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Understanding Screenwriting #28: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #28: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 123 (2), The White Sister, Ten Wanted Men, Night Train to Munich, Berlin Express, but first…

Fan Mail: Since there were as of this writing no comments on US#27, let me just throw in a promotion for any fans of the column who may be in or around Bloomington, Indiana on Saturday, August 1st. I will be doing a discussion and book signing that day from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Borders Bookstore in Bloomington. The address is 2634 E. Third Street. I would love to meet any of the column’s readers who can drop by.

The Hangover (2009. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. 100 minutes): A thousand fathers…

As I have mentioned, I am not a fan of movies about men behaving like little boys, but I like the team of Lucas & Moore as writers. In addition, the first weekend exit polls were showing that a lot of women were going to see the film, and the weekday business was staying high. So off I went to see it on June 11th, the Thursday after it opened.

Lucas & Moore have set the situation up nicely. We learn at the beginning that Phil, Stu and Alan have somehow misplaced the groom during a weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas. Then we get nearly twenty minutes of flashback setup as the guys go to Vegas. This establishes their characters, which is crucial to the film working. We LIKE these guys, even if they are crude. And each one is different. Phil is the horndog, Stu the uptight one and Alan is only semi-housebroken. Doug, the groom, is rather bland, but we lose him fairly quickly. Lucas & Moore then cut from their arrival in Vegas to the next morning, when they discover not only that Doug is missing, but their suite now has baby, a chicken and a live tiger in the bathroom, among other things. So we have likable characters, some mysteries and a quest, if not quite a Hero’s Journey. The writers come up with some funny gags and a couple of very nice scenes including one with that old charmer, Mike Tyson. Tyson’s scene is a great change of pace in the middle of the film. Needless to say, all works out well in the end.

There are downsides. The characterization, while adequate, is not up to the usual Lucas & Moore standard. The one older character, the bride’s father, is standard issue. The real downside in characterization is the women. Jade, the hooker, is about as standard issue heart-of-gold as you can get, and it does not help that she is played by Heather Graham, who has done many better versions of this part over the last fifty years. The bride here is not as interesting as the bride in Lucas & Moore’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. And Stu’s girlfriend is about as obnoxious a woman as we have seen lately in the movies. What happened?

In the interview with Danny Munso in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, written and published before the film opened, Lucas & Moore talk about how they developed the idea on their own, with no mention of other writers or producers working on it. The day I saw the film, Patrick Goldstein’s regular column, The Big Picture, appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He was reporting that Todd Philips, the director of The Hangover, “checked in the other day, calling from London.” Why would a director call the Times from London? Philips told Goldstein that the Lucas & Moore script was really intended as a PG-13 film and he and Jeremy Garelick had done an uncredited rewrite in which “we really pushed the limits and turned it into an R comedy.”

There is a longstanding Hollywood tradition that when a picture opens really well, as The Hangover did, any number of writers come out of the woodwork to claim they did “uncredited rewrites” on the film. When Speed opened well in 1994, there were at least two writers who claimed to have written the final drafts, although the script I saw, which was essentially the film, only had the name of the credited writer, Graham Yost, on it. When Erin Brockovich was released in 2000, suddenly the word on the street was that Richard LaGravenese had actually done the final drafts. That may have caused the credited writer, Susannah Grant, to lose the Oscar. Thanks, Richard.

When I was walking home from seeing The Hangover, I picked up a copy of the freebie LA Weekly, which includes a column, Deadline Hollywood, by Nikki Finke. She is a very snarky writer, but her batting average for accuracy is fairly high. Her column in this issue was all about not only the writers who were claiming to have worked on The Hangover, but the assorted producers who claim to have contributed to the story, none of whom were mentioned by Lucas & Moore. Success has a thousand fathers…I assure you that the same week there were no writers coming out of the woodwork to claim to have done “uncredited rewrites” on Land of the Lost.

When Finke mentions Philips and Gerelick’s rewrites, she says, “Some say the duo was ’robbed’ of a credit by the WGA arbitration.” Probably not, although they may not see it that way. Time for a brief—I hope—discussion of the Writers Guild of America arbitration process. Take out your crayons and notebooks children, there will be a quiz later. Back in the thirties, before the Guild, the studios assigned the screenwriting credits. Favoritism abounded, and the tendency was to give credit to whoever worked on the film last. Writers felt this was unfair, since the hard work of “breaking” the story defined the film more than a few additional dialogue bits. So when the studios finally recognized the Guild, the Guild wanted to establish an arbitration process. The studios fought it, as they saw it as giving up their power, but as screenwriter Philip Dunne said to me in the early seventies, “Now of course the studios couldn’t agree with you more. This takes a big headache off them and puts it on the Guild.”

The arbitration process works this way. When a film is completed, the producer submits to the Guild his suggestion of what the writing credits should be. Every writer who ever worked on the project is then informed of the suggested credits. If everybody agrees (and it does happen. Really), those are the credits. If a writer disagrees, then the credits go to arbitration. Every writer involved submits the material he thinks shows his contributions to the film. (This is why I always tell my screenwriting students to save EVERYTHING.) Three panelists for the Guild, working screenwriters, read through the material without, in theory at least, knowing who the writers actually are. The panel then decides on the credits, with writers having to have written specific percentages of the script to get credit. Usually the writer or writers who worked on the material first are given the first credit. As Winston Churchill said of democracy, it’s the worst system ever invented, except for all the others. Every writer sometimes feels he gets screwed. Some writers even feel they get credits they are not sure they deserve. But generally writers accept the system as a necessary evil and figure if they lose this one, they will win on the next one.

The people who complain about the arbitration system the most are directors. William Wyler was upset that Christopher Fry, who was on the set of Ben-Hur constantly rewriting the dialogue, did not get a credit. Barry Levinson threw one of his patented hissy fits when the Guild awarded top credit on Wag the Dog to Hilary Henkin with David Mamet only sharing the credit. Directors, like the studio producers of the thirties, tend to favor their little pet writers, whose work, when looked at (more or less) objectively was not as big a contribution to the film as the directors thought.

There is nothing, alas, in the Guild rules that say that the contributions of the additional writers have to be improvements. Which leads me to suspect that the problems I had with the script of The Hangover came from the uncredited rewrites. Those problems may have also come from the development process. Producer Chris Bender worked with Lucas & Moore and the material was submitted to New Line, which has released such “chick flicks” as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and My Sister’s Keeper. New Line passed, and the film ended up at Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers Group President Jeff Robinov, whom Finke describes as “little-liked,” was quoted last year as saying that there would no longer be any films at Warners starring women, since he did not think they could carry a picture. He sort of denied saying it, but the fact that industry people believe he did say it tells you something. Finke includes a quote from Warners studio chairman Alan Horn, Robinov’s boss, giving all credit to Robinov for shepherding The Hangover to its great success. Wait a minute, isn’t success supposed to have a thousand fathers? Finke did not seem to realize that what Horn may have been doing was telling people in Hollywood that the partial reason the women in the film were so misogynistically portrayed was Robinov’s stewardship of the film. Welcome to Hollywood, Jeff.

The Brothers Bloom (2008. Written by Rian Johnson. 113 minutes): I like the movie it started out to be.

As you can tell from the trailers to this film, it is a con-man movie, with lots of charm from Rachel Weisz as a madcap heiress and Rinko Kikuchi as the “muscle” in the con. The film starts quirky: we see the two brothers Bloom, the older one called Stephen, the younger one just Bloom—uh-oh, cuteness alert—as kids running their first con. It’s fun, as is the next one we see now that they are grown up. But Bloom wants to get out of the business. Stephen pulls him back in for one more, this one involving Penelope, the aforementioned heiress. Except Penelope, who has been locked up in her family’s mansion, LOVES the idea of being part of a con. She pushes them further and Bloom of course falls in love with her. OK, it’s not Lubitsch’s (and Samson Raphelson’s) Trouble in Paradise, but what is? Still, we are with it. But remember that the story started with the two brothers. And it keeps getting serious about them. Now if there is one thing I do NOT want in a con-man movie, it is for it to get serious. Especially when, as in this case, it begins to lose the charm that pulled us into it in the first place. I am not saying you cannot change tone in the middle of a film (Psycho, enough said), but we had better want to go where the tonal shift is taking us. In the case of The Brothers Bloom, it is taking us away from what we like in the film. Not a smart move. I kept expecting Johnson to pull off another con or two, either on the characters or on us, but what I take to be his final con is not all that interesting, or much of a surprise.

Still you do get Weisz and Kikuchi, who are terrific. This is a very different part for Weisz and her performance should inspire someone to write a great screwball comedy for her.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: (Two versions: 1974. Screenplay by Peter Stone, based on the novel by John Godey. 104 minutes. 2009. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey. 106 minutes): Directors, can’t kill ’em, can’t make a movie without ’em.

The 1974 version is one of those gritty, New York City crime dramas that multiplied like alligators in the sewers in the early seventies as a result of the huge success of The French Connection in 1971. The setup is simple: Four guys take a car of the New York subway hostage and the good guys try to figure out how to stop them. The idea of taking a subway car hostage is at the ingenious heart of the story. Peter Stone’s screenplay plays like a procedural, following the mechanics of the heist and the efforts to stop it. Since Stone is also the screenwriter of Charade, one of the two best Hitchcock movies Hitchcock did not make, there is a certain amount of wit in the dialogue and characterization (I love the mayor in bed with the flu), which are a nice counterpoint to the suspense. The actors are all journeyman actors who look like New Yorkers, and those that are still alive work on the various Law & Orders. The director is the competent journeyman Joseph Sargent and he gives it speed and a New York attitude, making it the best Sidney Lumet movie Lumet did not make.

So why bother to remake it?

Well, it is highly thought of, and the setup is still ingenious. The writer this time is Brian Helgeland, who did the screenplays for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. I don’t know what the budget was on the 1974 version, but it probably was not much over $5 million, if that. The budget for this version is reported to be in the $100 million range. For a gritty little thriller? No, for a star vehicle. The two leads of the ’74 version were played by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, who were terrific actors and gave excellent performances, but for a Major Studio Motion Picture today, you need STARS. Matthau’s Garber was a New York City Transit Inspector, Denzel Washington’s Garber is a shlub of a guy who is working the phones in the situation room. In the ’74 version Garber was more of an everyman, in spite of his position. In the ’09 version Garber is an EveryMan Played by A Star. In ’74, the methodical and efficient head crook was coolly played by Robert Shaw. In ’09, Ryder is a raging psychopath overacted by John Travolta. Helgeland has focused on the relationship of the two, while Stone focused on the mechanics of the two men’s story. Helgeland has Ryder come to like Garber and to demand he talk only to him. Garber also gets an elaborate backstory that plays into the situation. Scenes of the mechanics of the story in ’74, such as a look at how the ransom money is counted and packaged, are dropped so we can get more of the two stars.

While the sick mayor in ’74 is fun, Helgeland’s ’09 mayor is even more fun, more of a tough guy and more involved in the story. Which means scenes and lines for James Gandolfini, who reminds us he is a lot more than Tony Soprano. Helgeland has also added a hostage negotiator, Camonetti (John Tuturro), who comes to respect Garber. Wit is not Helgeland’s strong suit, so we don’t get Stone’s zingers spread out among the more minor supporting roles. Helgeland has also had to drop the original’s naming of each of the hijackers with colors: Blue, Green Grey, since Tarantino stole that and made it his own in Reservoir Dogs. I don’t know how much Washington was paid, but it was probably a lot, which means that Helgeland has to turn him into something of an action hero in the last twenty minutes. Since Washington put on weight for the character, he is not quite believable running around the streets and bridges of New York without appearing to be winded.

So. Helgeland’s script is not awful and has some nice moments. Then they got Tony Scott to direct it. The credit sequence alone has more cuts than in the entire ’74 version. The camera whips around a LOT, and various film speeds are used, too often. When Scott gets into the scenes with Washington and Travolta, the camera slows down and we watch the stars. In very big closeups. This may be one of those films that plays better on television than on a big theater screen, since the jerky-cam shots and the huge closeups will be a little less obnoxious.

I’ve been thinking about why Washington has now done three films with Scott. The closeups may be the answer. Scott, for all his flashy style, appears to love his stars and gives them their head. Washington is better than Travolta here, though the scenes where they finally meet in person are rather nice. But that is Scott getting out of the way of the script and the stars. The rest of the time he is just showing off. Joseph Sargent, by the way, shot the original in not-as-casual-as-they-seem medium shots, and the performances work just as well, if not better.

The White Sister (1923. Scenario by George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker, titles by Will M. Richey and Don Bartlett, based on the novel by Francis Marion Crawford. 135 minutes): They had FACES then.

This is the second of at least four different films made from this novel. I cannot recommend it as an example of great screenwriting for silent films, particularly in terms of plotting, although the problems there may come from the potboiler novel it was based on. Angela, the daughter of an Italian nobleman, is done out of her inheritance by her wicked sister in ways that defy any kind of reality but at least get the story going. Angela falls in love with the dashing officer, Giovanni, but before they can be married, he is sent off to Africa, where he is reported killed. What’s a girl to do? She becomes a nun. Guess who’s not dead? And he shows up just as she is taking her final vows, and the writers really have to twist and turn the action to keep him away from her until after she has taken her vows. In the novel, apparently, he persuades her to renounce her vows and run away, but being an expensive picture, this was changed so they don’t run away. He dies a noble death trying to save people from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, placating the Catholic Church, which in those days had a certain power over which movies its flocks would attend. The Church in return loaned director Henry King the director of ceremonies at the Vatican to stage the taking of Angela’s vows.

So why bring this movie up in a column on screenwriting? Because it shows you how much story you can tell and how much emotion you can get without dialogue. Unlike a lot of middle-to-late silent films (such as King’s Romola, which like this film was shot in Italy), there is not an overabundance of titles to disrupt the flow of the film. King has been an underrated director, but if great film historians like Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard tell you he was good, pay attention. King understood emotion. Lillian Gish is Angelina and more restrained and subtle here than in many of her Griffith films. Her brilliant leading man was a young actor who had done small parts in a few films. I wrote in US#19 how screenwriter Casey Robinson had created the definitive Errol Flynn part for Flynn. In this case I think the credit for this actor’s impact goes to Henry King for realizing and using the way the camera loves him. A few years later when sound came in, at least some people worried that the actor, who was by then sort of a junior-varsity John Gilbert, would not make the transition to sound. They thought he had a strange voice. If you ever see The White Sister, try NOT to hear Ronald Colman’s voice as you watch him.

Ten Wanted Men (1955. Screenplay by Kenneth Gamet, story by Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank. 80 minutes): Not quite one of the Ranown westerns, but you can see them coming.

IN US#13, 17 and 18, I wrote about the Budd Boetticher DVD box set and the films in them, which are known as the Ranown films, Ranown being the name of the company formed by producer Harry Joe Brown and actor Randolph Scott. The films in the box set are considered the classics, but Brown and Scott had been making films before those. This is one of them, and its cast includes not only Scott, but Richard Boone and Skip Homeier, all three of whom appear to better effect in other Ranown films.

The story is by Ravetch & Frank before they became famous. He had been writing westerns for several years, and he did two before this one that were particularly good, Vengeance Valley and The Outriders, both from 1950. He did the screenplays as well as the stories for them. In this case, the screenplay was done by Kenneth Gamet, whose credits are mostly run-of-the-mill westerns. The ending of this is such a mess that I suspect it came from Gamet rather than Ravetch & Frank. Ravetch & Frank were about to do a couple of adaptations of Faulkner (The Long Hot Summer [1958] and The Sound and the Fury [1959]), and you can see a hint of that in here with Wick Campbell’s lusting after his Mexican ward. The characterization is not as sharp as in the Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang scripts for the later films.

The director is H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone, who directed films from the twenties through the early sixties without making a good film. Why did he work so much, other than being “Lucky”? To use Nunnally Johnson’s phrase, he got the stuff. Not great stuff, sometimes not very good stuff, but the stuff. He got the action and the acting, which is not all that good here, on the screen. He shot Ten Wanted Men in the Arizona desert, in and around the classic western town set at Old Tucson. He’s no Budd Boetticher, but he gives good cactus for the money.

Night Train to Munich (1940. Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on a story by Gordon Wellesley. 90 minutes): Train Day on Turner Classic Movies, Track One.

In US#3 I wrote that The Lady Vanishes was the granddaddy of all train thrillers, but I had fogotten that Sidney Gilliat wrote the real granddaddy of all train thrillers, Rome Express, in 1932. His regular partner was Frank Launder and in 1938 they wrote The Lady Vanishes. As a result of the enormous success of that, they got hired to do this one. Boy, experience tells. A world at war helps to. The Lady Vanishes is very much a between-the-wars thriller, with very general details about spies and their ilk. By the time they came to write this one, the war in Europe had started, and it gives the film a little more weight. The film begins with a newsreel montage of the events leading up to the war. Then we are in Czechoslovakia as the German invasion is about to begin. We are in a munitions plant that the Nazis are aiming for, and as planes fly over, one of the executives says, “Ours?” Another replies, “No, theirs.” See what I mean about experience counting? That is simple and effective screenwriting. The scientist/technician the Nazis want manages to escape to England, but his daughter is left behind and thrown into a concentration camp. Her escape is the model of efficient screenwriting: a searchlight is turned off by a mysterious hand, the light comes back on, the camera pans to a hole in the fence. We know she’s gone.

Watching this today, we know she is in good hands because the man who helped her escape is identified as “Karl Marsen,” but we know he is really Victor Laszlo in disguise, since he is played by Paul Henreid. Look at the date of the film again. If you don’t know the film, it’s a shock to learn Victor Laszlo is a Nazi. He has been assigned to get her to England to find her father, so Marsen can kidnap him and take him back to Germany, which he does. Look at the exchange of closeups between Anna and Marsen at the submarine when she realizes he’s not a nice man. That’s depending on your actors and not your dialogue.

So now the father is back in Germany, and how are we going to get him out? Gus Bennett (and look at how inventively Gilliat and Launder set up him up), part of British Intelligence, pretends to be a Nazi officer, finds the father and soon we are on the train of the main title. How can you believe a Britisher as a Nazi officer? Well, he’s played by Rex Harrison, whose natural imperiousness seems perfectly at home in a Nazi uniform.

Two of the more amusing characters that Gilliat and Launder created for The Lady Vanishes show up here, again touring Europe. There are two very obtuse Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott. In the first film they were comedy relief, constantly worried more about the England-Australia Test Match results than the intrigue. Here they are involved in the final rescue, and because they are so obtuse, we are not confident they will not mess things up. This is a perfect example of taking characters from an earlier film and using them in inventive ways. Experience tells.

And in answer to the question you want to ask, yes, I do think it is better than The Lady Vanishes, even if the director is “only” Carol Reed. This is the other best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock did not make.

Berlin Express (1948. Screenplay by Harold Medford, story by Curt Siodmak. 87 minutes): Train Day on Turner Classic Movies, Track Two.

TCM was running these together in the middle of the night, so since I was DVR-ing the first one… As Ernie Banks used to say, “It’s great day. Let’s play two.” Alas, this is not quite up to Night Train to Munich.

The earlier film was almost entirely studio bound, but this is very much one of those late forties films where the studios sent the cast and crew to foreign countries to use up the theatrical revenues that were frozen by those countries. So we get scenes shot in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin. Boy, did our bombers do some damage on those last two. It also has the late forties documentary style of narration. Too much narration. Way too much narration.

A group of multi-national passengers on a train from France to Germany are sort-of witnesses to the killing of a peacemaker who has a plan for the unification of Germany. Except that it was someone pretending to be him on the train and not the main guy himself. OK, I realize this was only the late forties, but wouldn’t a politician/statesman as important as this guy have had his photograph in the newspaper at least a couple of times? And wouldn’t one of the passengers realize it was not him on the train?

Well, since he is still alive, he almost immediately gets kidnapped. Why didn’t they just kidnap him at first? And why is it so crucial to the neo-Nazis (who are interestingly portrayed as thugs, not suave villains) that they learn his plan? After all, it is just a political plan, not the specs for an atomic bomb.

So he is kidnapped and several of the passengers join in the hunt for him. This being a late forties film supervised at RKO by Dore Schary (see the item on Millard Kaufman in US#22 for more on Schary), each of the passengers is from one of the four countries running Germany. The film becomes a message-y model for international cooperation. It was released in May 1948, which means it was probably written before the famous October 1947 HUAC hearings in Washington. This may explain why the Russian soldier in the group is not portrayed as the epitome of evil. Everybody connected with this film wants us all to get along, which is not quite how it all worked out in the years following 1948.

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from 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

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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.

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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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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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