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Understanding Screenwriting #43: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #43: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger, & More

Coming up in this column: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger, United States of Tara: First Season, but first:

Fan mail: Yay! We finally got some fan mail. Okay, it was for #41, and it came in after I had sent off #42, so I’m not getting to it until now, but still…

“Astrayn” likes that I commented on the Masterpiece Theatre pieces. There is another one coming up in #44, so watch for it. Astrayn didn’t like the Cranford films as much as I did, saying “it was as if Dickens was stripped of all the intrigue in his plots and only the quirky characters remained.” Good point, although I enjoyed hanging out with the characters. I did not see the new version of Emma, since between Clueless and the 1996 version, I am Emma-ed out for the moment.

“lee herbage” raises a whole pile of questions. First up was which of my books would I recommend “as a starting point?” Well, all of them of course. But seriously folks. I think you should start with FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film. It gives you a view of how the art and craft developed. If you are interested in learning how to do it, you might see if you can find my 1982 textbook Screenwriting. It follows the process of screenwriting rather than giving you rules. I have had as many nice comments about it from professional screenwriters as I have from amateurs who read it, since the pros think it captures what they go through. The “Annotated Study List” in that book is the forerunner of the book Understanding Screenwriting as well as this column. If you are particularly interested in television, then Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing is required reading. Those who have read most or all of my books think it is the best one.

“lee herbage” thinks I am “often circumspect about assigning blame for screenplays because of later rewrites.” That’s one reason; the other is that as a screenwriting instructor I have developed the habit of not taking a slashing approach to a student’s script, since my job is to help him or her improve it without destroying the writer. As to whether the director is at fault for messing up screenplays, the answer is NEARLY ALWAYS. I know directors claim they have taken this piece of shit screenplay and made something good out of it, but that is virtually never the case. Of all the films where I have also read the scripts, I know of only two where the film is better than the screenplay. One is Nunnally Johnson’s Casanova Brown (1944) where Nunnally ended up dropping the motivation for the hero to do what he does, but casting Gary Cooper in the lead made it work because we simply believe Gary Cooper is doing the right thing. The other was a student film written and directed by a student of mine. As the writer she never quite got one character more than a cliché, but since she was a professional actress, she got the actor to give the character more texture and nuance than he had in the script.

The second part of the question dealt with powerful directors who hire their own writers, and “lee herbage” unfortunately suggests that was true in the Nunnally Johnson-John Ford collaborations. Perhaps he should also read my 1980 biography of Nunnally, Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson. On the Johnson-Ford films, Nunnally did the scripts for Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio, who later assigned Ford to direct them. On more recent films, the director is the producer, either in name, or in fact since the producer is “his” producer. So yes, scripts do get bent out of shape by the directors. FrameWork will give you several examples of that.

See, isn’t this fun when you send in comments? Keep them coming.

Shutter Island (2010. Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. 138 minutes)

Shutter Island

Apprehension: I went into this one with mixed feelings. I very much liked the two previous films made from Lehane’s novels, the 2003 Mystic River and the 2007 Gone Baby Gone. They both had strong stories and strong characters, and those brought out the best in their directors. On the other hand, the previous pictures that Kalogridis worked on had not impressed me. She is rumored to have worked on the screenplay for Avatar, and I made my views on that one clear in US#38. I made my views clear on the 2004 Alexander, which she co-wrote with Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle, in the book Understanding Screenwriting. Then there are the continuing problems I have with Shutter Island’s director, Martin Scorsese. I was impressed with his 1967 feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, since he seemed to have a new take on male fear of women’s sexuality (a guy freaks out and dumps a girl when he finds out she is not a virgin), but his films after that just repeated the theme rather than developing it. Unlike film critics, who acclaimed Raging Bull (1980) as the best film of the ‘80s (which tells you more about the critics and the ‘80s than it does about the film), I found the film very repetitive. I only stuck it out until the end to make sure that a former student of mine who worked on the picture actually showed up in the credits. I liked the first half of The Aviator (2004), but the second half totally missed what Ava Gardner was all about and spent way more time than it needed to on DiCaprio wearing Kleenex box slippers. The most recent film of his that I liked was The Departed (2006), and the reason I liked it was that Scorsese’s direction was…restrained. That’s not a word I would use for most of his other films, which seem to define over-directed. He seemed to realize he had a terrific script and great actors and was content to show both of them off instead of his skills. And my apprehension was not helped by Anthony Lane’s review of Shutter Island in the March 1 New Yorker, where he writes of Scorsese that “there is little or no evidence that he is armed with a sense of humor.” That line articulated what has always bothered me about Scorsese: he seems to be a totally humorless director. His direction of the 1995 Casino suggested he was completely unaware that he was making what everybody west of the Hudson river who did not grow up with the myths of gangsters knew was a comedy: Goodfellas Go to Las Vegas and Get their Clocks Cleaned by a Bunch of Cowboys.

So guess what? I got into the film immediately. A couple of U.S. marshals are going to a state prison for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of one of the prisoners. Creepy, and Scorsese’s over-direction (sound, brooding cinematography) suggests this is going to be a shaggy dog story, which as you know from US#37, I love. You either deal with this material realistically, as Frederick Wiseman did in his great 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, or else you go over the top as all those B movies Scorsese loves do. But Scorsese’s usual lack of restraint works nicely here. He may or may not get that several of Kalogridis’s lines are funny, just as Fritz Lang was clueless as to the funny lines in Nunnally Johnson’s script for the 1944 Woman in the Window. The actors, especially Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, get it, and DiCaprio’s trying to be ‘50s tough guy Ralph Meeker works in the same vein whether DiCaprio and Scorsese get it or not.

Kalogridis’s structuring of the script is nicely paced, with the first suggestion that all is definitely not what it seems coming about half an hour into the picture. She then paces the additional revelations beautifully, even if most them turn out to be red herrings. They are fascinating red herrings, so much so that when the Big Twist comes, the red herrings have been more interesting than the “truth” the twist gives us. I looked at my watch when the Big Twist came, and I realized the movie was going to go on for another fifteen minutes. This is the biggest flaw in the script. Kalogridis has piled up over the course of the film a lot of information, much of which helps unsettle us about what may or may not be going on. That’s a good thing, given the material. But in the last fifteen minutes, she is explaining way more than she needs to, including a long flashback about DiCaprio’s character. She has trusted us to put stuff together before the Big Twist but not after it. We could make the connections that the script makes for us.

Kalogridis does provide some fascinating characters, or maybe parts of characters, for the actors to play. Scorsese is often over-the-top (the sound of matches being lit in a cell block sounds like a hurricane), but he’s smart enough to revert to his Departed style when he has a good actor’s scene. In the scene in the cave, he just sets his camera down and watches DiCaprio and Patricia Clarkson go at it. The scene provides information in the most dramatic way, with great opportunities for some terrific acting. Don’t believe everything they say or do and you may enjoy yourself.

The Ghost Writer (2010. Screenplay by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski, based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris. 128 minutes)

The Ghost Writer

More apprehension: If you know the films of Roman Polanski, then you go into this one expecting a little knowing wit (as opposed to the semi-knowing kind in Shutter Island). You get it right up front. A ghost writer, who is never identified by name, which is not as clunky as you might expect, gets a gig to rewrite a terrible first draft of a former British Prime Minister’s memoirs. He gets the gig in a very quick, funny scene in which the writers balance the writer, his agent, the publisher, and an editor who is totally clueless. The deal is made before Teddy and Chuck get off the boat in Shutter Island. The film flows smoothly from there, but a little too smoothly. We have some apprehension, especially for the Ghost, who is way in over his head. The characters generally are not as compelling as they might be, and while the acting is good, the actors have not been given that much to work with. Pierce Brosnan is the former PM and he does what he can, but his work here is not up to his work in, say, The Tailor of Panama (2001) or The Matador (2005). Tom Wilkinson has a long scene as a Harvard professor the Ghost discovers has something to do with the PM, and Wilkinson is excellent as always, but the scene is not as compelling as the two-hander in the cave in Shutter Island. The actor given the best scenes is Olivia Williams as the PM’s wife. There is more richness and texture to her role and her performance than there is with the others.

After the good opening scene, the picture is sluggish until the end, where the Ghost finally figures out the secret of the manuscript (things get a little DaVinci Code here). It’s a dandy secret, especially if you realize the PM is based on Tony Blair and his wife is based on Cherie Blair. I assume it is not “the truth” about the Blairs, but it’s still a wicked twist. And Harris and Polanski do not wait around after they deliver it, but set up a great final shot. The shot does more with a lot of paper floating in the wind than all of the floating paper shots in Shutter Island. Sometimes restraint is better. And sometimes it’s not.

The Messenger (2009. Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman. 112 minutes)

The Messenger

A little too late, not that it would have helped: I had not seen this when it was briefly in theaters. It’s a small indie film, and it got nominated for two Oscars, including one for best original screenplay. Since I am curious as to what the writers branch of the Academy likes, I gave it a shot when it popped back into one theater, one showing a day in the run-up to the ballots being due. It had sounded like it might work as a film: We follow two army guys who notify the next of kin when a soldier dies. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, and not just because it is coming to us after The Hurt Locker (US#30) and Taking Chance (US#20).

In Taking Chance, we follow one officer accompanying the body of a dead soldier back home. We see one process from the beginning to the end, and we get a lot of fascinating details about how all this is done. We also get a lot of different reactions to what happens. In The Messenger we meet Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, finishing his recuperation period and assigned to work with Captain Tony Stone on notifications. The indoctrination Stone gives Will is very flat, with none of the texture that we get (mostly visually) in Taking Chance. The same happens in the dialogue scenes that tell us about the characters: very flat and no texture. The duo goes out and makes their notifications. What reactions do they get? People cry. Well, sure. But the writers could have gone beyond that. Bogart once said that when you play a scene in which a gun is pointed at you, you do not have to act scared. The audience will assume you are scared and you can act other reactions. The writers could have given us a lot more variety in the reactions. In Taking Chance, the actions are not repeated in the way they are here. By the middle of the film, the writers have pretty much given up on showing the notifications and just stick with Will and Stone. They take a couple of girls off on a weekend, and unless I missed something, they just leave the girls at the cabin while they go off to an engagement party for Will’s former girlfriend. None of this is particularly well-observed, unlike the soldiers’ attitudes in The Hurt Locker.

In the middle of the film, Will gets emotionally involved with the widow of a soldier they have notified. That’s a no-no in that line of work, for all the obvious reasons. It seems to come from a lack of imagination on the writers’ part. The relationship is also not well-observed. We get a long, single-take scene in which they sort of agree not to have sex. If you are writing a scene that will be done in one take (Moverman also directed), it had better be brilliantly written (see my comments on one-take scenes in the item on Police, Adjective in US#40). And if you are writing a scene in which nothing happens, you also better be as good as the writers of Before Sunset (2004) are in the final scene of that film. You know this scene, and the character of the woman, are not well-written when I tell you that not even the great Samantha Morton can do anything with them.

So why did the writers branch nominate the script? I think because, paradoxically, the writing is so on-the-nose about the damage war does to not only soldiers but their next of kin. Screenwriters, who are used to having their great literary speeches cut out (and often cut for good reason), admire scripts that can be preachy, as in previous nominees such as Milk (2008) and Crash (2005) and this year’s Precious, just to name three recent ones that also won. Never underestimate the desire of screenwriters to preach.

United States of Tara: The First Season (2009. Various writers. Each episode 30 minutes)

United States of Tara

Goodbye Blockbuster, hello Netflix: Diablo Cody, the creator of this Showtime series, was not the first person to find the idea of multiple personalities funny. In the mid-‘50s, Nunnally Johnson was writing and directing the first film about the subject, The Three Faces of Eve (1957). It was based on the clinical study of a woman the two authors had treated in their psychiatric practice. Nunnally had enormous difficulty casting the title role. One person he sent the script to was Judy Garland. She was sure it must be a comedy. Nunnally took the films the doctors had made of the real “Eve” to Las Vegas to show Garland. Nunnally said later, “She got it like that.” She said, “You’ve got to swear that I play the part. We’ve got to cut our wrists and mingle our blood.” Nunnally replied, “That’s what I’m up here for, wrist cutting.” Garland subsequently backed out. Every other major actress turned him down as well, one saying that her psychiatrist felt it would harm her own treatment if she did the part. Nunnally went with the virtually unknown Joanne Woodward, who won the Oscar for her performance and subsequently played the psychiatrist role in the 1976 miniseries on the same subject, Sybil. Nunnally was doing his film seriously, and he called his friend Alistair Cooke to narrate the story. Cooke checked the book out to convince himself it was not a joke. There were still, of course, people who did not believe it. The late film critic Leslie Halliwell, in his comments that are still in the current edition of his Filmgoer’s Companion, wrote that “Alistair Cooke introduces this tall tale as if he believed it.”

Now, thanks at least in part to Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, we know that people with multiple personalities exist. It even has a new name, Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID. So just as films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) began to play the Cold War in comedic terms after it had been going on for fifteen years, Diablo Cody apparently decided it was time to bring her brand of snark to the subject of multiple personalities. It is trickier than it sounds, and while Cody and her fellow writers generally succeed, it is not something you should try at home.

This past Christmas, Santa’s elf, otherwise known as my daughter, totally unaware that my neighborhood Blockbuster was going to close (see US#42), got me a trial subscription to Netflix, which she swears by. Since Showtime is one channel our package from Time-Warner does not include (they are protecting their own HBO, of course), I got the entire, twelve-episode first season of United States of Tara on DVD and watched it all. As you may remember from my comments on Juno and Jennifer’s Body (US#4 and #34, respectively), I am a big fan of Diablo Cody’s.

In Three Faces of Eve, Nunnally brings us very slowly to understand Eve’s condition, since we have to feel for the characters before he exposes us to this strange new—to the audience at the time—condition. In the “Pilot” episode, written by Cody, we come to the information very quickly. Tara is talking to a home video camera about her life and her work, but says, “I can’t seem to micromanage my daughter’s vagina,” which pretty much tells us we are in Diablo Cody territory. Her teenage daughter Kate comes home and finds Tara as T, the wild teenager. Kate tells her she likes her the best of all the “alters,” as the personalities are called. It becomes clear that the family, which includes Kate’s slightly younger brother Marshall, knows about her condition and that she has gone off her medications to try to deal directly with it. When Tara’s sister Charmaine comes around, she and Tara’s husband Max have a little heavy exposition for those who have not seen the previous films. Max is able to send the alters to “the shed” in the backyard, which serves as a place for them to cool down and turn back into Tara. Think of it as Superman’s phone booth. Tara later sees Kate making out with her boyfriend, and turns into Buck, the male, redneck alter. Buck watches Kate’s dance recital, then punches out Kate’s punkish boy friend. So by the end of the episode we have been introduced to Tara and her family and we have a sense of the situations they face. We have met two of Tara’s alters, but we suspect there are more. We also know from the tone of the writing that we are living in Diablo Cody’s world.

In Episode 2, “Aftermath,” also written by Cody, we see the family cleaning up after the adventures in the first one with T and Buck. When Tara runs into two women she knows, we see her turn into her third alter, a very ‘50s housewife, Alice. In the first episode we did not see the transformations, here we do. In the original films of the real Eve, she made her transformations instantaneously, but Johnson and Woodward slowed them down to make them more believable to 1957 audiences. Here the transformation goes fairly quickly, but we still see it taking place. In most of the first season’s episodes, the transformations are demonstrated by the costuming of the alters. In the commentary track on episode 8, the only one on the first season’s DVDs, Cody mentions they will be doing less of that in the second season. This is one of the advantages of having Toni Collette as Tara and her alters. Not only is Collette an immensely talented actress, she also has the ability to look different from role to role, and in this show from shot to shot. So the showrunners figured out that you do not necessarily need to spend the time on costume and makeup changes when Collette can do it all for you. One of the critical complaints some people had about Juno was that Cody made all the characters sound alike. As I mentioned in US#4, that is not really true. I also mentioned that Cody was great at creating characters in that film, and here she develops that even more. Both the dialogue and the characterization of the alters makes them very distinct.

It is not until Episode 3, “Work,” written by Cody, that we meet Dr. Ocean, Tara’s therapist. Tara is concerned that the alters are coming on to Max, which we have seen, and we have seen that Max has so far not taken them up on it. That might have been a little too weird, even for Cody, at least in the first season. (When Neil, Max’s partner in his gardening business, suggests that having sex with the alters must be like having a multi-pack cereal, Max assures him he is not having much cereal.) Once you establish the tone of the series, you can begin to play with it. Look at how much more M*A*S*H got away with in its later seasons than it did in its earlier ones. One issue this series will have to deal with is how much time we are going to spend in therapy sessions. The scene with Dr. Ocean in this episode is short, and we get the impression that Dr. Ocean may be out of her league with Tara and her alters. That’s an improvement over the usual Hollywood attitude that shrinks are wonderful and perfect. See my comments on Precious in US#38. Meanwhile Kate gets a job at a chain restaurant, having dropped the punk boyfriend in the first episode. Cody mentions in the commentary track that Kate originally started out as a not-particularly bright person, but that the actress Brie Larson gave them some smarter qualities and the writing began to move her in that direction. One of the advantages of writing for a group of actors that you know is you begin to realize what they can and cannot do, which is why the writing later in a series is often better in dealing with the characters as they have developed. Marshall has developed a crush on Jason, a hunky boy he sees at school, and Jason suggests Marshall join an experimental theater group Jason is part of. We also get a very interesting scene with Max and Buck at the end of the episode. Tara has made a “sex date” with Max, but when Max gets home, he finds Buck there. Well, both are straight, so they discuss the needs of men, and at Buck’s suggestion they dig out some porn DVDs to watch. Jill Soloway, the author of Episode 8, says in the commentary track that Max is “like the fantasy husband we have all created in the writers room.” Sometimes he is too good to be true, but then they give you a scene like this…

Episode 4, “Inspiration,” is the first one not written by Cody. One of the many, many tricky writing problems on this show is that, unlike many other series, a lot of this one is dependent on Diablo Cody’s attitude and tone. This is the first of two episodes written by Alexa Junge, whose credits include Big Love, The West Wing and Once & Again. Not an amateur, in other words. Tara discovers Max masturbating in the shower, isn’t upset, and calls it his “gentleman’s time,” which certainly sounds like Cody. But then we get another Dr. Ocean scene, and this one is more of a usual shrink scene. The plotting is more conventional than in the first three episodes, and Junge is not having as much fun with the alters as Cody did. In fact, we never see the alters in this episode.

Episode 5, “Revolution” is also written by Junge, and she is getting closer to Cody’s tone. At a party Kate and Marshall have while Max and Charmaine are chasing down Tara, Kate and Marshall trash-talk about a girl Jason has brought to the party. The trash-talk is what we expect from Cody. On the other hand, the scene where Marshall gets upset at T for causing Tara to miss events at his school is very conventional drama, and would not have been out of place on Once & Again.

Episode 6, “Transition,” written by David Finkel & Brett Baer, has Tara’s parents, Bev and Frank, come to celebrate Charmaine’s birthday. It is clear that they do not know Marshall is gay, which Tara and her immediate family accept without qualm. We sort of guessed from the beginning that was the case with Marshall, and we have accepted it in the same way Tara and the others do. But they obviously have not told her parents. Tara seems to be getting through the parents’ visit without becoming an alter, but at the end she appears in a plastic tent, apparently a new alter. This sets up that we may be getting more alters as the series progresses. This episode also sets up that Tara was raped at boarding school, which is what everyone thinks caused the DID. Up until the end, this episode is more of a traditional family sitcom episode. Finkel & Baer’s credits include working as writers and producers on 30 Rock.

Episode 7, “Alterations,” is written by Cody, and we are back with the full Cody tone. We learned in 6 that Charmaine had bad plastic surgery on her breasts, leaving them uneven. She goes in for surgery, and expects to have Tara as her “post-surgery booby buddy,” to drive her home. Now which of the alters would you send in instead? Right, Buck show up, which gives us good scenes with Buck as his redneck sexist pig, but also as supportive. He ends up shampooing Charmaine’s hair, and when she remembers Tara doing it when they were younger, Buck turns back into Tara. You remember I said Tara showed up in the previous episode in a “plastic tent”? Here’s why Cody gets her own show. Her lines for Max to Dr. Ocean describe the new alter as “a weird poncho goblin.” When the shrink suggests Tara just wanted a whimsical alter, Max replies, “This isn’t whimsical. Tinkerbell is whimsical. This little fucker pisses on people.” While there are good lines in the episodes not written by Cody (and the lines may have been written by her and added to the script if she makes a pass on each script), there is not the consistency of the dialogue there is in Cody’s scripts. More importantly, there is not the consistency of tone with the characters.

Episode 8, “Abundance” is written by Jill Soloway, and is closest to Cody’s writing of the episodes not specifically written by Cody. Soloway’s credits include Six Feet Under as well as Grey’s Anatomy. Alice thinks she is pregnant, even though Max has never had sex with her, and she is convinced the pink on the pregnancy test that Max and Charmaine give her means she is having a girl. When she has her period, she assumes it is a miscarriage. The “experimental theater group” Jason got Marshall to join is a conservative religious group presenting a “Hell House.” That’s an environmental theater piece that tries to scare kids into not having sex or doing drugs. Soloway says on the commentary track that she had set one up as a lark (you can order a kit with the stuff you need from the guy who did the first one), which is where she got the idea for the storyline. Jason’s father is the minister in charge, and he tells Marshall that he knows why Marshall has joined the group. Marshall and we assume he knows that Marshall is gay and after Jason, but as we find out in later in the episode that the minister just thinks Marshall is trying to keep Jesus at a distance. Jason and Marshall get the job of buying “abortion meat” at a supermarket for the abortion section of the Hell House. Now that’s a detail you would expect in a Diablo Cody series. In the commentary track it is clear that Soloway and Cody are on the same wavelength.

Episode 9, “Possibility,” is written by David Iserson, whose first sitcom this is, but who wrote on twenty episodes of Saturday Night Live. Iserson gets Cody’s tone, as in a scene where Neil and Max discuss Tara’s assertion that Max is a “cowboy,” always trying to ride in and save her. But he also brings a sensitivity to the way he writes the characters that Cody and the other writers do not do as well. In this episode, Marshall has Jason over to the house and eventually kisses him. This is a nicely written scene, offbeat, within Cody’s range, but not snarky. Iserson’s tone adds a color to the palette of the show. You will notice the variety of previous credits for the non-Cody writers on the show. It should not surprise you that several of them have credits on shows that are not conventional sitcoms, nor that they have credits on cable shows such as Big Love and Six Feet Under. When staffing up a show with such a distinct sensibility, you need to be a lot more discriminating than on other shows. One of the recurring problems I have with Castle is that crime elements become very Law & Order, sometimes to the detriment of the comic tone that is part of the show.

Episode 10, “Betrayal,” is written by Chistopher Santos, his first writing credit, and like Iserson, he shows a sensitivity to the characters. T is at home when Jason and Marshall ride up on bicycles. Jason has at first ignored Marshall at school, then suggested the bike ride. When Max calls Marshall into the house, T asks Jason if he likes boys. His answers to that and to the question as to whether he is bisexual are “maybe.” T tries to make out with Jason, which causes Marshall to burn down the shed. Not as many laughs in this episode as there are in others, but we are getting deeper into the characters.

Episode 11, “Snow,” is Alexa Junge again. Dr. Ocean has terminated Tara’s treatment because she thinks she needs more advanced treatment. Tara admits herself to an in-patient facility, and we get more conventional therapy scenes with Dr. Holden and the staff there. Dr. Holden wants to delve into memories, which Tara has lost. Max is sent to a support group, which at least is seen in slightly comic terms as people prattle on about dealing with the DID people in their lives. Jason is sort of dropping Marshall, which leads Charmaine to call Jason “a bi-curious church monkey who is using you to find an edge.” We do get some haunting moments when Tara talks with a woman who is now “integrated,” i.e., has made her alters into her own one personality, but has not been able to see her children for several years. This pushes Tara to try to find out what happened to cause Tara’s alters.

Episode 12, “Miracle,” is the season finale and written by Cody, who is now bringing together several plot strands. Max has tracked down Tripp, the guy they are all assuming raped Tara at boarding school. He has agreed to meet with Tara and brings along his wife. He is not defensive or angry about being called out about this, since he has had regrets, even though he cannot exactly remember what happened either. Cody handles this scene very neatly by only giving us the beginning and ending of the discussion. We are able to figure out what has been said in the middle since, a) we get Tripp’s tone at the beginning, and b) we can pick up from the end of the discussion what the rest of it was. Lots of times you don’t have to show us everything everybody says. Cody cuts away after the start of the scene to scenes with Marshall talking to Charmaine in the hall. An aide comes by and asks them if they need anything, and Charmaine replies, “No, no, my sister is meeting with her rapist, so we’re just, you know, hangin’ out.” That’s a Cody line that captures the spirit of the series. Max is so upset with Tripp he leaves the room. As Tripp gets up to leave, he calls Tara T. T comes out and tells Tripp it was her night and she fucked him and his friend Mike. Buck makes an appearance as well, and Toni Collette really gets to show off. Nunnally did not have Woodward go through all of Eve’s personalities until the big scene at the end. In Eve the scene “cures” Eve, although in real life Eve developed several other different personalities. What happens here is that T’s appearance and comments make it clear that the night at the school was not the cause of the DID, but that the alters were out long before. So on the one hand we have answered one of the questions the season has been building to, but it has only opened up more questions to be dealt with in the second season. Tara comes back and we see the family at the dinner table, then going bowling. Tara tells Max it may be worse before it gets better. The three alters (T, Alice, and Buck) surround Tara, all of them smiling. In the synopsis of this episode on the DVD, this ending is described as Tara “realizes she’s not who she is in spite of the alters, but because of them.” I wrote in my notes at that point that that is a real “How Do You Show This?” moment, and Cody does not find any way to show that in that scene. Presumably in the second season, beginning in March, somebody may articulate that to somebody else.

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

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

1.5

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The Turning
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

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

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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

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

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

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

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

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

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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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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