surprise me!” demands reclusive author Alex Henderson (Ben Kingsley) near the start of Intrigo: Death of an Author of budding novelist Henry (Benno Fürmann), who’s come to him in search of advice. As an audience member, it’s difficult not to end up making exactly the same exhortation to director Daniel Alfredson’s film. With each plot point being not only easy to predict, but also articulated and elaborated on multiple times by an awkwardly on-the-nose narration, the only shock here is that a film apparently concerned with the act of storytelling could be so lacking in self-awareness.

Henry is a translator for the recently deceased Austrian author Germund Rein and is working on a book about a man whose wife disappeared while they were holidaying in the Alps, shortly after her revelation that she would be leaving him for her therapist. Most of the tedious opening half hour of the film is taken up with Henry telling this tale to Kingsley’s enigmatic Henderson, after he meets him at his remote island villa. The pace picks up a little when David switches to giving the older writer an account of the mystery surrounding Rein’s death and how this could be connected to his story, which (surprise!) may not be entirely fictional.

Death of An Author is the most high-profile release of the Intrigo films, all directed by Alfredson and based on Håkan Nesser’s novellas. Alfredson was also at the helm of two film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but he still doesn’t appear to have developed the stylistic tools necessary to elevate his pulpy source material. Here, his aesthetic seems to be aiming for the icy polish of a modern noir, but it leans toward a safe kind of blandness, evincing neither the visceral pleasures of the genre nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

While Fürmann’s stilted central performance at times threatens to sink Death of An Author, Kingsley always appears just in time to keep the unwieldy thing afloat. Nonetheless, his character’s cynical meta commentary, alternately engaged and aloof, is ruinous: As Henderson criticizes Henry’s story, he effectively draws too much attention to the film’s own flaws.

Death of an Author’s mise en abyme framing device has a similarly self-sabotaging effect. It initially promises an interesting push and pull between a writer’s literary perspective on reality and their own lived experience, but as so much of Henry’s psychology is explained through clunky expository dialogue instead of being expressed visually, no such conflict is possible. The structure ends up just distancing us further from the characters, as well as undermining the tension generated by the more procedural elements of the plot. Ultimately, aside from some picturesque scenery and a satisfyingly dark ending, all we’re left to enjoy here is the vicarious thrill of Kingsley’s smug, scene-stealing interlocutor occasionally denouncing Henry as a hack, and implicitly dismissing the whole scenario of the film as trite and clichéd.

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Benno Fürmann, Tuva Novotny, Michael Byrne, Veronica Ferres, Daniela Lavender, Sandra Dickinson Director: Daniel Alfredson Screenwriter: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Weathering with You Lyrically and Mushily Affirms the Sky’s Majesty

Contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed the film’s increasingly mawkish tendencies.

2.5

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Weathering with You
Photo: GKIDS

The lyricism of director Makoto Shinkai’s new animated film, Weathering with You, should shame the impersonality of the CGI-addled blockbusters that are usually pitched at children. An early scene finds a teenage girl, Hina (Nano Mori), floating through the sky, at times almost seeming to swim in it. This moment introduces a suggestive motif: In the film, scientists speculate that the sky possesses a habitat that, for all we know, is full of similar properties to the one in the world’s oceans. The Tokyo of Shinkai’s conception is plagued by rain that sometimes falls so hard as to suggest a tidal wave dropping out of the sky, which is a memorably scary and beautiful effect. Sometimes such rains even leave behind see-through jellyfish-like creatures that evaporate upon touch.

At their best, Shinkai’s images affirm the majesty and power of the sky and rain, intrinsic elements of life that we too often take for granted. Raindrops suggest bright white diamonds, and storms resemble cocoons of water. But Hina’s new friend, Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo), doesn’t take the weather for granted, as he’s introduced on a large passenger boat, surveying a storm that almost kills him. Running away to Tokyo from his parents, Hodaka first glances the city as the boat approaches a port, and at which point Shinkai springs another marvel: a city of vast neon light that’s been rendered with a soft, watercolor-esque delicacy.

The first 45 minutes or so of Weathering with You promisingly merge such visuals with the story of Hina and Hodaka’s blossoming romance, while introducing an amusing rogue, Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri), who offers Hodaka minimal employment as a junior reporter for a tabloid magazine. Suga gives the film a lurid quality that’s surprising for a children’s fantasy—as he milks the young Hodaka for a free meal and carouses around Tokyo at night—until Shinkai sentimentally reduces him to a routine father figure. And it’s around here that the plot grows more and more cumbersome and gradually takes over the film as Hina and Hodaka become typically misunderstood youngsters on the lam, evading the law and the Tokyo crime world. The free-floating visuals are eventually tethered to a metaphor for the specialness of Hina, who’s a mythical “sunshine girl” capable of bringing light to Tokyo’s endless storms, and for the fieriness of Hina and Hodaka’s love. Shinkai over-explains his lyrical imagery with YA tropes, compromising the dreamlike mystery of the film’s first act.

The narrative is also an implicit story of global warming, as Tokyo’s storms threaten to destroy the city, with Hina representing a potential balancing of the scales at the expense of her own earthly life. That’s a resonant concept that Shinkai never quite steers into overtly political territory—and contemporary outrage could’ve potentially counterpointed Weathering with You’s increasingly mawkish tendencies. A free-floating atmosphere, in which sky and ocean are merged, suggesting collaborative gods, is more than enough for an evocative fable. It’s a pity that Shinkai overthinks his project, frontloading it with borrowed plot machinery that goes in circles, separating lovers mostly for the sake of separating them.

Cast: Kotaro Daigo, Nana Mori, Shun Oguri, Kana Ichinose, Ryô Narita, Tsubasa Honda, Mone Kamishiraishi, Kana Ichinose Director: Makoto Shinkai Screenwriter: Makoto Shinkai Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Awards

2020 Oscar Nominations: Joker, 1917, The Irishman, and OUATIH Lead Field

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho. Todd Phillips’s Joker led the nomination count with 11, followed by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Sam Mendes’s 1917, and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with 10 each, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with six each.

While Joker mostly received attention throughout the awards season for Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance, many pegged Hildur Guðnadóttir’s victory at the Golden Globes for her score as a sign that the film would do well at the Oscars. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) had to make way for Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell) in best supporting actress and Lupita N’yongo (Us) for Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) in best actress. And both Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) and Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes) landed nominations for best actor, pushing Golden Globe-winner Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Robert De Niro (The Irishman), and Christian Bale (Ford v. Ferrari out of the way.

See below for a full list of the nominations.

Best Picture
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Director
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Todd Phillips, Joker
Sam Mendes, 1917
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Costume Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Sound Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Sound Mixing
Ad Astra
Ford v Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Animated Short
Dcera (Daughter)
Hair Love
Kitbull
Memorable
Sister

Best Live-Action Short
Brotherhood
Nefta Footfall Club
The Neighbor’s Window
Saria
A Sister

Best Film Editing
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Parasite

Best Original Score
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Documentary Feature
American Factory
The Cave
The Edge of Democracy
For Sama
Honeyland

Best Documentary Short Subject
In the Absence
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Life Overtakes Me
St. Louis Superman
Walk, Run, Chacha

Best International Feature Film
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Honeyland (North Macedonia)
Les Misérables (France)
Pain and Glory (Spain)
Parasite (South Korea)

Best Production Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Endgame
The Irishman
The Lion King
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Cinematography
The Irishman
Joker
The Lighthouse
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Bombshell
Joker
Judy
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
1917

Best Animated Feature
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Klaus
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
The Two Popes

Best Original Screenplay
Knives Out
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Original Song
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
“I’m Standing with You,” Breakthrough
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen 2
“Stand Up,” Harriet

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Review: VHYes Spoofs Late-Night TV Without Exacting Critiques

VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.

1.5

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VHYes
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

There’s more inspired satire about how television manipulates an audience’s emotions in the original RoboCop’s opening newscast scene than in the entirety of Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes. Set around Christmas in 1987—coincidentally, the year of the Paul Verhoeven classic’s release—the film opens as adolescent Ralphie (Mason McNulty) has received his first camcorder. Robbins filters everything through Ralphie’s camera, giving the film an entirely home-video aesthetic, and after Ralphie’s father (Jake Head) discovers the device can be used to record live TV, VHYes morphs into a procession of mostly stale sketch-comedy bits that have been taped during Ralphie’s late-night channel surfing.

Throughout, VHYes shuttles from one gag to the next in search of purpose. In one bit, Robbins serves up a parody of The Joy of Painting starring a woman, Joan (Kerri Kenney), whose dry wit and thinly veiled arousal for her work culminates in a painting of her dunking on Dennis Rodman, of which she assures viewers, “There’s moisture. Some of it isn’t sweat.” We also get a spoof of Antiques Roadshow featuring an appraiser (Mark Proksch) who increasingly reveals his lacking aptitude for the position. And on a mock QVC channel, the formerly married hosts bicker as they predominately sell drug paraphernalia disguised as household products.

VHYes is clearly indebted to the gonzo sketch comedy of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but unlike Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Robbins homes in on the oddities of people and things as a means to an end, rather than using them as a jumping-off point for unhinged social commentary. The only segment that approaches a distinct comedic take on its material is Conversations with Todd Plotz, in which the host (Raymond Lee) discusses “tape narcissism” with a cultural philosopher (Mona Lee Wylde) who makes obviously prescient remarks such as, “One day the real world will exist to be filmed.” Though this exchange might outwardly suggest an attempt to critique global technological influence, a la Videodrome, the sketch lacks a punchline, let alone insight, beyond the host donning a goofy expression, further revealing how the film is a parade of empty nostalgia for its own sake.

The film offers a reprieve from its grab bag of sketch comedy with a series of musical interludes hosted by Lou (Charlyne Yi), who uses the occasion to introduce bands to her interested but clueless parents. The best of these features Weyes Blood performing a haunting rendition of her 2016 track “Generation Why.” But lest the music linger for a moment in earnest, Robbins concludes the segment with the ironized, faux-Lynchian imagery of a door, isolated in darkness, opening onto Lou and Weyes Blood doing a slow dance.

The film’s climax returns to reality to find Ralphie and his friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw), obsessed with the documentary Blood Files: Witch of West Covina. The show claims there’s a haunted sorority house on the outskirts of the town where the two live and, predictably, Robbins uses this material to spring the boys out of the house and toward danger, Ralphie’s camcorder footage all the while guiding us through their ghostly discoveries. As in its comedy, the film proves wholly derivative in its horror, borrowing liberally from The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and V/H/S and, in this stretch, without even the good sense to heavily ironize it. For all the outrageousness that could be concocted from its overarching premise, VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.

Cast: Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, Charlyne Yi, Mason McNulty, Rahm Braslaw, Jake Head, Christian Drerup, Mona Lee Wylde, Raymond Lee, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins Director: Jack Henry Robbins Screenwriter: Jack Henry Robbins, Nunzio Randazzo Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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